Resettled Syrian refugee families find safety, support and home in Utah

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Syrian refugee Nour Eddin Abdul Bari, who with his wife and five children, arrived in Utah on March 5, 2015, talks through an interpreter during interview at the International Rescue Center office in Salt Lake City, Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
Syrian refugee Nour Eddin Abdul Bari, who with his wife and five children, arrived in Utah on March 5, 2015, talks through an interpreter during interview at the International Rescue Center office in Salt Lake City, Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

It’s not easy to run from bullets and bombs when you have two children in wheelchairs, so Nour Eddin Abdul Bari and his wife, Rzan, decided it was better to flee Syria in 2011, six months after the civil war began, rather than be sitting targets.

They are now refugees living in Midvale, Utah in a four-bedroom apartment designed for people with physical disabilities. They have endured a four-year trek that took them to Libya and Egypt, countries also struggling with political unrest, before they were granted passage to the United States.

The Salt Lake Valley wasn’t exactly what they expected (they assumed there would be more skyscrapers), but it is exactly what they hoped for. It’s a place where people have treated their disabled children with a kindness they haven’t experienced before and a place where they believe they can flourish — as long as they put in the necessary work.

Eight months into their resettlement, Rzan takes care of their now five children. That includes their only daughter, Maram, age 4, who is their third child diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and severe developmental delay. The other two, Mohammed Ayham, 17, and Ehab, 16, are enrolled in a special-needs school.

Abdul Bari works part time in an Iraqi restaurant and plans to open his own place in the coming year, bringing Syrian shawarma to the valley. He plans to call it Nour al Sharq, meaning “the light of the East.”

He feels pressure to provide and adapt. He hopes to make Utah his long-term home, believing Syria has been permanently shattered.

Utah takes in about 1,100 refugees a year, most recently from places such as Iraq, Burma and Congo. Since the Syrian civil war began, the state has resettled just 12 Syrians comprising two families.

That number should rise to a few hundred people in the next year, creating a small Syrian community in Utah and, Abdul Bari jokes, a built-in clientele for his restaurant.

Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, has spawned the worst refugee crisis in a generation, according to the United Nations, resulting in massive camps in Turkey and Lebanon and scores of overcrowded inflatable rafts headed for Greece, where migrants hope to start their journeys to other European countries. Germany originally expected to house 800,000 asylum seekers from the Middle East this year, with the bulk coming from Syria, though that could be a low estimate.

President Barack Obama has settled on a more modest number. He said the country would resettle 85,000 refugees (up from 70,000) in the next year and at least 10,000 will be from Syria. Since the civil war began, the United States has taken in 1,500 displaced Syrians.

The two resettlement agencies working in Utah — the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services — have no Syrian families in the pipeline, though they expect that to change in the coming months. Still, they are frustrated by what they see as a tepid response to an international disaster. They are calling on Obama to accept 100,000 Syrians in the next year.

Top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently called on Mormons in Utah and around the globe to help ease the suffering and “participate in local refugee projects, where practical.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, say Obama’s refugee increase is an error that may be exploited by extremists.

“Make no mistake, nefarious actors will take advantage of our generosity and abuse our broken immigration system,” he said. “I don’t trust this administration’s ability to vet new arrivals.”

In 2011, two Iraqi refugees living in Kentucky were arrested on terrorism charges for allegedly planning to send weapons to anti-American insurgents in their home country. The FBI caught them in a sting. Since then, the State Department has increased security protocols.

Aden Batar, the refugee-resettlement director for the Utah chapter of Catholic Community Services, has heard the concern of politicians such as Chaffetz but says the nation now has a “rigorous process” to screen potential refugees that begins with fingerprints, international security checks and a battery of interviews. Bad guys, he said, are not slipping through.

“That threat doesn’t exist. We haven’t seen it,” he said. “We are talking about women, children, people who have been victimized by ISIS.”

That’s the same screening process Moawiyah Bilal, his wife, Kholoud Abou Arida, and their three children went through before they were able to fly to Utah shortly before Thanksgiving last year, making them the first Syrian refugees to arrive in Utah.

They live in a modest Salt Lake City apartment. Bilal works in a hotel laundry room and Abou Arida is employed by LDS Humanitarian Services.

“When the U.N. told us we were going to Utah, we didn’t know where that was,” Abou Arida told Business Insider earlier this month. “We asked friends and no one else knew either, but when we got here, we liked it very much.”

She hopes her other family members will be able to join them, though she notes how hard and expensive the refugee system is to navigate. Refugees are required to repay the federal government for their transportation costs.

For the Abdul Bari family, that bill is $8,000.

Nour Eddin Abdul Bari worked as a chef outside of Damascus. When he left, he relied on his modest savings and the help of relatives to get his family members into a residential area outside of Cairo.

Krysti Nellermoe, youth program assistant with the International Rescue Committee, smiles as Syrian refugees Nour Eddin Abdul Bari, left, who with his wife and five children, arrived in Utah on March 5, 2015, talks through an interpreter during interview at the International Rescue Center office in Salt Lake City, Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
Krysti Nellermoe, youth program assistant with the International Rescue Committee, smiles as Syrian refugees Nour Eddin Abdul Bari, left, who with his wife and five children, arrived in Utah on March 5, 2015, talks through an interpreter during interview at the International Rescue Center office in Salt Lake City, Monday, Nov. 2, 2015. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

A year after they fled, he heard that bombs destroyed the house he left behind. Since then, his large family has scattered throughout the world. Some are in refugee camps holding more than 2 million people in Turkey. A brother survived a precarious trip on a crowded raft and made it into Germany.

“They are endangering their lives to avoid death,” Abdul Bari said, “only to live like a human being.”

Asked where he hoped he would end up, he responded: “Any secure country.”

Abdul Bari is sponsoring a friend who is trying to make his way through the refugee process, though he was circumspect when asked if he was yearning for more Syrians to join him.

“The two families so far in Utah are good families. If you can find good families, you can bring more,” he said. “If you don’t find good families, don’t bring any more.”

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