Syrian refugee in Kansas City says he is thankful, blessed

Ahmad al-Abboud, center, who with his wife and children became the first Syrian family to be resettled to the United States under the new “surge operation,’’ spoke to the media Monday morning with the help of interpreter Fariz Turkmani, right.
Ahmad al-Abboud, center, who with his wife and children became the first Syrian family to be resettled to the United States under the new “surge operation,’’ spoke to the media Monday morning with the help of interpreter Fariz Turkmani, right. Kansas City Star

These are some of the things Ahmad al-Abboud is enjoying today: a simple house with windows that let the sun shine on his children.

The spring trees of Kansas City turning so green – so “nice.”

Strangers offering him work.

He feels it all, as well as a heavy responsibility as the father of the first Syrian refugee family to land in the United States under a renewed effort to help victims of Syria’s civil war.

“I hope (to rise to) the level of trust and kindness that people in Kansas City hope for me to be,” al-Abboud said Monday through an interpreter at Della Lamb Community Services.

“I am very blessed to be here.”

His body still carries pieces of shrapnel from the bomb that drove him to find a way to get his family out of the daily terror that Syria had become three years ago.

Any plane rattling over the rooftops in his hometown, Homs, could drop explosives, he said. He could no longer stand the fear for his wife and their children – two daughters now 12 and 8, a 5-year-old boy and twin girls, and a 1-year-old son who was born while they were refugees struggling in Jordan.

God, he said, gave him the opportunity to meet drivers who could help them get out under the constant threat of snipers as they crossed the 175 miles to Jordan on Syria’s southern border.

His family spent 25 days in a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, with desperate living conditions that were “beyond belief,” he said. It was better when they got the chance to live outside the camp, though it was in a storage unit with no windows.

Refugee plan

With millions of Syrian refugees crowding into camps or risking dangerous escapes by sea into Turkey or Greece, pressure has mounted to provide aid to refugees – at the same time that terrorist violence by some extremist Syrians has prompted many calls to close borders.

President Obama launched a plan this year for the United States to help resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees by Sept. 30. As part of that effort, a resettlement center was set up in February in Amman.

The United Nations’ refugee agency has been prioritizing the needs of refugees, trying to aid the most vulnerable families first.

All of this was happening mostly outside al-Abboud’s knowledge. The three years his family had spent as refugees could have carried on another five years, 10 years – he had no idea how long it would last, he said.

The call from the U.S. Embassy telling him to make his family ready to go to America in 20 days was both startling and joyous, he said.

There was no particular reason that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement called on Kansas City first, said Abdul Baker, Della Lamb’s director of programming for resettlement. But they were ready, and Missouri’s doors were open.

Missouri, under Gov. Jay Nixon, has kept its refugee resettlement agencies open to help with Syrian refugees, although calling on U.S. agencies to take full measures to protect U.S. citizens.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed an executive order last fall saying Kansas would not assist in bringing in Syrian refugees.

From many countries

Della Lamb, which joined in Kansas City’s resettlement efforts two years ago, expects to help resettle 350 refugees from many nations by Sept. 30, said Judy McGonigle Akers, executive vice president of Della Lamb.

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement allocates $2,025 per person to Della Lamb to support the needs of refugees for 90 days. That includes securing housing, the first month’s rent, utilities, furniture, groceries, clothing and a cellphone. Della Lamb helps get families into school and English language instruction and helps working-age refugees find jobs to become self-sufficient.

Della Lamb so far has an 84 percent success rate in helping its clients land jobs, McGonigle Akers said.

The prospects for al-Abboud and his family are especially bright.

In part because of the controversy around Syrian refugees, many of the refugee program supporters have been especially eager for the chance to aid Syrian families fleeing the civil war, said Sofia Khan, an activist in support of refugees in Kansas City.

“People have been asking me: ‘Can I help Syrians?’ ” Khan said. “They’re saying, ‘Tell me when Syrians come.’ ”

Dozens of people have called since news of the family’s arrival late Wednesday night, offering the father work and other support.

They already have Kansas City Royals pins and shirts.

Touting religious tolerance

Al-Abboud, in thanking Kansas City for its generosity, spoke also to the concerns he knows are on many people’s minds with the religious extremism terrorizing cities and nations throughout the world.

There was a time, he said, when few in Homs were bothered by each other’s religions. The Syrians he knows want no part of this anger and fear.

“I am Muslim,” he said through his interpreter, Fariz Turkmani, who came to Kansas City from Syria in 1979. But he thinks people of different religions can live together.

“We are all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve,” al-Abboud said.

School begins soon for his children. Della Lamb specializes in classrooms for immigrants and refugees. And English language courses will start as well.

“My first hope is that they all can learn English,” he said. “My other hope is they can get a good education. Because they are very smart.”