Back in Syria Mania and Amir Saman and their young children lived like kings: their two-level house in a town outside Hama—Syria’s fifth-largest city—even sported a castle-like turret that Mania points to as she leafs through one of her photo albums, all she has left of a lifetime’s evidence of what, for now, may be a permanent loss.
The family had a summer house, too. But the morning of Oct. 17, Amir got a call from Syria to let him know that his house was for sale. He hadn’t put it on the market. Someone there was doing so illegally by taking advantage of the prevailing lawlessness in a country cleaved by four years of civil war. Amir had spent the morning in tears, powerless against the latest aggression, even at this distance, on his patrimony and sense of self-worth: he’s been without work for the first time in his adult life—he’s 43—a humbling he wishes he could hide from his four children. Losing one of his properties would add insult to involuntary exile.
The Samans moved to Palm Coast on Aug. 1. They moved here from Port Orange, where they’d lived for a couple of years. They’re not refugees and don’t like to be considered as such. The government is granting them an extended stay, pending the application for a Green Card, because of the situation back home. But they represent a broader part of the Syrian crisis and the diaspora it has created. The war in Syria has driven more than 4.1 million Syrians into neighboring countries out of a total population of more than 22 million, according to the Congressional Research Service’s latest report. Many are classified as refugees. Some are not, but are stateless nevertheless: they cannot go home. That’s the case with the Samans. They’re not seeking asylum—and as asylum seekers they might not have much luck: the United States has been admitting fewer than 35,000 seekers from the entire Middle East in the last few years, though the Obama administration is increasing that number in the next two years.
But they have no other place to go. Palm Coast is now home. “It’s a new culture for us, everything is new, new life, new language,” Amir says. They had no connections here, no family, no community of Syrians. Just a job.
They’d previously worked for years in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates: As with many Levantine families, working in the Arab Peninsula was a common choice for those who could make it. Life was harder, but the money was better, and it was close enough to home that going back and forth was like an extended form of commuting.
They were doing very well in Riyadh, the Saudi capital: Amir, a civil engineer by training, was working in an import-export firm (frozen meats and such). Mania is a professional hair stylist who’s owned her own salon in Syria and had a thriving practice in Riyadh, tending to the wealthy and to royalty—which isn’t rare in the Saudi capital: the House of Saud’s family members could fill a stadium. The Samans’ older children were attending an American school.
All that ended with the war. They couldn’t go home. And Mania was getting tired of the asphyxiating restrictions on life in Saudi Arabia: the Samans are Christians, but they could not go to church because the Saudi government forbids houses of worship other than mosques. Mania made her concessions with life in Islam’s most Puritan nation-state: she wore the head-to-toe covering niqab, but she was beginning to imagine her younger daughter growing up in that environment, having to wear the niqab in turn.
Mania didn’t want that for her daughter. There’d been no such restrictions in Syria (where one of the pictures Mania has preserved is of the immense white church the family attended). But Syria was out of bounds: when both Mania’s and Amir’s mothers died within months of each other, they couldn’t go home for the funerals. “I hadn’t seen her for five years,” Mania says of her mother. “It was very hard for me. I don’t want to talk about this story.”
They had an opportunity to stay in the United States when they came to visit. They grabbed it.
That’s when a different sort of difficulties began, what Mania, after 18 years as a successful stylist, describes as starting life over “from less than zero.” Her experience mattered for little here: she had to be licensed locally and rebuild her client base. She enrolled in the cosmetology program of Daytona Beach’s International Academy and made it through. In August she landed a job at Europa Salon and Spa on Utility Drive in Palm Coast, moving her family to a house in the F Section and rebuilding her client base through her Facebook page.
“In Saudi Arabia, in Dubai, people knew me, they’d only ask for Mania, whether it’s to prepare for a marriage or anything else. They’d ask for me by name,” she says in broken English and, mostly, in Arabic. “But in Saudi Arabia you can’t live a normal life. I was living a life of asphyxiation. I couldn’t wear my cross. I couldn’t return to Saudi Arabia. I had to breathe. I lost everything so my children could grow up in a safe place. Here I’m starting below zero.”
Because of his years in an American school in Riyadh, the Saman’s oldest son, 12-year-old Samih, speaks and acts as if he’s been the United States all his life. He’s a straight-A student at Indian Trails Middle School, often serving as the language conduit between his parents and visitors or helping them navigate the bureaucratic labyrinths of everyday life. His younger brother, 9-year-old Sami, is acclimating to life here, attending Old Kings Elementary. They were both born in Syria and have distant memories of their homeland. Their sister Loma is 6 (authorities made a mistake on her passport and changed her name from Luna) and Maria, the youngest at 2 and a half, is also the only one born in the United States: the lone U.S. citizen in the Saman household and an amateur climber: wherever her dad is, there is Maria, making him her Everest.
They would have liked to get Mania’s father out of Syria, if only for a visit. He’s 80. He has money. But American authorities won’t approve his exit visa. So he remains back home, living in fear. “Everything is fear,” Mania says of life back home. And in Palm Coast? She’s realized the safety and freedom she wanted for her children, but she and her husband are struggling to provide for them as they once did. Her son Samih sums it up for her in one word: “frustration.”
At times clients who know about Syria want to show their sympathy. She’s conflicted about that. “You feel weak, but I don’t like to feel weak,” Mania says. “But this is the reality. It’s in the news. There’s war in Syria.”
She doesn’t want sympathy. She wants clients. It’s that simple. That’s how she sees her life getting rebuilt in this new land. She remembers the days back in the Mideast when her clients would travel two hours just to get their highlights. That’s what she’s working toward here, doing her best to keep up a resilient front. “I smile,” she says in English. “Maybe my heart is crying, but I smile. I like to smile.”