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Syrian Family Settles In NY: “We Heard That We Can’t Go To America And Now We Are Here And We Can’t Believe Our Eyes”

 

It’s so important to not miss the stories of the real people affected by Donald Trump’s blanket, racist immigration orders targeting Muslims, immigrants, and refugees. Among the many stories emerging from the past few days are that of a family of Kurdish Syrian refugees welcomed home with open arms in New York, and a Cleveland physician who is safely back in America, thanks to the work of her friends and advocates.

The New York Times profiles the story of Suzan Khoja, her five siblings, and their parents, refugees from Aleppo, in “For Volunteers in New York, a Tumultuous Wait for a Refugee Family”:

On Jan. 22, about a dozen volunteers cleaned the apartment that the [Church World Service] had rented for the family in Union City, N.J. “The first Saturday we were elated, so excited this was happening,” said Nancy Muirhead, the chairwoman of the church’s Refugee Task Force. Ms. Muirhead’s 94-year-old mother, Connie, scrubbed the sink and the stove.

“We knew that an executive order would be coming and we thought we’d get the family in under the wire,” said Dave Mammen, the church administrator coordinating the refugee task force.

Not quite: Five days later came Mr. Trump’s order. Needing to keep busy, 13 task force members went to the apartment anyway to unpack dishes and set up beds. The church’s handyman came to fix closet doors and hang a coat rack.

On Monday, the day the family was supposed to arrive, Mr. Mammen went to the apartment to sign for the last item to be delivered: a mattress for a twin bed.

Eight donated winter coats hung in a row on hallway hooks.

The kitchen was stocked with utensils, towels and crockpots, as well as the dishes; the living room was decorated with small paintings; and the dresser drawers were full of socks and shirts. Mr. Mammen was overcome by an abundance of emptiness.

“It was very lonely and desolate,” he said.

Still, he said, “We also felt that our emotions were not important — it was how the family was dealing with it.”

Sarah Krause, a senior director at Church World Service, marveled at the volunteers’ engagement.

But she also had to keep their eagerness in check. At one point, task force members wanted to just go ahead and buy the family’s plane tickets. Ms. Krause had to tell them, gently, that it did not work that way. Travel must be coordinated through two international resettlement organizations and the State Department.

“This situation made many of us feel powerless, and they were trying to find power in a powerless situation,” Ms. Krause said.

Church World Service did allow an exception for the Rutgers task force to contact the family directly in Istanbul, after it received approval from a relative living in New Jersey.

Mr. Mammen, Ms. Muirhead and the Rev. Andrew Stehlik, the church pastor, himself an immigrant from the Czech Republic, called on Jan. 29 to introduce themselves and say they were doing all they could to help. A family member told Mr. Mammen that “their dreams had disappeared and their reality had disappeared,” he said.

Mostly, the refugees said they were confused.

“We had to say, ‘We don’t really understand either,’” Mr. Mammen said.

As Mr. Mammen texted the family during the week, a series of twice-a-day conference calls followed in New York, trying to track what was going on in the courts.

“You get off the phone and there’d be another news alert,” Ms. Rice said. “It was very up and down. I felt like I was in a thriller. They were so close. What do we do to just get them here?”

When news broke on Saturday that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco had declined to reinstate the travel ban immediately and that refugees could continue entering the country while it heard arguments, Mr. Mammen was happy, but guarded.

On Sunday night, Ms. Krause from Church World Service called Mr. Mammen to say the Khojas would be arriving Tuesday. A matter-of-fact, Excel-spreadsheet kind of man, he burst into tears.

He texted Suzan, who used to be an English teacher in Syria. She responded, “Inshallah.”

On Monday, to prepare for the family’s arrival, Ulla Farmer, 76, a member of the task force, and Mimi Schade, 70, a member of All Souls Church on the Upper East Side, went shopping.

One cupboard already had Syrian seasoning and halvah, a Middle Eastern sweet. The church’s other refugee family had prepared a Syrian meal.

Mr. Khoja, who ran a supermarket in Syria, said he had fled for his children’s safety. “Thousands of Kurds were being sold at markets, so that was enough reason to fear for my children,” he said.

Just before the Khojas’ flight left Istanbul, Mr. Mammen texted Suzan to write his cellphone number on her arm, in case the family was detained when it landed at Kennedy. She wrote it on a piece of paper and tucked it in her jacket instead.

She didn’t need it.

“We heard that we can’t go to America and now we are here and we can’t believe our eyes,” said Suzan.

In Ohio, Dr. Suha Abushamma is safely back home and ready to resume caring for her patients again. From “After Officials Sign Off, Cleveland Clinic Doctor Secretly Returns Home” in ProPublica:

When she landed in New York, Abushamma said she was greeted by Customs and Border Protection Agents “with smiling faces.” An agent said, “We’ve been waiting for you” and then escorted her to the room in which she was held for hours when she arrived on Jan. 28 before being sent home. “My favorite room at JFK,” she joked. “But this time, it literally took one minute.”

They gave her a form to sign, stamped her passport as if she had a H-1B visa (her original visa type before it was canceled) and escorted her to get her luggage.

Reporters were waiting outside customs, so Abushamma was let out a side door where she was greeted by Cleveland Clinic colleagues, including Dr. Abby Spencer, program director for the internal medicine residency program.

In a court filing, Spencer had said that Abushamma “has been a stand-out physician and colleague. She has repeatedly and consistently demonstrated the utmost ethical standards and continued to prioritize patient needs.”

“It was just really emotional,” said Eileen Sheil, a clinic spokeswoman who was among those to greet Abushamma in New York. “Everyone was trying really hard to keep it low key because there was a lot of media around.”

Abushamma said the experience has been unforgettable.

“The support that I have received is just amazing. It is incredible,” she said. “From the Cleveland Clinic, from friends, from residents that I’ve never met before … from people in Cleveland itself, from people across America as well. Just the support I received is the one thing that I will never ever forget about this experience.”