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Syrian refugees struggle to find permanent homes in Tampa Bay area

There was a time when Amira Salama would pick up a Syrian refugee family from Tampa International Airport and drive them directly to a leased apartment, complete with donated furniture, clothes and food.

The donations are still coming, says Salama, executive director of the Clearwater-based nonprofit Coptic Orthodox Charities, which resettles refugees in the Tampa Bay area.

But finding them a place to live has become a struggle in recent months. At times, refugees are here for weeks before they can find somewhere permanent. Salama is concerned the search will continue to become more difficult.

Perhaps it is the sheer volume of refugees from all countries settling now in the Tampa Bay area. Or the chronic shortage of affordable housing.

Salama thinks there is more to it. She blames discrimination from landlords unwilling to accept tenants whose homeland has been linked by the White House to terrorism.

"These are good people," Salama said. "This is not right."

Momen Alsaloum, a 22-year-old refugee who recently came here from Syria, doesn't see the problem.

He's just happy to be in Tampa.

• • •

Alsaloum's journey to the United States started in 2011 after civil war broke out in his native country, and his village was destroyed by bombs.

At least 400,000 Syrians have been killed in the war, according to the United Nations, and more than more than 4.8 million Syrian refugees are dispersed in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Alsaloum ultimately fled Syria for Turkey, bringing most of his family with him. Two weeks ago, after more than two years of government vetting, he boarded a plane with his wife and two children bound for Washington, D.C.

A day later, they flew to Tampa, where they were taken to a hotel to join Alsaloum's parents, three brothers, a sister-in-law and two nephews. All refugees, they had arrived a week earlier.

Alsaloum had nothing but praise for the nation that took in his family.

"We have opportunities," Alsaloum said through a translator. "We are safe."

Salama, though, is disappointed.

"They are supposed to have an apartment waiting for them,'' she says, noting how much the family has been through already.

Pressed for details on what he has lived through, Alsaloum would only say, "I hope my kids will see better days and have a better life than what their parents witnessed and experienced."

• • •

First they must adjust to a new country where they have no friends, don't speak the language and are still waiting for several family members to move into permanent homes.

A few days after Momen Alsaloum arrived at the hotel, he and his relatives moved into a home that would serve as temporary lodging. As is typical, Salama was given two weeks notice that the Alsaloums were coming. That used to be more than enough time to find something permanent and suitable.

But Alsaloum's mother and father and two of his brothers were not given keys to their apartment until last Wednesday. His other brother, sister-in-law and two nephews will move into the same complex sometime in the next week.

Alsaloum and his wife and children will become their neighbors the following week, a month after their arrival.

Three weeks ago, Salama said, she was tipped off that there were six open apartments in one complex in north Tampa. When she inquired about them for the Alsaloums, the apartment manager said they were being cleaned and repaired because of damage caused by the last tenants.

Her calls a few days later were not returned, she said, and when she showed up at the apartment to request a meeting with the manager, the office clerk said the boss had no time for a meeting.

She is confident the manager is avoiding her so he doesn't have to rent to Syrian refugees. It was not the first time this has happened.

She will not name the complexes nor will she file a complaint under the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in rental housing.

Though weary of reminding people no terrorist attacks in America have involved Syria and the vetting of refugees is stringent, she prefers to keep trying to change minds rather than cause trouble.

"If they understood what these families went through and who they really are, they'd think differently," she says.

• • •

Coptic is one of four agencies that work with the Florida Department of Children and Families to help settle refugees. The others are Lutheran Services, Catholic Charities and Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services.

All struggle to find housing, said Magda Elkadi Saleh, president of another nonprofit — Tampa-based Radiant Hands — that helps refugees with clothing, furniture and food, plus services such as counseling, financial assistance, finding employment and learning English.

Refugees receive a little over $1,000 each from the federal government upon arrival, which typically covers about three months rent.

When a landlord has the choice between a refugee with no job or credit history and an established citizen with both, the decision is usually clear. There are only a handful of large apartment complexes that will rent to newly arrived refugee families, Saleh said. When those are full, the search turns to homes, and willing landlords with affordable rentals are also scarce.

Then there is the sheer number of refugees vying for limited affordable housing.

About 4,210 refugees of all origins settled in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in 2015, according to DCF. That total rose to nearly 5,800 in 2016.

Most were Cubans: 90 percent in 2015 and 84 percent in 2016. Even those with friends or family here may need housing, said Saleh with Radiant Hands.

The number of Syrian refugees alone rose from 53 in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties during 2015 to 311 in 2016, according to DCF.

The region could see another record year if Syrian refugees continue to resettle here. In January, Radiant Hands welcomed 13 Syrian families.

But President Donald Trump's ban, though temporarily blocked by the federal courts, could stop Syrian refugees from coming to the United States indefinitely. Trump also promises a stricter vetting process. The current process takes an average of 18 to 24 months. A longer one could mean fewer Syrians will make it to the United States, though details have not yet been announced by the White House.

Salama, with Coptic charities, primarily works with Iraqi and Syrian refugees. She says there is "a stigma" fed by fears that terrorists are sneaking into the United States through the refugee program.

Gov. Rick Scott is among those who have publicly stated there should be concerns about Syrian refugees settling here. In 2015 he wrote a letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying he was not comfortable with Syrian refugees coming to Florida "without an extensive evaluation of the risk these individuals pose to our national security."

In recent weeks, he has backed Trump's executive order banning them.

Alsaloum chuckled when asked whether people should fear him. He is a married father of two boys: 10 months old and 2 years old. He dreams of becoming an electrician.

He did not fight in the war in Syria nor does he hold any resentment toward the United States, he said. He only wants to contribute to the country that is providing his family peace and safety.

When asked what he thinks of Americans, he said he finds them very nice.

For the most part, Salama said, he is right.

She is often overwhelmed by the kindness the Tampa Bay area shows by donating clothes, food and furniture to the refugees.

"My heart is warm when I think of all the help given," she says.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

Syrian refugees struggle to find permanent homes in Tampa Bay area 02/10/17 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2017 9:46pm]
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