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‘Now they live in the light’: A Syrian refugee family finds only love and compassion in America

Randa and Maher Almahasneh with their four children (Colby Itkowitz/The Washington Post)
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LANCASTER, Pa. — Maher Almahasneh returned home from his English language class to a small living room filled with guests. He calls them friends.

Harley Kooker, a 71-year-old dairy cattle veterinarian, was huddled in a kitchen corner assembling a new portable washing machine he’d persuaded a local appliance store to donate. His wife, Kate, was sitting on the couch letting the Almahasnehs’ 7-year-old daughter measure her head and her waist with a tape measure. Their case manager from Church World Service was also there, as was an Arabic translator. Within the hour two more women from their Mennonite church welcome team would drop in to say a quick hello.

Here in Lancaster County, a politically conservative area well known for its Amish community, traditional Christian values run deep. Since the Church World Service opened a Lancaster office 30 years ago, it has been a favored destination for resettling refugees because churches here easily assemble welcome teams whose members see it as a godly duty to care for those in need.

In the last fiscal year, Lancaster County resettled more than 400 refugees from all over the world, with the largest numbers coming from the Congo and Syria. President Trump’s executive order to ban entry to refugees from around the world and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Syria, is hard for members of the Almahasnehs’ welcome team to fathom, especially now that they have grown close to the family. The ban is in the name of national security, the White House says, but the welcome team looks at this family that has endured so much and wants so little and can’t understand why anyone would fear them.

“When I see refugees now being shut off like that, I think, ‘How on earth can we be so hardhearted,’ ” said Harley Kooker, who first worked with refugees in Vietnam as a conscientious objector to that war. “I was always taught that we love whoever regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, you know, that’s who my Jesus is, that’s what my Jesus taught.”

Laura Kanagy, who has coordinated all the welcome group’s efforts, said she cried the day Trump’s ban was announced because it felt so personal now. When the Almahasnehs came to visit their church for a welcome event, she said in a speech: “There are many different messages flying around right now about borders and walls and terrorism and bans. But here is our message to you: You are very welcome here, and you are loved.”

On Thursday night, after an appeals court ruled that refugees and citizens of the seven countries could continue coming to the United States, Kanagy said she felt “so relieved.”

Dreams for their children

When the Church World Service first asked the East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church last year if its congregants would want to sponsor a refugee family, close to two dozen signed up. Once the word came that a Syrian refugee family was on their way, someone made fliers with photos of the Almahasneh family and distributed them at church so people could see their faces and begin praying for them weeks before they arrived in early January.

Maher Almahasneh, his wife, Randa, and their four young children, ages 12, 10, 7 and 3, lived in Jordan as urban refugees for three and a half years after they escaped the war in Syria mere days after their youngest daughter was born. They had hidden in underground shelters during bombings and then, even when the skies were clear, the children became too afraid to venture outside.

Their new home sits on a drab, treeless, alley-size street less than a mile from the historic city square here, just beyond the downtown galleries, cafes and boutiques and America’s oldest farmers market. But what the city block lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in what it represents for Maher Almahasneh: permission to dream again.

A towering man in an Adidas track suit with a Tom Selleck mustache, Almahasneh said he can now imagine a future for his children. He wraps his massive arm around Salam, his 7-year-old daughter, and hugs her close as she recites the ABCs for the group gathered in the living room. He smiles proudly when everyone applauds. She then sings, “Five little monkeys jumping on the bed” — a nursery rhyme Kanagy’s 4-year-old daughter taught her — and everyone laughs.

Through a translator, Maher lists all of the occupations his children can now pursue: a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor. Randa glances over her shoulder at her husband from where she is boiling a large pot of rice and lentils on the stove and smiles as he talks about his hopes for their children.

Later the couple will serve large helpings to all who drop in to check on them. Everyone gathers around the small oval kitchen table and Maher loads his guests’ plates with the rice and freshly chopped salad and pickled turnips Randa started soaking almost as soon as they arrived. Once a plate is emptied, he fills it again, ignoring anyone’s protestations that they’re full. The food is so delicious that there’s talk among the welcome team members of helping Randa start a catering company.

“Oh my goodness, look at all the food she’s putting out here,” Kate Kooker says. “She’s like magic.”

The American guests rub their bellies to show how much they’re enjoying the meal. Maher looks pleased.

“They were in the darkness; now they live in the light,” Elias George, a local Palestinian man, translates for Maher. “They were occupied by all misery and miserable things around them, and now they feel safe. His dream was shattered. Now he comes here and he has a dream that anything is possible. Hopefully, it’s a country of successes, one after another.”

A true welcome team 

On Monday evening, 11 members of the welcome team gathered in their church to learn Arabic. It wasn’t a requirement, just something, after weeks of communicating by hand gestures and smiles, that they wanted to do.

The team hired Randa to cook them a meal, hoping to give the family a little income while Maher looks for a steady job. They began by learning words for “expensive, cheap; near, far; man, woman; big, small; healthy, sick.” They practiced some basic greetings and the word for “delicious,” so they could properly compliment Randa’s cooking.

Since the Almahasnehs arrived, Kanagy, a 38-year-old mother of two young children, said she has been busier than she was when she was working full time as a teacher. Her husband has taken up the cooking and the laundry and her parents have been babysitting so she could focus on navigating the Almahasnehs’ needs. And now, if several days go by without seeing them, she stops by for what she calls “friendship visits.”

Where she could once ignore incoming calls, she now answers all of them, fielding questions about doctor’s appointments, grocery store runs and cultural orientation classes. When Kanagy put a call out for area rugs because the apartment was cold, at least eight people on the team showed up with large carpets to donate. When she asked for lunchboxes for the kids, she was inundated with responses from members offering to get them.

They’ve also become advocates, calling their representatives in Congress daily about the ban, and have even set up a meeting with their Republican congressman, Lloyd Smucker, for later this month.

“It feels like such a hopeless time right now, so to work with people who will stop whatever they’re doing to help … it fills me with hope in the American people really caring about people around the world, caring about the circumstances for their neighbors no matter who they might be,” Kanagy said.

There has been despair among those who run the refugee program in Lancaster about its future if the Trump administration’s refugee ban is upheld. Sheila Mastropietro, who has run the Church World Service Lancaster office since 1987, said it keeps her up at night imagining “all those people who think, ‘I’m going to get out, I’m going to get to start a life’ and you hear what they go through every day, and that’s what I think of. They’re still there; they’re not going to move.”

For now, as Trump’s ban continues to work its way through the court system, the welcome team is doing everything it can to show the Almahasnehs that Americans want them here. Still, some on the team expressed concern, given the current political climate, that the family won’t be completely shielded from discrimination, even here.

“I still wonder, what are they going to experience that is adversarial,” Kate Kooker said, “and how can I be a presence for them when that begins to happen.”

Read more Inspired Life:

What if every U.S. college campus offered to house a Syrian refugee family?

‘I’m very proud of you’: Obama meets 6-year-old who wrote to him about adopting Syrian boy

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