Acclimating to a New Country When Your Home Is a War Zone

When Aya Aljamili came to the U.S., her long-distance mentor played a crucial role in helping her navigate daily life.

A sign stating, "Welcome to the United States of America"
Chris Helgren / Reuters

Aya Aljamili grew up in Aleppo, Syria. After participating in the first student protests at the University of Aleppo in 2011, she worked on Syrian aid for an international-development organization in Turkey. Last August, she moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a master’s in international development management at American University. Aljamili spent most of the fall semester checking Facebook for news from Syria. Before Aleppo fell to government forces in December, most of her friends and family members were still living in the city.

When Aljamili moved to the United States, she relied heavily on an American coworker she knew from Turkey, Jamie Crowley, for help with logistics and emotional support. As part of our series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I interviewed the two women about Aljamili’s first few months in the U.S., and how Crowley helped her through them. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Kitchener: Aya, when you first arrived in the U.S., Jamie was still living in Turkey. How was she able to be a mentor for you from so far away?

Aya Aljamili: Well, Jamie’s parents lived in D.C., and she introduced me to them. Her parents were like a family for me. They hosted me, showed me around, helped me figure out how to operate things, told me where to get my groceries. They kept saying, “We are going to take care of you because Jamie isn’t here to do that.”

One day Jamie’s dad came to check and see whether the internet in her apartment was working. I was in this emotional, unstable state after leaving everybody in Turkey. I just started to cry, telling him how lonely I was. His body language was saying, I hear you, I know it’s difficult. He said, “It’s going to be good, you’re going to get through it.” I was so embarrassed that I cried in front of him, but I just really needed that support in the moment.

Jamie Crowley: My dad would be blushing if he was listening to this!

Kitchener: Jamie, it’s so cool that your parents created this relationship with Aya while you were half a world away. How did that make you feel?

Crowley: I mean, I was obviously very proud of my parents for helping her out. The first day that Aya came to my apartment, she sent me this selfie with her and my dad. My parents are in their late 60s and they’re taking this selfie with Aya—it was surreal to have my work and my personal life collide in this very strange way.

Jamie Crowley and Aya Alijamili (Courtesy of Jamie Crowley and Aya Aljamili)

Kitchener: Were you in touch with Aya during this time?

Crowley: We would have FaceTime calls. Aya got herself an iPhone, and she would FaceTime me at really random moments. One time when she’d just moved in, she couldn’t figure out how to use the washing machine. I had to walk her through which buttons to press, where to put the detergent.

Aljamili: In America, everything is different! Even the washing machines.

Kitchener: I know you two met at work, but how did your relationship develop?

Crowley: Aya was one of the first staff members I met on the Turkey project, and we established more of a friendship than anything else. I’m extremely introverted, and Aya is very extroverted—she just came right up to me. She was so open. We talked about her relationships, her activism during the revolution. I remember just sitting there thinking, “Wow, you’re only 23. You’ve gone through so much in such a short period of time.”

Kitchener: Aya, what was the hardest thing about the first couple of months that you were here?

Aljamili: It was the long distance. It was being away from my hometown when my hometown was a war zone. Everything back home was changing so quickly. Big things could happen while I was sleeping. I had to adjust to the fact that I had to wake up every morning and check Facebook, terrified that I’d have to read about some other big thing in Syria or Turkey. Maybe one of my best friends would be dead—I had no idea.

There was a huge amount of loneliness that was really difficult to overcome. You go home, and there is nobody to have dinner with. You wake up in the morning, and there is nobody to say “good morning” to. The entire day I was by myself. Even when I went out on the street, when I went to the library, all the time I was by myself.

Kitchener: What were the surprising things that you needed assistance with?

Aljamili: I needed help with the logistics of paying my bills! I couldn’t open a bank account because of a problem with my visa. So Jamie’s dad had to come to my house every time I needed to pay the utilities. I gave him cash because I had cash being sent to me from Turkey. Most people in America would never accept that. Without Jamie and her family, I never would have been able to do anything in this country.