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Despite immigration critics, Syrian refugees in Southern California are settling in

Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
Members of the Islamic Center of Claremont and the First Presbyterian Church of Pomona, along with relatives who arrives as refugees a year ago, met the Kanjou family at the airport last month when the Syrian refugees arrived in Southern California.
Photo courtesy of Islamic Center of Claremont
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
Mayssa Kanjou, her four children and husband were greeted by the First Presbyterian Church of Pomona at the Los Angeles International Airport on Aug. 14, 2016 when they arrived from Syria. Church members saw media coverage of the Islamic Center of Claremont effort to help Syrian refugees and reached out to help.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
Mahmoud Tarifi, right, is vice president and heads social services at the Islamic Center of Claremont. Tarifi and the Islamic center are helping to resettle families from Syria. Tarifi's sister finds strollers, furniture and other items to help families.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
The Kanjou family is living in temporary housing in Pomona provided by the First Presbyterian Church. Mahmoud Tarifi of the Islamic Center of Claremont says there are seven refugee families living in Pomona currently.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
Mother Mayssa Kanjou, left, her four children and husband are living in their temporary housing in Pomona provided by the First Presbyterian Church. The Islamic Center of Claremont is also providing support to the family.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
The Kanjou family's nephew Amer Kanjou came to the United States as a refugee from Syria before the family. Mahmoud Tarifi, left, is vice president and heads social services at the Islamic Center of Claremont.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, plays with his father, Abdul Manan Kanjou, in their temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The refugee family of six arrived in the United States two weeks ago from Syria.
Seven-year-old Abed Rahman Kanjou, left, and his cousin Amer Kanjou spend time in the Kanjous' temporary housing in Pomona on Monday afternoon, Aug. 29, 2016. The family of six has been promised permanent housing in November nearby in Pomona.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


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One recent evening, Mayssa Kanjou prepared a tomato and cucumber salad in the kitchen of her nephew's tiny Pomona apartment.

She and her husband, Abdul Manan Kanjou, arrived in the U.S. two weeks ago with their four children, ages 7, 14, 15 and 20. Their first crash pad is a two-bedroom apartment already occupied by their nephew, his wife, and their two kids who arrived from Syria last fall.

"We’re very happy with the overall situation, except right now, it’s crowded in this apartment," Mayssa Kanjou said in Arabic through an interpreter. "But overall, we are very happy."

As the war-driven humanitarian crisis in and around Syria escalated last year, President Barack Obama agreed the U.S. would take in about 10,000 new refugees in fiscal year 2016. Since October, about 1,060 Syrians have landed in California — largely in San Diego and Sacramento, but also in Los Angeles and Orange County.

Pomona is a world of difference from the life the Kanjous left behind in Syria, a country that has been torn by civil war for five years.

The family lived in the city of Homs and once had a good life there, she said. They owned a home. Her husband had his own business, a hair salon.

Then the war broke out. Her husband remembers when the city fell under siege.

"We were surrounded in our own neighborhood," Abdul Manan Kanjou said. "We had to break the siege and take off to different areas — from one town to another town, until we ended up in Damascus."

From the Syrian capital, they traveled by bus to Jordan, where they stayed for three years.

He said life there was difficult. They were treated like outsiders, he said, and finding work was difficult. He supported his family working as a barber.

When United Nations officials referred the family for resettlement to the United States, he said he did his homework and learned about the U.S. Constitution.

The family decided the U.S. would be a good place to start over.

As Syrians settled in last fall, the governors of 31 states protested and described the refugees as security risks. Even in California with a long history of welcoming immigrants, Gov. Jerry Brown said the state can help maintain America's traditional role as a place of asylum, but he would work closely with Obama to ensure the Syrians arriving in the state were fully vetted.

Brown's comments came just days after coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris put people on edge and amid the rising rhetorical heat of the presidential campaign.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly called for a ban on immigration from areas with a history of terrorism, Syria among them. In some corners of California, the welcome mat for refugees has not rolled out.

“They’re going to need a lot of services," said Joe Guzzardi with Californians for Population Stabilization, an immigration restriction group. "They’re going to need English classes. Some of them have school-age children."

Guzzardi’s group prefers that Syrian refugees be resettled in other countries, like Egypt or Jordan.

Federal officials said the Syrian refugees are rigorously reviewed, with national security background checks, screening by the National Counterterrorism Center, and in-person interviews.

Most Syrians admitted to the U.S. have waited at least two years to come here, said Martin Zogg, director of the Los Angeles office of the International Rescue Committee, one of nine nonprofits authorized by the U.S. government to resettle refugees.

"I think the greatest challenge has just been the vetting process that has taken place," Zogg said. Many families deplete their savings as they wait, he added.

California state officials said refugees qualify for the same public assistance as eligible U.S. citizens: cash assistance, food stamps and Medi-Cal. Cash aid for able-bodied single refugees is limited to eight months, while needy refugee families can obtain aid over a longer period.

But even with such help, California's high cost of living is an obstacle, Zogg said.

Volunteers have been stepping in. Among those helping the Kanjous in Pomona are the Islamic Center of Claremont and the First Presbyterian Church of Pomona.

One recent afternoon, leaders from both organizations met to discuss their next steps to help the family.

“We now apparently have an apartment rented, but it’s not until October," said Hugh Wire, with the Presbyterian church. He said if they can't find interim housing, they would allow the family to stay in a building on the church's property.

Mahmoud Tarifi, vice-president of the Islamic center, said support from people like the Presbyterian congregation affects new refugees deeply.

Support from the mosque is one thing, Tarifi said, but "it’s more amazing when people from different faiths and different cultures and ethnic groups...end up coming and helping," Tarifi said. "They feel they are truly welcomed.”

Abdul Manan Kanjou said he knows there are people who don’t like the fact that Syrian refugees have been allowed to immigrate to this country.

But he also said the United States is a country of law where people’s rights are protected. 

Here, at least, he said he feels safe. 

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