That instrument there?
He carried it all the way from Turkey, Abdul Kader Alo says, after he and his family fled Syria.
He reaches for it. The tired, 45-year-old father of three children, two of whom are severely disabled, lifts the seven-stringed instrument from its stand by its long, slender neck.
When Kansas City feels strange and lonely, he plays.
Beautiful wood bowled like a melon rests on his lap. His hands go to work, the left fingers up and down the frets, the right fingers picking the strings.
“It’s a bouzouki,” he says in Arabic, speaking through an interpreter.
A Kurdish song warms the room, a Middle Eastern wail, mournful in its delicacy. Something soothing for when he fears what lies ahead.
“When I’m feeling down…,” he says.
Nineteen rescued Syrian families, including the Alos, now live in Kansas City since President Barack Obama made a controversial commitment last spring to bring in 10,000 of the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Syria’s terrible civil war.
Alo’s interpreter, 59-year-old Syrian American Fariz Turkmani, knows all 19 families. He keeps a chart, listing new names as they come, how many are male and female, the number of children, the number under age 10.
His chart helps him and others lead complicated community efforts to comfort the families.
He knows they are relieved to have been chosen to come here from among the 65 million people throughout the world uprooted by violence or persecution.
But he’s also learning their fears and difficulties in their new homes, most of them placed by their sponsoring agencies in Kansas City’s Northeast neighborhood. The life-threatening fears in Syria give way now to the fresh anxieties of learning a new language, settling into strange neighborhoods and finding jobs, while fearing for family left behind.
“They suffered in Syria,” Turkmani says. “And they suffered for leaving Syria.”
Sometimes 20-year-old Jalan Alo sings to the music of her father’s bouzouki.
Her younger siblings, 18-year-old Ahmad and 6-year-old Semaf, are living with a debilitating illness, Sanjad-Sakati syndrome. They have medical needs that propelled the family through the United Nations’ refugee agency screening process for resettlement once they escaped into Turkey more than two years ago.
Jalan Alo is sad for the friends she has lost, she says in Arabic. Social media helps her stay in touch with those who remain surrounded by the terror her family fled.
Some have died, including a cousin, her heart ripped by a sniper’s bullet as she sat in her home.
“I was terrified in Syria,” Jalan Alo says. “Anything might happen at any time.”
When Turkmani returns to his Overland Park home, these 19 families’ stories reverberate in his head like Alo’s stringed music.
His wife, Bothina, 47, is back in Damascus, the Syrian capital, tending to her ill mother. He worries for her and family members traveling with her — the dangerous drive to and from the airport in Beirut, passing though checkpoint after checkpoint.
Turkmani emigrated to the U.S. 37 years ago and hasn’t been back since before the bloody war erupted in spring 2011.
On this day, the Al Jazeera news on his television reports the latest atrocity — a convoy of 31 trucks bringing aid to distressed communities in the western Aleppo Province has been bombed in an air strike, killing at least 20 people.
The families fleeing this violence, however, bring controversy with them on their route into America.
When Obama announced recently that the U.S. will boost its intake of refugees from 85,000 to 110,000 in the coming year, Missouri’s U.S. Rep. Sam Graves immediately announced a bill aimed to cut funding to that plan or any refugee increase.
Missouri took in 340 Syrian refugees among 1,614 total refugees brought into the state this year. Kansas took in 32 Syrian refugees within a total of 758.
Europe, with its shores closest to most fleeing Syrians, has been overwhelmed by several million seeking shelter.
Civil services and national security agencies in Europe have suffered “undue burden” in protecting the receiving nations, Graves said, and “we can’t let the same thing happen here.”
The White House assures that refugees go through a thorough screening process, but some political candidates, starting with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, say refugee and immigration programs can’t adequately block terrorists who might try to infiltrate those ranks.
Most Syrians are Muslims, and Trump wants to block admission to both.
A Trump campaign tweet by Donald Trump Jr. last week displayed a bowl of Skittles. “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?” it read. “That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”
‘Amazed by the welcome’
After just two weeks in the U.S., 7-year-old Ahmad Al-Khatib already recognizes one truly American song.
An ice cream truck goes singing down his Kansas City street and the boy hops to the window to watch it pass.
Yes, he knows, says his father, Mohammad Kamal Al-Khatib, answering with a smile and a nod.
He and his wife, Hanadi Al-Mansour, know about the news that many people fear the process that allowed them into America. But all they’ve seen, they say, is love and generosity from Kansas City.
“I’m amazed by the welcome, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he says in Arabic, with Turkmani translating. “Whoever passes by says hello to you.”
Turkmani was in their house again, this time forwarding a gift of meat someone wanted the family to have in celebration of the recent Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday. They find chairs to offer visitors. It’s about the only living room furniture they have.
“Our religion is of people,” Al-Khatib said. “Loving and caring. Not killing and torture.”
He’s quickly growing uncomfortable with the support he has needed through Kansas City’s Jewish Vocational Services to get his family started anew. He doesn’t like being the “burden” that troubles the Missouri congressman.
He worked in an auto body shop in Syria, painting cars. He’s eager to work here, he says. He wants to learn English. He wants a Missouri driver’s license.
The family had to find a Western escape. The three youngest of their five children live with a blood condition, thalassemia, that requires frequent transfusions.
Blood supplies were going to military use in Syria. And the procedure was too expensive or unavailable in Egypt, where they had fled before being sent to the U.S.
They knew that refugees by hundreds of thousands were massed in Jordan and Turkey. They held faint hopes they would get help. They were overcome with joy in May when the U.N. service called and told them they would be U.S. bound.
Here they are. Meet their children, the parents say. The young women in scarves smile and try out some of their new English words as welcome. The younger boys extend small hands to shake.
Nisrin is 20. She wants to be a doctor. Huda, 19, wants to be a journalist. Hadil, 17, wants to be a pharmacist. Mohammad Amjad, 14, wants to be an engineer and 7-year-old Ahmad a pilot.
“The best thing since we’ve come to the States,” Hanadi Al-Mansour says, with a nod to the visitors inside and then to others out in the community, “is we’ve met all of you.”
It’s going to be hard work ahead giving their children their American start, she says in Arabic. “But my life is for them.”
Reality — if it hasn’t sunk in already — is coming for these new refugees, said Steve Weitkamp, who directs refugee resettlement for Jewish Vocational Services.
You might call it “tough love,” he said.
The road is probably rougher for these families because they represent essentially a first wave of refugees in the area, he said. For the 14 Syrian families that JVS is helping (with one more on the way), there isn’t a community yet of Syrians who have gone through what they’re experiencing, as with so many of the more than 500 other refugees JVS served this year.
Syrian Americans are helping, as are the resettlement services, which generally are allocated $2,000 per refugee by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to help with 90 days worth of expenses, including housing, food and transportation. The services also guide the families through paperwork, getting Social Security cards, English training and employment help.
After that, Weitkamp said, “we’re still here, still working with them, but now you’re tossed in the pond and it’s time to swim.”
The United States, for all its opportunity, can actually be a tougher placement than many receiving nations, he said.
“The safety net is not extensive” as with some nations, he said. America is harder in its expectation for work, he said, and reveals a tolerance for poverty that can look past the person on the corner holding a cardboard sign.
The path to success is longer and more gradual than many realize, he said, and more often is realized by a family’s second generation.
“We offer the first generation peace and security,” he said.
Alo, for some of these same reasons, had hoped his family would be sent to Denmark. There, he heard, “they take care of everything.”
He has back problems and doesn’t know what work might be possible for him. He worked in restaurants in Syria.
His two disabled children will continue receiving federal Social Security disability benefits, but other needs like dental work are going neglected now, he said.
It’s far better than in Syria, where the doctors who could help his children’s severe needs had either fled or been killed, he said.
“If I were to say I’m not worried, I’d be lying to you,” he said. “But God will figure it out.”
That’s why he plays his music, he said. “It puts me at peace.”
Turkmani is hardly alone in trying to fill the gaps in these families’ needs.
Sam Nemeh delivers food and furniture and offers rides. Fadi Banyalmarjeh has taken on the role of driving instructor.
Some of his pupils are closer to driving than others, he said. “With some it’s very scary,” he adds with a laugh.
They and many others are distributing collected clothing, or delivering portable washers and dryers — a big need for families that can’t drive to laundromats.
Abdul Bakar, who heads refugee resettlement for Kansas City’s Della Lamb Community Services, has watched the aid come.
Della Lamb is expecting its fifth Syrian family soon, totaling 22 refugees among the more than 200 it is serving overall.
“They are being taken to dinner,” he said. “They are being welcomed into churches.”
Della Lamb in April happened to be in line to receive the Alabood family, the first to arrive nationwide in Obama’s push to bring in 10,000 more refugees.
The father, Ahmad Alabood, has a job now at the Sahara Cafe, Bakar said. He’s learning English and learning to drive, and he’s recovering from surgeries to remove shrapnel from the bomb that finally drove him and his family out.
None of this is easy, he said, “learning American culture in 90 days.”
But Kansas City doesn’t have to be so unfamiliar-feeling. This is why, for the Eid al-Adha holiday prayers, Turkmani rolled out a 25-passenger bus from his limousine company and circulated through Kansas City’s Northeast area, picking up many refugee families and taking them to the Kansas City area’s giant service to celebrate the Muslim holy day.
It was at the Ritz Charles hotel in Overland Park. There they stepped off the bus into a Muslim crowd that would number more than 10,000 over the course of three services that morning.
Families from across the area, some in fabulous and gilded attire, smiled for pictures outside in the sunshine.
Simple clothes were just as welcome, and that’s what the most of the refugees wore, just happy to be there.
In Syria, “the whole country celebrates,” Al-Khatib said in Arabic. “Friends and family all around.”
But this is Kansas City. This is home now. And he knows the prayers are welcomed here.
“It was wonderful to be a part of it.”