California Dreaming


A Syrian family’s search for a new life


By Christina Nordvang Jensen

Basel Awarek, Sahar Kassab and their two children, Wahib and Laila, in El Cajon, California. (Photo by Christina Nordvang Jensen)

After nearly four years on the run from the war in Syria, Basel Awarek, Sahar Kassab and their two teenage children landed last August in Southern California, 7,500 miles – and light years – from home.

The fighting forced the family to flee Homs. They left behind their belongings, as well as friends and relatives. They traveled to Jordan before the United Nations deemed them refugees and designated them to come to the United States.

Now the family lives in El Cajon, a San Diego suburb that is home to many refugees from Iraq, and has been dubbed “Little Baghdad.” They say they feel accepted and welcome – even as they, like many Syrian refugees, struggle to find work, learn English and adapt to life in a new country. 

“We were very sad to leave everything behind in Syria, but we had to start over,” said Basel Awarek, 46, who spoke through an interpreter. “Now we have to accept the new situation and try to be happy.”


The family lives in an apartment that they found with the aid of the Alliance for African Assistance, a federally contracted agency that helps newly arrived refugees in the San Diego area.

In one room, there are three couches, a TV and a dining table. The family sleeps in the other room, which has two beds. One of the beds is covered in teddy bears, which the children received after a few weeks in the U.S. Other than that, the family has few personal belongings.

“But we don’t need anything more. We just want to feel safe and have a good life,” said Sahar Kassab, 42, who is married to Awarek, a former candy store owner.

Kassab’s biggest concern when she arrived in the U.S. was whether her kids would like school.

“I was assuming that my kids would come home crying because they don’t get along with people or do not understand anything and have issues in school. But I was really shocked when I saw how they loved the school,” she said.

She asked her children to bring their recent school papers, and beamed as they showed their As. “I am very proud,” she said.

Both Wahib, 16, and Laila, 13, say school is the best part about living in the U.S. Laila hopes to become a journalist or an actress, Wahib, a famous soccer player.

“All I dream of is for us to live in good conditions,” said Awarek.

Basel Awarek and Sahar Kassab in their home in San Diego, California. (Photos and audio by Christina Nordvang Jensen)


Awarek struggles to find work and learn English. He got a job, but had to turn it down. He needed a car to get to work, and the family cannot yet afford a car.

“The most important thing for me is to provide money and support my family. I will accept any kind of job. It doesn’t matter for me,” he said. “I prefer to make my own money rather than take them from the government.”

Awarek and Kassab are taking English classes, but spend most of their time in the apartment with their children.  

“It can be lonely sometimes. We can’t go and visit people because we don’t have a car. We have some Syrian friends here that we would like to see, but it is difficult. But the people with a car are always more than welcome to come to my home,” said Kassab.

When the family left Syria, they knew it meant saying goodbye to their friends and family and that it would not be easy. Both hope that a job and better English skills can help them resettle and create a new life.

“We practice [English] a lot. I teach him,” a smiling Kassab said as she pointed toward her husband. “We are not in the same class. I am on a higher level. So in the house I ask him questions and I translate everything for him to help.”

Kassab is close to getting a child care license to take care of other families’ children in her house. “I am very grateful for these opportunities,” she said.  

Her dream is to improve her English skills so she can teach Arabic, just like she did in Syria.

“We are not planning to move or go anywhere. We want to get the citizenship in the future so we can belong to this place,” she said. “This is our new life.”


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