In Syria, Mostafa Hassoun was told that Jews were the enemy of Syrians and that Israel was out to occupy and oppress his people. But then he fled his country — and he gained access to the Internet.
One of the first topics he read about online was the Holocaust. And his attitude shifted drastically.
On Thursday, Hassoun found himself in a building he might never have thought he would enter — a synagogue — to speak to people he had been taught to hate — Jews.
“Hitler, he was the butcher who killed millions of the Jews. And I’m certain, from the help of you all in the Jewish community, that Jews will never allow anyone in the world to be another Hitler,” he told the crowd made up of both Jews and Muslims. “If Jew is the attribute of what they call someone who asks for freedom, then I am honored that I have many great friends from the Jews.”
Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., hosted Hassoun along with six Syrian refugee families at a dinner to welcome them to America. The refugees — more than 30 people in all, more than half of them children — have been resettled in Maryland in the past year and a half. One family arrived just three days before they found themselves at dinner in a Jewish house of worship.
“We as a congregation feel it’s especially important for us. Especially as Jews. We’re commanded in the Torah to be kind to the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe said. “We want to give them a message of welcome, which is not always what they’re hearing in this country.”
The United States has resettled 1,285 Syrians, according to a report in April by Human Rights Watch. That number is far short of President Obama’s pledge to resettle 10,000 Syrians by the end of the year, and it shows the difficulty many have had entering the country. The vetting process is lengthy, and several governors have voiced opposition to allowing Syrians into their states.
But on Thursday, the congregation of Temple Rodef Shalom easily mingled with the refugees. Many of the Syrians did not speak English, so some of the other guests — including congregants at McLean Islamic Center, which has a longtime relationship with the synagogue — helped translate questions about everything from what exactly the Syrians meant when they said they wanted a “no-fly zone” in their country, to how they were finding their new American neighborhoods.
Some communication didn’t take words at all. A smile, some Play-Doh or crayons seemed to get the message across to the kids in the group.
Saxe said the congregation has just finished raising money to sponsor a refugee family through Lutheran Social Services. Congregants don’t yet know which country the family will come from, but they look forward to helping them pay their first months of rent, find jobs and learn English.
Virginia Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), a member of the synagogue since childhood who was married at Rodef Shalom and recently saw his daughter’s bat mitzvah there, was deeply impressed by how easily the two groups interacted. “I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of Temple Rodef Shalom than I am tonight,” he said, just before a brief song session. The music: the Hebrew melody “Hinei Ma Tov,” which praises brotherly gatherings; the Muslim song of welcome and thanksgiving that celebrated the prophet Muhammad’s arrival in Medina; and a multilingual refrain that repeated “peace, salaam, shalom.”
Several of the refugees gave speeches about what they fled to seek peace in America. Fadi Antar said he decided to leave the day a missile hit his house, striking the room next to the one where he was sitting. “Every family that got here has seen death in front of their eyes at least 100 times,” he said.
He escaped to a refugee camp in Jordan even as the Syrian army shot at people who were fleeing, he said. The day Antar arrived in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced that he did not want any more Syrians resettled in his state.
Antar found himself standing in protest in front of the governor’s mansion, an activist already in his first week in his new country. That day, he said, “the first people that stood with us was the Jewish community. … I know the Jewish people know about oppressors, because they lived through Hitler.”
Mohammed Ahmad Harba, who arrived in Baltimore a month and a half ago, said he left Homs in 2012 with his wife and his 20-year-old son. His son was shot by a Syrian soldier while they were trying to leave the country, he said.
“While we’re sitting here and we’re very happy, people in Syria are being killed. Like my son, there are thousands of sons,” Harba said. He said he wished the U.S. government would do more to stop the bombs falling in his country. “We Jews and Muslims should work together with this. We are brothers. We were brothers from the time of our Master Moses, peace be upon him.”
Several of the refugees spoke about the mistrust that they have heard Americans express, especially since Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s pledge to keep all Muslims from entering the country.
Mohammad, a 40-year-old refugee asked that his last name not be published because he fears for the safety of his relatives in Syria, said Americans should trust that the screening process for refugees is rigorous. “They asked me who’s my 10th grandfather. Where did he work? What was his name? What did he do?” he joked.
After Mohammad’s son was killed, he fled to Lebanon with his five daughters, he said. The family has been living in the Baltimore area for more than a year now.
His oldest daughter, 17-year-old Fayza, was the only refugee who spoke in the synagogue social hall in English rather than speaking through an interpreter. She has been studying nonstop since arriving in the country, she said — during school, after school, summer school.
She has learned enough English to tell the crowd Thursday night what she would say if Trump became president and proposed that Syrians go back to their country: “The thing I would tell him: First, if my brother’s back, and my home is back, and my school is back, I would go back to my country.”
And Fayza had a message for the synagogue, too: “We are the same. Black, white, Muslim, Jewish, everything.”