At the moment the U.S. House voted Thursday to block Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, a mom and dad sat in their east Charlotte townhouse with their two youngest children, waiting for their three older children to arrive home safely from school.
This was something Abdul Razak Hariri and his wife, Nusyaba Suliman, could not always take for granted.
“Kids going to school in Syria, they don’t come back sometimes,” Hariri, 38, told me in Arabic through interpreter Mayada Idlibi later that day.
Hariri, Suliman and their five children, ages eight to eight months, arrived in Charlotte on Oct. 28. They are the first Syrian refugees in the city. They are grateful to be safe from the hell of the Syrian civil war.
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Need to escape
Hariri knew he had to get his family out of Syria after what happened to his brother, Ziad. Amid the civil war, Ziad was taken to jail and the family heard nothing for three months.
“Finally they called and told me to come and identify the body,” Hariri said. The body was so abused he couldn’t identify it. Two teeth left in the mouth. Holes in the body from a drill. Burns where cigarettes had been extinguished. Fingernails gone. Only an autopsy confirmed it was him.
“At that point, I feel I need to escape for the safety of my children and my family,” Hariri said.
Hariri, who worked as a car mechanic, and his family lived in Daraa, in southwestern Syria near the border with Jordan. It was here that the Syrian unrest started. In March 2011, during the Arab Spring, teenagers wrote anti-government graffiti on a wall and were arrested. That spawned protests in Damascus and across the country.
Prominent Daraa residents sought the teens’ release from jail.
“They told them, ‘You need to forget about these kids. They are history,’” Hariri said. “They said, ‘Go make more children, and if you don’t have men to make children, we will send some to your women.”
Things got worse from there. Shootings of protesters, then burning houses, then tanks, then planes dropping bombs. The government cordoned off the city and food and other supplies could not get in. When Hariri moved his family to be with other family in the suburbs, his house was burned down.
They got passports, crossed the border into Irbid, Jordan, and registered as refugees with the United Nations.
Suliman sold all her jewelry and wedding gifts to survive. She also got some money from her father in Saudi Arabia, and the family of seven was given about $100 a month in food stamps.
After nearly three years as refugees in Jordan, in October 2014, the UN called.
A year of checks
Would they want asylum in the United States? Yes, Hariri replied. Then be in Amman, Jordan, tomorrow morning, he was told.
He went for an interview. A week later, they told him to bring his whole family for a second interview. Three months later, they had a third interview. Months later, a fourth. A month after that, he was told he would be traveling to the United States in October. His family was given medical exams, fingerprinted and given retina scans.
After four interviews and a year of background checks, Hariri’s family was given permission to travel to the U.S. They had not applied for this. The UN selected them.
Looking for work
This Muslim family has been settled in Charlotte, we should note, by a Christian organization – the Catholic Diocese. Their 8-year-old and 6-year-old twins speak no English but are enrolled in CMS. Hariri takes a bus uptown everyday from his modest townhouse for a class on how to get his bearings, find a job and save money.
The family is on Medicaid and food stamps and gets free rent for six months. After that Hariri is expected to have a job. He will then have to pay back the $6,080 for his plane tickets, $127 per month.
Living in fear
They didn’t want to leave their home. “But it was destroyed. Iran, Russia, Assad, Hezbollah, you name it, they’re all doing the best of their ability to destroy Syria,” Hariri said.
Does he plan on staying in Charlotte?
“Where do you want me to go?” he says with a half-smile and a shrug.
What do he and his wife think of politicians’ calls to block Syrian refugees for fear of terrorism?
“These innocent people who ran for their lives, they’ve been going through death hundreds of times. They’re going to come here after they’re safe and do trouble?
“If one person did (a terror act), why would they say all the Syrian people are like that? … Why do they want to punish the weak people and make them pay for the mistakes of others?”
Idlibi, the interpreter, adds: “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. That’s not our religion. Our religion is peace. That’s how we were raised.”
Hariri pulls his crawling baby back from the stairs. He is grateful, he says. He wants his children to be safe. He wants them to go to school in a peaceful environment.
He wants, most of all, what everyone has been talking about this week:
“We don’t want to live in fear,” he says.