Syrians find safe haven in South Florida

07/29/2014 4:27 PM

07/29/2014 10:46 PM

Seven months ago, Mohamad Chikh Omar and his three children landed in Miami. They didn’t have a place to stay. They spoke very little English.

But he knew one thing: He and his children — ages 14, 6 and 5 — were secure, thousands of miles away from the shooting, sniper fire and bombs buzzing overhead in his Syrian homeland. His wife, Fatima, was not as fortunate. She disappeared in February 2013, waiting in line to get food for her family.

“I feel safe with the kids because we are no longer living the terror and hearing the scary sounds from the war,” said Chikh Omar, 37, sitting on a futon in a bare-walled apartment in Lauderhill, a temporary home courtesy of the local Syrian community. “But at the same time my thoughts are with their mom, still back there and not knowing what happened to her.’’

Chikh Omar’s story illustrates not only the severity of day-to-day-life in Syria, which the United Nations calls the modern world’s biggest humanitarian crisis with an estimated 9 million displaced people and more than 170,000 people killed since the conflict began in 2011, but the impact the Syrian civil war is having on communities across the globe.

South Florida’s Syrian community is relatively small — about 3,000 who live in Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties, according to Census estimates from the 2008-12 American Community Survey. Since 2011, the United States has resettled 142 Syrian refugees throughout the country, according to the Refugee Processing Center, run by the U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Many have strong ties to Syria, carrying the weight of worry with each headline. (Tuesday’s news: Insurgents fighting to oust President Bashar Assad detonated bomb-packed tunnels in the northern city of Aleppo, killing at least 13 pro-government troops.)

“I feel so guilty because here it’s like heaven,’’ said Noor Daghistani 27, of Kendall, who was born at Jackson Memorial and is a pharmacy resident at Baptist Hospital. “What they’re going through over there, it’s a daily hell on Earth.”

Before the crisis, Daghistani used to go to Syria every summer to visit her family. Most of her family has been displaced, but some remain in Syria. She was last in Syria about five years ago.

Nour Samra was in the country two years ago. She was raised in Miramar and attended Everglades High School through her sophomore year. Her father, Abdul Hamid Samra, is an electrical engineer who earned his master’s and Ph.D from Wichita State University in Kansas.

In 2006, she and her family moved to Damascus after her father had an opportunity to start Arab International University, a private university. Samra was attending the university in March 2012, a year after the conflict began, when the military raided the school.

Samra and her classmates ran from their computer science classroom and tried to leave the university, but the gates were closed. She ran into the pharmacy building and hid with others in her professor’s office.

“I felt like I was watching National Geographic, when a lion is jumping onto its prey,’’ said Samra, now 23. “I remember being horrified and shocked.’’

At one point, a solider kicked the door down and pointed a gun to her head.

“My professor comes and says, ‘These are students — they won’t do anything.’ ” Samra said.

The solider put down his gun, but forced the roughly half dozen people to stand in the middle and wait until he gave them permission to leave. Samra prayed.

“That experience changed me as a person,” Samra said. “I think for a whole year afterward I would cry at night. It was hard for me to sleep because of the violence. I can’t watch TV shows with violence because it shakes me to my core.”

Three months later, Samra's family moved back to Miramar. She is attending Nova Southeastern University.

“It became unsafe, especially for a young woman,” said her father, now the imam at the Islamic Center of Greater Miami in Miami Gardens.

The family still worries about loved ones in Syria. Last year, government forces abducted Abdul Hamid Samra’s nephew, Mohammad.

“He worked in a bank in Damascus, and had three children. For a year now he’s been missing,” Abdul Hamid Samra said. “He was coming back home and there was something going on in his neighborhood, and they were arresting people for no reason.”

Chikh Omar knows the anguish of having a loved one disappear.

One day in February 2013, he and his wife, Fatima Alsharki, were standing in line to get food being distributed from a truck. The women's line was shorter than the men’s, so his wife volunteered to stand there and told him to go home to the children.

Shortly after he left, he realized they'd forgotten their ID book, which they needed to get the food, and returned home to retrieve it. While he was away, he learned later, someone had told nearby soldiers the women were getting food for the rebel forces. He’s not sure what happened next, as he has heard conflicting reports. Some told him the women were killed; some say they were taken away.

Chikh Omar made fliers with his wife’s photo and passed them around, but no one ever came forward.

By April 2013, it became clear that remaining in Syria was growing increasingly dangerous and Chikh Omar was worried his 14-year-old daughter would be a target for kidnapping. The military had left a dead body in front of his daughter’s school “to scare people.”

“There were snipers everywhere, you could not even turn on the lights in the house because then the snipers would be shooting at you,” said Chikh Omar, speaking through an Arabic translator.

With the help of a friend in the United Arab Emirates, the family traveled to Lebanon, then Jordan, where Chikh Omar obtained visas for him and his children to come to Miami, where he had a friend. They lived in Jordan for a few months, and then Morocco, where they ended up living in a garage.

The stress started taking a toll on the children: Fatin, 14, Muaath, 6, and Zakaria, 5.

“The children were very scared, they’d gone through a lot,” Chikh Omar said. “My daughter started losing her hair.’’

After getting financial help to buy the plane tickets, they landed at Miami International Airport in December. They spent the first two days at an airport hotel, then returned to the airport, where they slept for two nights. By the third day, an airport employee who spoke Arabic noticed the family and directed them to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. From there, they were taken to the Chapman Partnership’s homeless assistance center in Homestead.

On New Year’s Eve Arlene de Armas of Cutler Bay went to the center with her husband and children to do crafts with the children there. They were decorating wooden objects when she noticed Chikh Omar was the only parent sitting with his children.

“Mind you, it was the weekend,’’ recalled de Armas, 40. “The parents could have been there and he was the only parent there.”

Fatin, his daughter, also caught her eye. She seemed mature for her age, helping her brothers.

The following Friday, de Armas went to her temple, Temple Beth Am, and told her rabbi about the family. Rabbi Rachel Greengrass gave her the number of Saif Ishoof, co-founder of EmergeUSA, an organization that helps underrepresented communities.

“I think that’s what is so telling of South Florida, we are a community that is able to bridge a divide,” said Ishoof. “We are a community that understands the challenges of arriving from a different soil.”

Added Greengrass: “When people let you be part of their life, you want to help all you can. I think when there is an opportunity to rise up, we should. This is who we are at our core as Jews, as Muslims, as Americans, to rise up and help people when it counts.”

Word of the family spread to Doured Daghistani, a board member of the Syrian American Council of South Florida, which has worked to aid Syrians in and out of the conflict zone.

“What moved us was his children,” Daghistani said. “We told him, ‘The community helped because of your children.’ ”

Through a community effort, the Chikh Omars were able to leave the shelter by April and move into an apartment that a local Syrian is allowing them to live in rent-free. The family is working toward political asylum, and the children are attending Salah Tawfik elementary and middle schools in Sunrise, where they are learning English.

Said Chikh Omar: “I ask more goodness from God to the ones who helped me, and may God reward them for helping me and my children.”

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