Local Jews get involved in easing Syrian families into American life
This winter, former State Sen. Doug Ross gathered Jewish and Arabic friends together to form “Team Alasad.” Named for a family of five, it works to assist them as they adjust to life in America.
The Alasad family — Samer, his wife, Haifa, and sons Abdullah, 6, and Faid, 4, and daughter, Hanan, 3 — received legal immigration status to the United States after they fled from the war in Syria and spent four years in a Jordanian refugee camp waiting for their immigration status to clear.
The Alasad family came from Daraa, a city on the southern border with Jordan, not too far from Israel’s Golan Heights. The city played a role in the early protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and became known as the “cradle of the revolution” when 15 boys from prominent families were arrested for anti-government graffiti, Ross explained. The city quickly became a target for government attacks.
In 2013, Samer Alasad, then 26, and Haifa, then 22, fled Daraa with their infant son, Abdullah, and crossed the border into Jordan. They spent time in a refugee camp near the border until Samer found work cleaning the offices of some Jordanian doctors. This allowed the Alasads to leave the camp and find lodgings in the nearby city, Ross said.
While waiting for permission through the U.N. to attain admission into the U.S. as refugees, both Fadi and Hanan were born.
Samer brings mechanical skills with him and has a job working for a transportation company repairing cars. His plan is to study to be a certified mechanic once he has mastered English.
Haifa and Samer are studying English at night and on the weekends, and the children are picking up English in school and preschool.
Now that Haifa just earned her driver’s license, she will begin to look for work to help the family become fully economically self-sufficient.
Both Samer and Haifa indicate they very much miss their families who remain in Syria. However, they regard America as their future and have no thoughts of returning to their homeland, Ross said.
“We are happy and comfortable in America,” Samer told Ross. “We have encountered some difficulties, but thanks to all of you [Team Alasad], we can go beyond them. Thank you and everyone who helped us.”
Ross told a gathering of about 20 people at a dinner in early March at Mezza restaurant in Orchard Lake that “by taking part in this work, we recognize that all of us were once immigrants.
“No matter the need, from finding English classes for the couple on the weekends to finding donors to help with rent, Team Alasad will be there for them to make sure the family becomes successful Americans,” he said.
Working to give aid
Whether they are responding to their Jewish values or the Trump Administration’s harsh crackdown on Muslim immigration, organizations and individuals in the Jewish community are making differences in the lives of refugees far away and in nearby neighborhoods.
According to the U.S. State Department, Michigan is a top destination for both Syrian and other refugees. Since the beginning of 2015, Michigan has taken in 2,029 of the 18,908 Syrian refugees settled in the U.S., just slightly behind California.
The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think tank, reports “the majority of Syrian immigrants come to the United States through family reunification channels rather than as refugees or asylum seekers or through employment-based channels.”
It goes on to state that “compared to the overall foreign and native-born populations, Syrian immigrants on average are significantly older, more highly educated and less likely to participate in the labor force [because of lower workforce participation by women]. However, employed Syrians are more likely to work in high-skilled occupations and have higher earnings than the overall foreign or native-born populations.”
After making it through the extensive vetting process to make it to the United States, refugees and asylum seekers still need help with paperwork and legal assistance. That’s where Detroit’s Freedom House for 35 years has stepped in as one of the only places in the nation that provides both shelter and legal services to the country’s most vulnerable immigrant populations.
Repair the World Detroit, in partnership with NEXTGen Detroit, recently raised more than $1,100 for the organization at a late March event at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township when they learned the good news that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reversed its decision to cut funding for Freedom House and restored a grant for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
In addition to screening the documentary Refugee Kids, there was also a Jewish text study session led by Temple Kol Ami’s Rabbi Brent Gutmann that included a brief historic overview of Jewish refugees as well as texts discussing Jewish responses to refugees.
Repair the World Fellow Aryeh Perlman said the evening’s program helped to break down barriers and misunderstandings about refugees.
“As Jews,” he said, “we need to think about how we are to respond nationally and locally to those who have experienced terror.”
Close Enough To Help
Every year, Dessa Stone of Lake Orion and her husband, Jack Kobliska, vacation at her family home on the Greek island of Ikaria. From their balcony, they have a picturesque view of the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea.
Last summer, the view somehow felt tainted knowing that just across the water, thousands of war-weary refugees suffered.
“From our balcony, we saw paradise; but we knew that just over on that island, people had escaped the horrors of war and were sleeping out in the open on pieces of cardboard,” Stone said. “How could we enjoy this place and not get involved helping those refugees? To not do something would be to ignore my own family’s history and ignore our values as human beings.”
Stone can relate to the plight of the refugees personally. During WWII, members of her extended family boarded a leaky boat in the middle of the night to escape the Nazis who occupied Ikaria. Ironically, their boat landed in Syria.
Last summer, Stone and her family took action, spending time with the refugees as volunteers and learning about their many needs.
Now, with the help of the Birmingham Temple, where Stone’s daughter Amanda Rosman is a board member, Stone raised $5,000 through GoFundMe and secured nonprofit status with Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist relief organization, to encourage larger donations to more easily transfer funds to the island to purchase school, medical and personal hygiene supplies.
Rabbi Jeff Falick said his Birmingham Temple congregation is happy to coordinate these efforts.
“The United States played no small role in destabilizing that entire region,” Falick said. “Now Syrian families are fleeing from that horror. We know from our Jewish experience that throughout history Jews have been on the run. My Humanistic Jewish values dictate my actions and that means reaching out to people as good American citizens and neighbors.”
Stone’s next step is to bring a multimedia exhibit to the area by the end of the summer that features Pulitzer-prize winning photographs of the Samos refugees plus recorded interviews of their harrowing experiences. She hopes the exhibit will “open up hearts and then wallets” for relief.
“Philoxenia is a Greek expression that means ‘welcome in the stranger,’” Stone said. “It is the same as the Jewish value of remembering the stranger at one’s gates.”
Those interested in helping the Alasad family can contact Doug Ross at (248) 705-9790 or firstname.lastname@example.org. (See a story on a Wayne State University study of trauma on Syrian refugees, page 67.)
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer