Among The Lucky Few: Syrian Family Rebuilds In America's Heartland | KERA News

Among The Lucky Few: Syrian Family Rebuilds In America's Heartland

Oct 20, 2015
Originally published on January 4, 2017 6:34 pm

Neatly trimmed lawns divide dozens of identical two-story brick buildings that make up the Kenwood Gardens apartment complex in Toledo, Ohio. The people who live here are college students, blue-collar workers and — as of recently — refugees from Syria's civil war.

It's where Omar Al-Awad and his family are settling into their new life in America. On a recent morning, the apartment is already bustling: a tea kettle is on the stove, and Omar's wife, Hiyam, is helping their three children review what they learned in their first day of American school.

"I feel very happy, very excited and at peace inside," says Omar. "I was overjoyed today."

Awad is a carpenter from the Syrian city of Homs. The war destroyed his house and business. His family spent two years at a refugee camp in Jordan.

"There was no future in Jordan. None whatsoever," he says.

Finally the U.S. approved the family's medical exams, security checks and piles of other paperwork; they arrived in Toledo in September.

Fewer than 2,000 Syrians have come to the U.S., though the war has displaced more than 12 million since it began in 2011. The refugees in America are scattered widely across more than 20 different states. So far, eight families have come to Toledo. The Awad family is the newest.

A group called Water for Ishmael offers free language lessons for new arrivals and day care for the younger kids at a small local church. As the children head off to a classroom, Omar begins the long road to learning English. Omar and his family will come here a few times a week.

Janelle Metzger, the group's executive director, says the real challenge for them is building the capacity to take in all the new arrivals.

Two years ago, she says, there were no Syrian refugees in the group's program. But even then, it was already quite full, serving the immigrant population at the time.

"So to add 36 people in one year — and they're talking about maybe double that next year — that's a huge influx for us to figure out how to serve," Metzger says.

Language training is just one small piece of this resettlement puzzle. A network of volunteers helps provide everything these new refugees need to get started.

On the outskirts of Toledo, a bunch of white-haired Midwesterners are unloading mattresses from a moving van into a warehouse full of used furniture; they call themselves the "free loaders." They collect furniture donations and distribute them to people in need. They gave the Awad family a kitchen table, chairs, beds, a sofa.

"We greet them with a warm smile. That's a universal language," says Keith Webb, one of the organizers of the Epworth Furniture Ministry.

"It helps them in part of their transition, provides a mechanism for them to feel that it's their home," he says. "At the end of the day, they have a place to come home."

All of these men are retirees or people with day jobs: After Webb finishes unloading this furniture, he'll go back to his day job as an engineer.

One woman in Toledo ties all these threads — English lessons, housing, furniture — together: Corine Dehabey, coordinator of US Together.

On a recent day, her station wagon is overflowing with donations: food, furniture, car seats, pillows, toys.

Dehabey is the only paid staffer at her organization; everyone else is a volunteer. She's constantly being pulled in 12 directions. Her phone rings nonstop. She met the Awads at the airport and she drives them to English lessons. She does this for all the Syrian refugees in Toledo.

Dehabey grew up in the U.S., and her family is Syrian.

"It's not easy to watch on TV and see your own people getting slaughtered," she says. "As a Syrian, I feel like because I'm here, and all the problem in Syria, I can't do anything from here to help my people there, at least I can help when I'm here."

Last month, President Obama announced that the U.S. will increase the number of Syrian refugees it takes in to 10,000 over the coming year. By comparison, 20,000 migrants arrived in Munich, Germany, in a single weekend recently.

Dehabey's organization is petitioning the U.S. to take in 100,000 Syrians.

Her group is funded by an organization called HIAS — which used to stand for "Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society," because it was founded to resettle Jews fleeing persecution more than a century ago.

"That's real humanity. ... You want to help everybody, you put religion on the side. That's it, we're human before religion was formed," Dehabey says about this historically Jewish group taking mostly donations from Christian churches to help mostly Muslim immigrants. "So that's what makes the United States unique because everybody comes together to help this person."

Some of the refugees who come from Syria supported the government of Bashar Assad. Others supported the rebels in the civil war. Dehabey's organization doesn't ask questions; it helps everyone.

In some cities around the U.S., locals have pushed back against the idea of Syrian resettlement. They fear that people like the Awad family could be terrorists trying to infiltrate the country.

Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz echoed that sentiment at a campaign rally in neighboring Michigan this month.

"It would be the height of foolishness to bring in tens of thousands of people including jihadists that are coming here, to murder innocent Americans," Cruz said in Kalamazoo.

Toledo has a long history of immigrants from the Middle East, and the concern here is more nuanced.

Local Sharon Ostrowski says it doesn't bother her that immigrants are coming to live in her town, but she is bothered by what she perceives as pressure to change the way she lives to suit those people.

"We shouldn't have to give up our things we like. If they're coming here, they need to adapt to our way. We can't have Nativity scenes, I mean all this stuff. They get offended," Ostrowski says. "Well then what are you in our country for?"

Other people complain that Americans' tax dollars shouldn't be spent resettling people from Syria.

Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson has no patience for that argument.

"By helping them we're helping everyone. We're a community, and so you don't carve out one individual group from another individual group," she says.

Back at the Kenwood Gardens apartment complex, the Awad family is already starting to feel at home — and in more ways than just one.

When the Awads arrived in Toledo, they discovered something incredible: A family they'd been friends with in Homs, a family that was in the same refugee camp in Jordan, had arrived in Toledo just three days earlier.

Omar the carpenter talks with Hilal the barber. Their children play together — just as they did in Syria, and in Jordan.

"As long as I have Hilal by my side," Omar Awad says, "I'm fine."

The next family from Syria arrives in Toledo on Wednesday.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're about to meet some new arrivals to the U.S. - Syrian refugees who are adapting to life in, Toledo, Ohio. My colleague Ari Shapiro went there.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Kenwood Gardens apartment complex is just waking up.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: Dozens of identical two-story brick buildings are divided by neatly trimmed lawns. The leaves are turning. Geese fly overhead. The people who live here are college students, blue-collar workers and, just lately, Syrian refugees.

OMAR AL-AWAD: Salam Alaikum.

HIYAM AL-AWAD: (Unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: Hello. How are you?

Omar al-Awad invites us into his new apartment where a teakettle is on the stove. His wife, Hiyam, is helping their three children review what they learned in their first day of American school.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight...

SHAPIRO: One of his sons brought home something special today.

This is a calendar, and it is opened to today's date. And it says Hamam (ph) had a great day, with a smiley face.

O. AL-AWAD: (Through interpreter) I feel very happy, very excited and at peace inside. I was overjoyed today.

SHAPIRO: Omar al-Awad is a carpenter from the city of Homs. His house and business were destroyed in the Syrian civil war. His family spent two years at a refugee camp in Jordan.

O. AL-AWAD: (Through interpreter) There was no future in Jordan, none whatsoever.

SHAPIRO: Finally, the U.S. approved the family's medical exams, security checks and piles of other paperwork. This is the start of their new life in America.

Fewer than 2,000 Syrians have come to the U.S. this year though the civil war has displaced more than 12 million. The Syrian refugees in America are scattered widely across more than 20 different states.

We're pulling up to a small church, and through the lit windows, we can see classrooms. This is where the ESL classes are.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good morning, everybody.

SHAPIRO: A group called Water for Ishmael offers free language lessons for new arrivals and daycare for the younger kids.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Your children are in good hands. The teachers are loving them, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: While the children head off to a classroom, Omar begins the long road to learning English.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK. I will ask you some questions, and you answer the best that you can, OK? What is your name?

O. AL-AWAD: Omar - I am Omar.

SHAPIRO: The al-Awad family is the newest of eight Syrian families that have come to Toledo this year.

JANELLE METZGER: For us, building the capacity to take in is a real challenge.

SHAPIRO: Janelle Metzger runs this group.

You're saying that even what might look to outsiders as a small number of Syrian refugees arriving is a huge increase in what you're used to handling.

METZGER: Well, two years ago, we had zero. So - and we were already serving the immigrant population, and we were pretty full then. So to add 36 people in one year - and they're talking about maybe double that next year - that's a huge influx for us to figure out how to serve.

SHAPIRO: English learners like Omar and his family will come here a few times a week. Language training is just one small piece of this resettlement puzzle. A network of volunteers helps provide everything these new refugees need to get started. On the outskirts of Toledo, a bunch of white-haired Midwesterners are unloading mattresses from a moving van into a warehouse full of used furniture.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We're known as the free loaders.

SHAPIRO: They collect furniture donations and distribute them to people in need. They gave the al-Awad family a kitchen table, chairs, beds, a sofa.

KEITH WEBB: We greet them with a warm smile. That's, like, a universal, you know, language.

SHAPIRO: Keith Webb is one of the organizers of the Epworth Furniture Ministry.

WEBB: It helps them, you know, in part of their transition. It provides a mechanism for them to feel that it's their home. At the end of the day, you know, they have a place to come home.

SHAPIRO: All of these men are retirees or people with day jobs. After Webb finishes unloading this furniture, he'll go back to work as an engineer.

One woman in Toledo ties all these threads together - the English lessons, the housing, the furniture.

CORINE DEHABEY: My name is Corine Dehabey. I am the coordinator of Us Together here in Toledo.

SHAPIRO: When we meet her, her station wagon is overflowing with donations.

You've got some food and some furniture, pillows and toys, decarations.

DEHABEY: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Corine Dehabey is the only paid staffer at her organization. Everyone else is volunteers.

DEHABEY: ...Donations here.

SHAPIRO: She's constantly being pulled in 12 directions. She met the al-Awad family at the airport when they arrived. She drives them to English lessons. And she does this for all of the new Syrian refugees in Toledo.

DEHABEY: And this is my office (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Dehabey grew up in the U.S., and her family is Syrian.

DEHABEY: Well, it's not easy to watch on TV and see your own people getting slaughtered. As a Syrian, I feel like, you know, I'm - because I'm here and all the problem in Syria, I can't do anything from here to help my people there. At least I can help when I'm here.

SHAPIRO: Last month, President Obama announced that the U.S. will increase the number of Syrian refugees it takes in to 10,000. For comparison, 20,000 migrants arrived in one city - Munich, Germany - in a single weekend recently. Dehabey's group is petitioning the U.S. to take in a hundred-thousand Syrians. They're funded by an organization called this HIAS. It used to stand for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society because it was founded to resettle Jews fleeing persecution more than a century ago.

One of the things that I find so interesting about this situation is you have a historically Jewish group taking mostly donations from Christian churches to help mostly Muslim immigrants. It's like a real American story.

DEHABEY: Yes. That's real humanity, actually. You know, you want to help everybody. You want to put religion on the side, and that's it. We're human before religion was formed. So that's what makes United States unique because everybody comes together to help this person.

SHAPIRO: In some cities around the U.S., locals have pushed back against the idea of Syrian resettlement. They fear that people like Omar could be terrorists trying to infiltrate the country. While we were in Ohio, Texas senator Ted Cruz spoke at a presidential campaign rally in neighboring Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED CRUZ: It would be the height of foolishness to bring in tens of thousands of people, including jihadists that are coming here to murder innocent Americans.

SHAPIRO: Toledo has a long history of immigrants from the Middle East, and the concerns here are more nuanced. We met Sharon Ostrowski at a dive bar called Lil Sheba.

SHARON OSTROWSKI: It doesn't bother me at all. The only thing that bothers me is why we got to change the way we live to suit other people that come to our country. We shouldn't have to give up our things we like to suit - if they're coming here, they need to adapt to our way. You know, we can't have nativity scenes - I mean, all that stuff. They get offended. Well, then what are you in our country for?

SHAPIRO: Other people complain that Americans' tax dollars shouldn't be spent resettling people from Syria. Toledo mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson has no patience for that argument.

PAULA HICKS-HUDSON: By helping them, we're helping everyone. We're a community, and so you don't carve out one individual group from another individual group.

SHAPIRO: Back at the Kenwood Gardens apartment complex, Omar al-Awad's family is already starting to feel at home. When they arrived in Toledo, they discovered something incredible - a family they had been friends with in the city of Homs, a family that was in the same refugee camp in Jordan. This family arrived in Toledo just three days before that.

(CROSSTALK)

SHAPIRO: Omar the carpenter talks with Hilal the barber. Their children play together just as they did in Syria and in Jordan.

How does it feel to be thousands and thousands of miles away from your home but still with a family that you knew all the way back in Syria?

O. AL-AWAD: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Omar al-Awad says, "as long as I have Hilal by my side, I'm fine." The next family from Syria arrives in Toledo tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.