A Syrian refugee named Omar signs the lease for his West Toledo apartment with his daughter, Taiba, by his side. Three Syrian refugee families settled in Toledo this month. (The Blade/Jetta Fraser)
Editor’s Note: This article corrects the name of Epworth Furniture Ministry volunteer Keith Webb.
Omar excitedly circled his new kitchen table, arranging and rearranging the chairs around it.
It had been less than an hour since the 40-year-old Syrian refugee first saw the inside of his new West Toledo apartment and the new furniture in it.
Omar, his wife, Hiyam, sons Hammam, 9, and Abduljabbar, 6, and daughter Taiba, 4, are the third and most recent Syrian refugee family to be resettled in Toledo this month.
The Blade is identifying them by their first names only because of their safety concerns for family members still in Syria and Jordan.
Omar wasted no time last week checking out the family’s new home: Opening closet doors, peeking in each of the bedrooms, and checking out the stove. How did the place appear to him?
“Excellent,” he said in Arabic.
While the international community debates how to handle the growing migrant crisis out of Syria, Toledo’s only refugee resettlement agency is handling more cases than ever.
President Obama earlier this month said the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, a sharp increase from current figures. The country resettled 132 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2014, four of them in Ohio, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.
From Oct. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31 of this year, the U.S. State Department reports roughly 1,300 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States.
The United Nations’ refugee agency classifies a refugee as someone who is outside of his or her home country and unable or unwilling to return because of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Corine Dehabey, resettlement coordinator at US Together Toledo, said her agency is able to handle the increased arrivals. She’s preparing for four or five more Syrian families and expects more in the next weeks and months.
Since opening the Toledo office in May, 2014, Ms. Dehabey has resettled on average one family per month from countries all over the world.
National resettlement organization HIAS, which sponsors US Together and its offices in Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo, is circulating a petition calling for the United States to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees next year. HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield said Mr. Obama’s proposal of 10,000 Syrians was not enough.
Among the HIAS-affiliated agencies, across 11 states and the District of Columbia, Toledo has received the most Syrians, Ms. Dehabey said. That’s in part because of Toledo’s well-established Middle Eastern community and welcoming experiences of previous immigrants, she said.
Ms. Dehabey said the Toledo office has a budget for 60 individuals next year. If that number increases dramatically, she said, she will need more staff and volunteers to serve new arrivals. But at the moment, she is receiving them as they come.
Ms. Dehabey, who also is from Syria, is a key facilitator in the refugees’ transition. She takes them grocery shopping and to appointments, and helps them enroll in school and work.
“For the Syrians, when they talk to me about issues, I can relate to the problems, to the killings, to be displaced from your homeland,” she said. “Since I can’t do anything for my country from far away, at least I can help my own people.”
Corine Dehabey, left, and Helal, right, show new arrival Omar how to use the gas stove in his family’s new apartment. All three are natives of Syria. Ms. Dehabey is the Toledo coordinator for a resettlement agency called US Together. Helal is another recent arrival. (The Blade/Jetta Fraser)
Just after noon Wednesday, a yellow moving truck pulled up with living room and dining room furniture and two volunteers from the Epworth Furniture Ministry, which is affiliated with Epworth United Methodist Church in Ottawa Hills. The ministry serves all refugees resettled by US Together Toledo, providing a dining room table and chairs, couches or chairs for the living room, lamps, and a dresser.
“This is a tangible way that you feel you help make a difference,” volunteer Keith Webb said as he delivered the furniture. “We get to see them, say hi, and see a big smile on their faces. It’s very rewarding.”
Omar’s family landed in Toledo late Tuesday after a direct flight from Amman, Jordan, to Chicago. They spent their first night with a man named Helal and his family, fellow Syrian refugees who arrived in Toledo recently and live in the same apartment complex.
The two families, who are from the same district in their home city of Homs, are now neighbors again. US Together Toledo has settled all refugees in the same complex to foster community and mutual support. Helal, along with other refugees in Toledo, helped Omar’s family move in. They quickly hauled in the donated furniture, debating where it should go.
Omar looked at the table arrangement and swapped two chairs again.
“If he wants to put the chairs on the ceiling he can,” Helal said in Arabic. “What matters is he’s got a chair for each person.”
Long time to wait
Omar’s family left its hometown in June, 2012, because of constant bombings and shelling, he said, caused by a battle for control of the city between rebel forces and the Syrian army.
They lived briefly outside of Damascus before arriving in Jordan, where they waited 14 months after applying for refugee status. They lived in Mafraq, just outside the refugee camp there. It was difficult to find work as a carpenter, he said, and his children were not getting treated well in school.
Helal, his wife, Jwaher, and their 10-year-old son Osama, left Syria in March, 2012. They too went to Jordan, where they lived for three years and eight months. Helal said it was difficult to get information while in Jordan about developments in Syria. He watched his country’s destruction through the media, he said.
“Homs is entirely on the ground, in ruins,” he said through a translator, sweeping his hands across the table to describe flattened devastation. “There’s no more infrastructure, there’s nothing at all.”
In Syria he was a barber, but found working as a Syrian in Jordan was prohibited. There was no potable water and getting good bread sometimes required walking for miles.
“For the person in Jordan who is cut off from assistance, where is he supposed to go?” he said. “He can either return to Syria for his death or he can stay [in Jordan] and die of hunger. Either way, there’s no good solution.”
There was no hope for his son’s education in Jordan, he said. Now that he is in Toledo, he said he wants to enroll Osama in school and find work for himself.
“If I can’t find work as a barber, I’ll work any other job. Maybe at a restaurant, maybe at a hotel,” Helal said. “Any work that ensures me a healthy condition and healthy body.”
Refugees coming to the United States each receive a one-time sum of $925 dollars, which goes toward initial expenses.
Ms. Dehabey takes each new family to sign up for Social Security cards and work permits so they can find employment. The International Organization for Migration pays for airline tickets to their new countries, but the refugees must begin repaying the cost of transportation six months after arriving, Ms. Dehabey said.
Taking it all in
After a few hours in their new city and fighting a wave of jet lag, Hiyam, who is seven months pregnant, said she was exhausted but taking it all in.
“It was great. Our spirits rested,” Hiyam said of their first night in Toledo. “Waking up in the morning and seeing all this greenery, you’re put at ease.”
There’s already a marked new freedom for their children. When Omar and Hiyam returned to their apartment with daughter Taiba after signing the lease, their sons played across the complex with Helal’s son, something that would have never happened in Jordan.
Omar said it was impossible to let his children out of the house in Jordan, describing more than two years of “imprisoning” his children for their own safety.
“Now I’m relieved. The most important thing is peace of mind. I’m thrilled. I’m really happy,” he said. “I told myself, I’m not going to rest until the plane takes off. The plane took off, and I said, ‘Oh! Now. Now, I can rest.’ ”
Contact Lauren Lindstrom at firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.
Staff writer Hasan Dudar contributed to this report.
This article first appeared in The Blade and toledoblade.com on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015.