How one family became faces for the Syrian refugee crisis

Editor’s Note: This post was produced as part of a graduate course on media writing and storytelling taught by the editors of Columbia Journalism Review.

After an Assad regime mortar assault leveled their neighborhood in Homs in early 2012, Hussam and Suha Al Roustom fled with their two children to another part of town. Then, as the city in western Syria further devolved into chaos in 2013, the family escaped for Jordan in the back of a pickup truck, eventually hiking through the night to cross the Syrian-Jordanian border. They lived in cramped, metal trailers at two refugee camps, often without electricity or running water, as they underwent a yearlong vetting process for resettlement. Finally, after extensive interviews and background checks, they were cleared to move to the United States, where they hoped to build a new life.

But when the Al Roustoms finally arrived in Jersey City in June 2015, they were met with yet another barrier to normalcy: swarms of reporters, all in search of a human face for the Syrian refugee crisis. “I’d get home and find them at my door,” Hussam says. “Or they’d come knocking while I was asleep.” Despite the seemingly constant intrusions, Hussam kept saying yes to interview requests. Suha kept a growing stack of newspaper clippings in a brown envelope in her living room drawer. 

“We have to explain to those who have the wrong idea about us that we’re not bad at all, that we came here to work and assimilate, that we’re refugees—but it doesn’t mean we’re terrorists,” Hussam tells CJR in Arabic. “Not all Syrians like to talk to the press, because many of them still have family back home” who could be targeted. 

That sense of duty, coupled with Jersey City’s proximity to the media capital of the world, has made the Al Roustoms de facto spokespeople for Syrian refugees in America. Not only were they willing to speak to the press, but they also made ideal subjects: a soft-spoken man with an answer to everything; a witty woman with an unbridled laugh; and their two adorable children. As a result, audiences repeatedly learned how this single family was adjusting to life in Jersey City after escaping Syria; how the resettlement agency and community welcomed them in and Hussam found a new job; how the children felt safer and the future looked brighter.

While some outlets have told the family’s story to illustrate broader themes of refugee trauma and explain the hardships of resettlement, many more focused solely on this feel-good narrative, just as public debate and hysteria over refugees was hitting a fever pitch across the US. The repetition threatened to oversimplify the plight of a diverse group of people now scattered around the world. But such is the difficulty of localizing a far-off yet immensely important story when few subjects are willing to talk.

“Hussam did become a symbol, but it’s up to the good journalist to either find another story or to expand on this story,” says Liz Robbins, a New York Times immigration reporter who wrote one of the earliest pieces about the family. “It’s up to the journalists to decide how to cover it and to [not] make it sensational or reductive….It’s not simply a story about a family.”

The Al Roustoms landed in Newark Liberty International Airport at just the right—or wrong—time. The war in Syria had been raging for over four years, killing hundreds of thousands and forcing over four million out of the country in search of safety. But to most Americans, the refugee crisis still seemed like a distant problem.

Then, in September, photos of the drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish shore, triggered a global torrent of public sympathy and media coverage. Under increasing international pressure, President Barack Obama pledged to admit 10,000 displaced Syrians in 2016. The terrorist attacks in Paris in November propelled Syrians even further into the spotlight, turning resettlement into a thorny partisan issue. 

With around 2,000 Syrian refugees admitted to the United States by then, the Al Roustoms were convenient targets for interviews. At first, most requests came through Church World Service, the aid group that had resettled them. “Hussam is eloquent, he’s a good advocate,” says Mahmoud Mahmoud, the agency’s local director. “Having Hussam tell his story and say, ‘Look, I’m here, you can actually see me, you can shake my hand,’—that changes everything.” 

Word spread quickly. Some reporters followed a clue in Robbins’ New York Times story, which mentioned the name of the discount store on the ground floor of the family’s building. Many reporters would stake out the family’s home when they were out; a few even followed Hussam to the bank.

“They snap pictures of our every move all day, every few seconds, and then they end up using only one or two photos,” Suha says. Her family’s faces appeared in stories from The Associated Press, CBS, CNBC, France 24, Fox 5 News, Telemundo and other outlets.

Editors want “a personal story that helps people connect with the refugee situation in Syria,” WNYC reporter Stephen Nessen wrote in an email to CJR. But relatively few Syrians have resettled in the United States, and fewer still are willing to work with journalists. “So, when a family like the Al Roustoms comes along, and they’re willing to talk about their lives, it’s who reporters go to. We’re a local newsroom so we want to do the local story.”

Most reporters tended to gravitate toward the family’s personal tale, and then stop there. But some added value by placing the Al Roustoms into broader contexts, Nessen says, “like explaining how hard it really is for refugees to get to the US and how thoroughly vetted they are before they get here.” For his WYNC feature, he portrayed the family against the backdrop of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s call to bar all Syrian refugees from entering the country, including orphans under the age of five. Nessen also sought reactions from residents of Paterson, New Jersey, which has a large Syrian population. 

For The New York Times, Robbins reported in detail on the resettlement program and selection process. In an effort to find context and contrast, Robbins also spoke to another family that wasn’t “quite as settled.” “Refugees have been through so much trauma, and Hussam was really a rare case in being open,” she says. “I think it’s been more difficult for other families.” 

Still, the overwhelming focus on families like the Al Roustoms presents an obvious problem. “It’s only the perspective of one family,” says Saphe Shamoun, a Syrian psychology student at Columbia University and a member of the group Students Organize for Syria. “I’m a Syrian voice,” he says. “I’m not the voice of the Syrian people. So I find it very problematic when it’s presented that way.”

Shamoun fielded many journalists’ requests to connect them with refugees. But he eventually grew tired of it. “[The reporters] didn’t even do their research before talking to people,” he says. Much of the reporting, he adds, stopped short by introducing Syrian refugees as “nice people escaping harsh conditions.” The nuances of the war and the policies fueling the refugee crisis were often lost.

The Al Roustoms have likewise soured on interviews in recent months, when the media attention started interfering with their everyday lives. Reporters would appear without advance notice—Suha even joked about sending her husband to a hotel for a few days.

“And some of them just wanted a scoop with their byline on it,” Hussam adds. A few tried to provoke him with loaded questions, asking why he didn’t stay and fight—or whether Islam promotes terrorism. The family still gets regular phone calls and requests, but Hussam apologetically declines most.

In January, however, an associate producer from the satirical news show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee coaxed Suha and Hussam into sitting down for a segment on Syrian refugees. The eight-person camera crew’s equipment turned the family’s railroad apartment into a maze of tripods, video cameras and power cords. Bright lights filled their small living room as Bee, a former Daily Show correspondent, sat on the sofa. 

One room over, in the kitchen, Suha passed around tiramisu she had prepared the night before. As she tiptoed around producers and cameramen, attempting to keep her 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son quiet, she listened to her husband speak into a clip mic. 

“My name is Hussam Al Roustom,” he said in Arabic, with all eyes and equipment pointed at him. “I’m from Syria, from Homs.”

Suha burst into laughter at the doorway. “I swear I’ve memorized it,” she said of her husband’s introduction, sitting down to join him. The interview, they told themselves, would be their last. 

Ellen Francis is a student in a course on media writing and storytelling, taught by the editors of Columbia Journalism Review.