It’s eerily quiet on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Seven months after Hurricane Maria, many locals have left seeking secure work and a better life elsewhere.
Produced by Claire Tighe
Special Thanks to Lauren Gurley
Omar Moussa, 17, a block from his house in New Haven, Connecticut, Photo by Stella Levantesi
Omar Moussa kicked off his black, worn out sneakers. He left them outside his front door, like he does every day when he gets to his home in New Haven, Connecticut. Moussa, 17, a Syrian refugee, is one of 12 siblings, and unlike many kids his age, he works most nights to help support his family.
“A lot of my friends see that I’m tired at school and I don’t really have to time to hang out with them after class or focus on my homework,” said Moussa. “Sometimes I feel like I would just like to study, but at the same time I’m happy to work and to help my family.”
Back in 2012, war, violence and persecution forced Moussa’s family to flee Syria for what they hoped would be a better life in Jordan. Since the beginning of the war, more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed.
Moussa was only 11 when he started working. He worked so much sometimes he didn’t see his family for days.
“In Jordan, as Syrian refugees, we had no future,” said Moussa. “I was working 17 hours a day for very little money. It was a hard life. But we needed the money.”
But in Jordan, even if the Moussa family was safe from war, life was far from perfect.
“The people treated us really badly in Jordan and we knew they didn’t want to accept us, said Moussa. “But we couldn’t go back to Syria. It was too dangerous. ”
According to the UN Refugee Agency, the crisis in Syria has displaced more than 5.2 million people, who poured into the neighboring countries, specifically Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
“I walked to Jordan, and it took 8 hours. We had kids and old people,” said Moussa. “We couldn’t actually go legally because the Syrian government would arrest us. They don’t want people to escape. Thank god they didn’t see us because they would’ve killed all of us.”
In Jordan, Moussa and his family lived in an unhealthy, dirty and overcrowded refugee camp for a while.
“I was sick, and there were a lot of other people who were sick too,” said his mother, Afeefa Moussa in Arabic. “The disease was spreading so we had to leave the camp.”
When they moved to the city, Moussa and his family walked around the streets for hours, going into supermarkets and shops asking if anyone knew of a house they could live in.
“When we finally found a house we had to sleep on the floor for weeks until we finally worked and had money to buy furniture and other things,” said Moussa. “So it was a big difference.”
The procedure to gain refugee status in the U.S. took a year and half. When it was finally approved two years ago, Moussa left Jordan for New York with only part of his family. His two brothers Rasme, 19, and Khaled, 9, his sister, Heba, 15 and his parents, Afeefa and Sami Moussa, made the trip, but eight siblings were left behind.
When the Moussa family arrived in the U.S., they were welcomed by the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS, a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization that helps refugees with housing, education, legal assistance, jobs and healthcare.
“When we got to New York, we were so tired and sleepy and sad, but they found a house for us,” said Moussa. “Everything was in the house, food and furniture. We didn’t expect that.”
After two months in the States, Moussa went back to school.
“I had no idea how school was going to be,” he said. “For five years in Jordan I didn’t study, so I had to integrate from 5th to 10th grade. That was a big jump, especially since I didn’t know the language.”
Everyday Moussa juggles school and his job in the restaurant at the New Haven Lawn Club. He goes to school from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then starts work at 3 p.m. His shift usually ends at 11 p.m. or midnight.
“It’s hard because I have school in the morning and my job at night,” said Moussa. “So I don’t have time to study. But at the same time I have to work because I have to help my family.”
Coming to the U.S. has been a chance for the Moussa children to get the education they lost growing up in a war zone.
“In America there is a lot of chance to have a good future, to have a good life.” Moussa said.
The initial struggles to settle down in their new home were mostly tied to language. Afeefa and Sami Moussa struggle to speak English. Only Arabic is spoken at home.
“The hardest thing was communicating with the American community and friends,” said Sami Moussa. “The first time I applied for a job, they said no because of my English.”
It was dinner time at the Moussa’s home recently. An Egyptian TV show was on. Sami Moussa was on a cell phone talking to his niece in Jordan. They have not seen her for two years and have no idea if they will ever see again.
In their kitchen, Heba and Afeefa Moussa were chopping vegetables in matching brown, animal print hijabs. The aroma of Middle Eastern spices filled their home.
Dinner was served on the floor. A dozen bowls and plates with white rice, lentil soup, minced beef and salad lay on a purple tablecloth in front of low mattresses where the family sat. For Moussa this dinner was special. It’s unusual for him to be home for dinner. Before the after dinner tea was served on a tray, a friend of the family, Cathy Shufro, joined them.
“Cathy, you know I got my driver’s license?” said Sami Moussa, mentioning he wants to try and work as an Uber or Lyft driver at night to make more money.
But their life in Syria is always on their mind. Sami Moussa and his older sons were managers in construction and had two farms with animals.
“In my family, we talk about Syria all the time, like every day, because we had a really nice life before,” said Moussa. “It’s been hard.”
Today, the Syrian government is still shelling the area where Moussa’s sister lives and it’s getting increasingly difficult for them to communicate.
“They are bombing every day where my sister is,” said Moussa. “They don’t have internet, and if they want to (have it) it’s so expensive, so we can only talk like once every two months, on the phone.”
For Sami Moussa it’s very hard to see news about Syria.
“I can’t read, and I can’t watch. It’s too painful,” said Sami Moussa, “I don’t want to remember.”
Although a UN commission of inquiry proved that all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes, including murder, torture, rape, and use of chemical weapons on civilians, to Moussa, the Western world seems to be numb to the incessant violence on Syrian people.
“It makes me angry because there are kids and women and everyone’s dying and no one cares,” said Moussa.”
The Trump administration has declared it will allow no more than 45,000 refugees in the U.S. during the current fiscal year, which started in October 2017 and will end in September 2018. This is the lowest cap since Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980, and it’s a 59% reduction from Obama’s quota, which had set the ceiling at 100,000 refugees.
“It’s shameful that Trump has decreased the refugee quota to the lowest it’s been in decades during a global refugee crisis,” said Zeenie Malik of IRIS. “His reasons are unfounded, unconstitutional, and do not make the US safer.”
Moussa’s sisters are trying to come to the United States, but with Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, it’s not clear what will happen.
“My sister in Jordan and my sister in Lebanon applied to come here, but then Trump stopped the procedure,” said Moussa. “This was last year when they stopped setting up interviews and stuff. We are just waiting now. Maybe yes, maybe no.”
In the summer, Moussa would like to go back to Jordan to report on the Syrian refugees’ condition, but needs to save up to buy a camera and a plane ticket. In the meantime, he received a scholarship for summer school in D.C., which might help make his dream come true.
“I’m trying to study social work right now,” said Moussa. “I like to work with the community and listen to their problems. I want to help people out, like IRIS did with us.”
A plate of the Bronx Salad made of a mix of baby greens tomatoes, red peppers, kale and selection of toppings on the side like mangos, black beans, avocado, red onions, corn, plantain chips and Honey Dijon salad dressing. Photo by Keziah Tutu
Can a simple salad transform the eating habits of the unhealthiest county in New York State?
That’s the goal of the Bronx Salad, a dish created by a group of nonprofits to convince South Bronx residents to make healthy food choices. The South Bronx has been dubbed a “food desert,” and three groups are attempting to change that stereotype, but face a battle when even well-laid plans collide with real life.
Take Zoesha Rosa, a 24-year-old South Bronx native, who juggles being a full-time student at Lehman College and two part-time jobs. Finding the time to plan, shop and cook is one challenge. Another, is the savory foods she grew up eating as a Dominican, which her mom, who she lives with, loves to cook.
“Rice, beans and fried foods are a part of the Latin culture,” she said. “Trying to eat healthy now, is hard because I get tired of the same things. Fish, chicken, fish, chicken that’s boring.”
After a long day, Rosa must resist the urge to grab a quick bite from the many fast food restaurants along her way home from the 5 train at the Third Ave-149th St. station.
Her biggest temptation so far has been the Wendy’s just two blocks from her building.
“There is a McDonalds, Burger King or Pizzeria on almost every corner but looking for a salad bar is like playing a game of Where’s Waldo,” said Rosa. “After a while it becomes exhausting so you give up.”
For the first time, Rosa recently tried the “Bronx salad” with a variety of baby greens, kale, red peppers, tomatoes and a selection of toppings like mangos, black beans, avocado, red onions, corn, plantain chips and Honey Dijon salad dressing on the side.
“This right here is good but it could use some grilled chicken,” she said as she plated a second helping of the salad she bought from the XM Café at the Bronx Museum.
The Museum is one of a list of 20 locations that offer the salad on their menu including the Bronx Tavern, Fine Fare Supermarket on 459 east 149th St., Mottley Kitchen, on 402 east 149th St. and other Bronx locations. These restaurants serve it intermittently, each with their own twist.
The salad was launched in 2016 after a Robert Wood Johnson report ranked the Bronx number 62 out of the 62 unhealthiest counties in New York State. The salad was created by the combined efforts of Bronx Health Reach, a non-profit that markets the salad, United Business Cooperative (UBC), an organization of local restaurants and SoBro (South Bronx), an economic development organization.
Henry Obispo the president of UBC and creator of the Bronx salad, says the salad is only the beginning of the borough’s healthy food transformation. This month, Obispo will be launching 20 healthy items in 20 restaurants and most will be vegan. He says the idea behind this is to create access to health.
“We’re going to have Bronx granola bars, cold press juices and more,” he said. “I want to give the Bronx things it hasn’t seen or have.”
Michael Mcnamee, the community planner and program manager at SoBro, works closely with Bronx Health Reach to conduct surveys to study the eating habits of the customers who buy the salad at participating restaurants.
“One of the biggest things we noticed, when we asked people why they choose the food they eat, the biggest things are taste and price,” he said.
The price of the salad varies. The restaurants are given some leeway so it ranges from $5 to $16 depending on the restaurant.
For many residents $16 is too expensive for a salad.
“The South Bronx has been home to poverty, food deserts, unemployment and so on,” said Brandon Diop a 23-year-old SoBro instructor who teaches middle schoolers how to grow food hydroponically.
As well as ranking as the unhealthiest borough, the South Bronx is also ranked the poorest district in the nation, with 38 percent of its residents living below the poverty line and 49 percent of children living in poverty.
While Joseph Diaz, 45, the owner of Da Boogie Down Café and carrier of the Bronx salad, features the salad on his menu for $7.50, he knows he’s facing cheaper competition.
“The only drawback is with all the McDonalds, Burger Kings and other fast food restaurants its easier and cheaper to go get something for five bucks and be full. A salad can only keep you full for how long,” he said.
Da Boogie Down Café customizes the Bronx Salad with a variety of proteins and vegetables. The salad generally sells for $7.50 or higher depending on what’s added.
“People who have tried it generally like it,” he said. “Then again, the person who’s going to order it is already a salad eater. It’s a good thing but I think it needs to be pushed a little more.”
The three partnering organizations hope to do just that by introducing the salad to more local food spots like bodegas that don’t typically carry many healthy options.
Once a month the salad is offered to 600 kids in the after school programs at BronxWorks Carolyn McLaughlin Community Center.
Obispo says naming the salad after the Bronx was part of a strategy to change the stigma of bad health and other negative stereotypes surrounding the borough, while also recognizing the food heritage of the almost 60 percent Latino/Hispanic population.
“The salad does represent the strong Latin culture here in the Bronx and it’s made up of ingredients most families would find in their kitchens but wouldn’t necessarily put together,” he said. “We wanted to use familiar ingredients so they [Bronxites] know this is something made for them.”
Editing by Kristen Torres and Stella Levantesi
Reporting by Bowen Li, Justin Ratcherford, Monay Robinson Justin Hicks, Amy Zahn, Lisa John Rogers, Polina Meshkova, Keziah Tutu, Lauren Garry and Farnoush Amiri.
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