Syrian refugees find obstacles in U.S., but also hope

Inside a suburban New Jersey home, five kids bounced around gleefully as "High School Musical" played in the living room - perhaps a typical scene as children around the country enjoyed the waning days of summer vacation. But for three of those children, life has been anything but typical.

They are the children of two Syrian refugees who fled their homes and came to America in search of safety and a better life. Both of these women have family members back in Syria. To protect their identity and safety of their families, they asked that we refer to them as "Susan" and "Alia."

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Two women who fled the war Syria found a new home in New Jersey.
Ines Novacic / CBS News

"She has a hard life," said Susan, gesturing to Alia, who sat across the table from her sipping Turkish coffee, "and I have hard life, so we put my hard life and her hard life together and we live."

Although they face many challenges in the U.S. - raising their families without a support structure and a source of personal income - they are two of the lucky ones.

In the past year, America accepted about 1,500 refugees from Syria. The U.S. has recently been criticized for not helping Europe by taking more refugees, but it remains the largest single donor to the humanitarian efforts in Syria, providing more than $4 billion since 2011, and more than $1 billion in assistance this year.

"Life should continue. We can't stop and sit and cry all the time," said Susan, who speaks English and has been living in New Jersey for just over a year. She has a 2-year-old daughter who has never met her father because her husband was denied a visa to the United States. She explained that he's working in the U.A.E. to send them money.

"I wanna work - first of all I wanna work," said Susan, and explained that while she feels grateful to the American government for granting her asylum, she wishes there were community programs to help refugees like her settle into life in America and find employment. The Council of American-Islamic Relations recently launched a campaign calling on America to increase the quota of Syrians seeking resettlement.

Susan came to America after she arrived in Sweden and was denied asylum there. She said her mother recently fled to Sweden on a boat.

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The woman who took them in tells CBS News she hopes America will grant asylum to more Syrian refugees.
Ines Novacic / CBS News

Both women described their shock after seeing images of the 3-year-old Syrian boy, who drowned while fleeing war at home. They said they know many people who crossed the Mediterranean Sea. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, crossings along the central Mediterranean route increased by 376 percent between 2013 and 2014.

"I feel the Syrian human is cheap, the person - it's nothing," said Susan. "It's like a dollar -- they throw the dollar on the sea. That's what I feel."

"We had a choice to go on the sea," said Alia. "This is an option Syrians are doing ....The husband will risk his life on a boat ... and if he has a little bit of money he will take his family with him on the ocean. And they would die in the water. ... What would happen is the same thing that happened to the small child that we saw."

Alia arrived in the United States three months ago, after a two-year journey across two continents in search of asylum. After traveling from Syria to Egypt, then Brazil before heading north, she and her family crossed the Mexican border and declared themselves refugees. She described how Customs and Border Patrol arrested her husband, who remains in a detention center in California. She and her two young children wear a GPS tracking system around their ankles.

"When I came to America ... I had no other concern but to secure the future of my children," said Alia. "I always tell my kids every night before they sleep you must work hard so that you can be successful ... I am still dreaming of having a house like we had in Syria."

The woman who currently shares her home with Alia and Susan also asked to not be named.

"We're a middle class family. I live here with my kids and my husband," she said, sitting down on her large brown leather couch in the front room.

"It's hectic sometimes, I have to kind of be a therapist in a way. Their way of thinking is different," said the woman, referring to her two Syrian lodgers. "They're scared a lot; they worry a lot. And I'm like, 'Everything is fine, it's gonna be okay."

The UNHCR estimates that there are currently 4 million displaced Syrians; 1 million are in urgent need of resettlement.

"Every year the president sets the ceiling of the number of refugees that we can accept," Katie Reisner, the national policy director of the Urban Justice Center, told CBS News. "Last year it was 70,000. Now it's projected to be 75,000 next year. But you compare this to the 1 million refugees who are in urgent need of resettlement and it's not enough. The most feasible solution is to utilize the system that exists but expand and improve it to really reflect the scope of the crisis."

The Obama administration says it's considering helping more with refugee resettlement.

"We are committed to increasing the number of refugees that we take and we are looking hard at the number we can specifically manage," Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday after meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He added how lawmakers are waiting for an "appropriate time" to fix that number.

Meanwhile, Susan and Alia are also waiting - for their husbands, and a more established life in the U.S.

"We have a good life here," said Susan. "In America, when I walk in the streets, there are trees, there are parks. In Syria there is nothing - just stone, just the war. So the child over there, they didn't have [a] life," she smiled gently and glanced at Alia.

"In the end - we will be better, I hope."