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When Everything You Care About is Gone 

The journey of Syrian families, from war to Tucson

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Ebtesam Awad was a stay at home mom in Damascus, Syria. She took care of her three children while her husband, Ahmad Alradi, drove a taxi all over Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

He made a good living. They owned two cars and two houses with picture windows, animal-print couches and soft beds. They were friends with all their neighbors and had family living nearby.

They dressed up and went out to fancy dinners. Ebtesam has a photo that's just a few years old. She's radiant in a sky-blue, sequined dress and chic, over-sized sunglasses. That was all before the gunfire started.

The family fled to neighboring Jordan three years ago. And three months ago, they arrived at the Tucson International Airport with a modest stipend, what they could carry from their old life and no English.

Ahmad now has a job at a bakery. He gets up at 4 a.m. and rides his bike the three-and-a-half miles to work. But he can no longer support the family on his own, so Ebtesam is looking for work. Ahmad doesn't see much of a future for himself here, but still they're optimistic. Their children will have a better future.

Arizona welcomed 4,021 refugees in 2015, from 44 different countries of origin. Of them, 981 now call Pima County home. Pima will receive another 1,130 by the end of this year, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

Refugee Resettlement Agencies provide refugees with a one-time, federally-funded stipend meant to cover rent, food, transportation, furnishings and all their needs during their first 30 days in the U.S.

Ebtesam worries all the time, and she's lonely. She has trouble sleeping. She dreams of Syria—before the war.

Her family is scattered. One sister is in Turkey, another's in Jordon. Two are still in Syria, as well as her mother and a brother.

Ebtesam's mother is separated from her daughters by Syria's capital, Damascus, and roads too dangerous to cross. From her house, she can see bombs dropping.

One of the sisters no longer has electricity, and Ebtesam's other brother was killed by a bomb while he was shopping. Her family in Syria is afraid, but leaving is no longer an option.

With a few English words, a few Arabic and some shoddy assistance from Google Translate, Ebtesam explains that she and Ahmad feel lost here. With just enough money to get by and little English, they don't know what to do with themselves except go to work, get the kids to school and go to bed early.

They only go out when Melanie Cooley invites them. She makes them feels safe, Ebtesam says. They adore her.

For Melanie, the feeling is mutual.

A Tucson member of Arizona Welcomes Refugees, she says the love and friendship she receives from newly-arrived refugee families brings so much to her life.

"All of these families that I'm spending time with have been a beautiful model of family and of graciousness and warmth, embracing me into their home and giving me an opportunity to spend time with children and to have a sort of drop-in familiarity that is not very common," she says.

With Syrian civil war and U.S. political rhetoric, rife with fear of the unknown and Islamophobia, Melanie knew, after years of wanting to work with refugees, she couldn't wait any longer.

She found the Arizona Welcomes Refugees Facebook page, started by Arizona State Sen. Steve Farley and was soon meeting incoming refugee families at the airport.

"Our role is really just to be friendly faces," she says. "To have a little bit of a party—a welcome wagon."

In 2016, 85,000 refugees will resettle in the U.S. Of the 19.5 million refugees worldwide, 80 percent of which are women and children, the U.S. accepts less than half of 1 percent.

Refugees pass extensive background checks and medical screenings and are vetted by National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, according to whitehouse.gov.

Most families travel for days, often with small children, Melanie says. The refugee family's resettlement agency meets them at the airport and takes them to their apartment, furnished with the bare necessities.

One Syrian mother Melanie met at the airport asked what to expect of her new home. Once she confirmed the apartment had water, food and beds, she asked if there was coffee. Since then, Melanie always brings coffee with cardamom when welcoming a Syrian family.

"The agencies don't provide that because it's not an essential; it's a cultural essential," she says. "Funny things mean home."

She also brings gifts for the children, like books, Legos and soccer balls.

When Melanie met Noor Alhuda Alnasrallh and Loay Alhelal at the airport, they'd been traveling for three days. Their four young daughters, wearing matching polka-dot dresses, were full of energy.

Noor didn't expect anyone to welcome them, and before they had left the airport, she was inviting Melanie to her new home.

"Noor had never been to her house and yet is offering us hospitality," Melanie says. "It's one of the many indications of the deep hospitality and graciousness of the culture."

In her apartment, 31-year-old Noor sets out Turkish coffee, home-made dolmas, tabouli, romaine lettuce and tomatoes she's cut into roses. She's wearing a plaid shirt tucked into a long pin-skirt with embroidered silver flowers. Her thick hair is held together with a bright yellow clip.

When she arrived with her family two months ago, she was afraid that American society wouldn't accept them. But what she's seen from Melanie and others who welcomed them, is more humane than she could have imagined.

Before the war, her life in Syria was beautiful. She enjoyed spending time with her family in nature, and her husband had a good job, trading cars. She studied fine arts in college, but stopped when her first daughter, Raghad, was born special needs and required full-time care.

After Noor's brother was killed in the Syrian war, she took her family, on foot, into Jordan. There, she spent the worst four years of her life. Loay wasn't allowed to work, so he had to make money under the table.

The children's education was horrible, and the school treated now-10-year-old Raghad poorly. They also didn't have access to medicine she needed.

Noor is optimistic about the future here. She's taking English classes and just moved to level three. Her 9-year-old, Zain, is learning English fast, and the 6-year-old twins, Ward and Leen, are starting to respond to their mom in English.

Loay has work lined up, cleaning at a resort. It may turn into a regular job. At night, they watch TV, look at Facebook and call their family in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Noor says when she saw Melanie at the airport, with her nice smile and kind eyes, she knew things were going to be all right.

Melanie recognizes that people might see the work she's doing as charity, but she doesn't see it that way.

"It's simply a matter of cultivating a friendship—a bilateral friendship," she says.

Being local, Melanie has access to a network that can help these families assimilate: translators, friends with furniture they're getting rid of, knowledge of job openings.

There are many organizations through which people can volunteer, but one way people can help is by giving the refugees jobs.

"Rely on Google Translate for a little bit and give somebody who's willing to work, an opportunity to do a job, whether it's landscaping or working in a kitchen," she says. "That's a really powerful way to help people."

Nineteen-year-old Houda Makansi greats Melanie in English and with a kiss on each cheek.

Houda's mother, Emane Istayfi, comes out of the kitchen carrying a tray of food. She sets down the home-made falafel, tahini sauce, salad, cauliflower she pickled herself and a jar of olives.

She saw the olives falling off trees in her neighborhood then collected and brined them.

Emane misses her garden in Syria. She remembers orange flowers and love birds. It was a good life, she says in Arabic. She had her whole family under her wings, and she lost it in the blink of an eye.

Her mother is still in Syria, alone and scared. Emane's oldest daughter Noor Makansi, 22, is in Jordan. When the U.N. told Emane and her husband, Houssam Makansi, they could relocate to Tucson, the permission did not extend to their married daughter.

Three weeks before they left for America, Noor gave birth to Emane 's first grandchild, Shooq, the Arabic word for "longing."

Only refugees chosen by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, who also meet criteria set by the Secretary of State can come to the U.S. They don't have leverage to bring family members until they become U.S. citizens, according to Refugee Focus, a resettlement agency in Tucson.

The youngest daughter Sara, 14, curls up next to Melanie on the couch. People are kind to them here, Emane says. She thanks God they're here and they're safe, but in her heart, another story remains—the story of watching her grandchild grow up.

It took everything they had to get out of Syria, Houssam says. It took a miracle.

Back in Aleppo, they had a normal life. Houssam drove a taxi, managed an apartment building and sold electronic equipment. Then the war started.

Syrian police arrested him for protesting. They imprisoned him in a cell not fit for animals, he says, and they beat him. For a week, his family didn't know if they would ever see him again—if he was even alive.

But police released him. If it hadn't been so early in the war, they would have killed him, he says.

The airport in Aleppo was closed. Crossing the border on foot was their only option. They paid $2,000 for safe passage by bus, the 300 miles to the Jordon-Syria border.

At the border, they were told to go back. They lied, saying they were just going to a wedding. Houssam gave border officials $1,000 to let them through and to portray affluence rather than desperation. He knew they had to go forward; they could not be turned away.

In Jordan, where they spent two and a half years, they were safe, but destitute.

It was hard in Jordan, Houssam says. There was no one to help them—no one like Melanie. At first there were some organizations that helped, but as over 2 million people fled Syria, the help stopped.

In Jordan, Houssam worked in a bakery, then a mini-market. He barely made enough to get by. They also had to deal with the racism.

The Jordanian people saw the Syrian refugees as a burden, Houda says. The people in her building treated them poorly.

Houda finished high school in Jordan, but college was out of the question. They would never be able to afford it.

Here, Houda was placed back in ninth grade, mainly because of the language barrier. But she's obviously smart. She came to the states with a little English and is quickly advancing in her English classes.

She reads Shakespeare and Dickens. She's interested in politics and dreams of being a journalist. Houda wants to tell people what's happening in the Arab world, she says in Arabic. She came from a place where just being a normal human was paralyzing. She sees the pen as her weapon, her expression.

She wants to tell people how hard it is—how hard it is to lose your home, your family, your childhood, what it's like to wake up one morning and see that everything you care about is gone.

Melanie is delighted to know these families.

"They are really lovely people, and it's been incredibly rewarding to know them," she says. "And I'm heartbroken for why I know them."

Houda's mother says she feels guilty sometimes, safe and comfortable in her new home, when she knows in Syria, people are suffering.

About 1.5 million people remain in Aleppo, the city that five years ago was a culturally and economically important part of Syria. Today, there is little food, water or medical supplies left. Schools and hospitals are bombed. Dead are buried in occupied graves. People no longer replace blown-out windows with glass.

When they were in Syria, surrounded by war, they told each other goodbye when they went to sleep. Now, when she sends her children to bed, Emane tells them goodnight.


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