Ahmad Alabood, the wounded Syrian refugee in Kansas City, wants to talk to us.
In the grocery store. On the Metro bus. At the park.
The man whose family became the first Syrians to come into the U.S. under President Barack Obama’s pledge to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees is hard-bent on learning English.
“I’m a person who loves to talk to people,” he said Monday, speaking in Arabic to an interpreter. “I’m trying.”
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People who had been scared for him and his fragile family have shed tears to see what has happened with him and the community around him.
In a nation bearing the heavy weight of terrorism and hate, the Alaboods’ caretakers at Della Lamb Community Services worried the family’s many medical ills would overwhelm their resources and that outside help would run scarce.
But within days after the family arrived in early April, the exact opposite was happening, said Abdul Bakar, head of refugee resettlement at Della Lamb, and Sofia Khan, an organizer of volunteers whom Bakar had called for reassurance before accepting the chance to host the Alaboods.
Throughout Kansas City, people were wanting to help Alabood, 47, a grateful ambassador for so many families fleeing terror around the world. They wanted to help him and his wife and their five children — daughters ages 12 and 8, their 5-year-old boy-and-girl twins and their 1-year-old son.
Emotions overtook Bakar and Khan. During the Muslim evening prayer — Bakar at his mosque and Khan in her home — each cried as they knelt with their heads bent to the carpet at the end of that first, exhausting week.
“I was in tears,” said Khan, “…overwhelmed, overjoyed by the response.”
“Tears of joy,” said Bakar. “I can’t say exactly where they came from. But it was the relief of fear.”
The wave of interest toward all refugees has prompted Khan to create KC for Refugees, a volunteer organization formally organizing this week to help channel the increased community aid toward resettlement agencies.
While she prayed, Khan said, she also prayed for wisdom to find ways to keep this swell of generosity toward refugees growing.
The Alaboods “brought the whole city together on a platform to help refugees,” she said. “The coalition for refugees is as diverse as the city itself.”
Kansas City for many years has been welcoming refugees from around the world through service agencies including Jewish Vocational Services and Catholic Charities. Rising fear of terrorism has intensified demands that the U.S. more vigorously screen the refugees seeking shelter in America or even block refugees completely.
The agencies occasionally receive angry reactions to their work. But by large measure the attention that outbreaks of terror bring to the refugees who are trying to flee that same terror increases the help the agencies receive, officials with the agencies said.
Terrorists from Syria were tied to the attacks on Paris last fall, but many people were moved by the plight of some 4.5 million Syrian refugees who have been trying to flee Syria’s civil war — with an estimated 6.5 million more displaced in Syria.
“Our phones were ringing,” said Hilary Cohen Singer, the executive director at Jewish Vocational Services. “People were asking, ‘Is there any way we can help?’ ”
The interest in one country’s distress opens eyes to the traumatic lives of refugees from other countries, “whose challenges are the same, and whose strengths are the same,” Cohen Singer said.
At Della Lamb’s English class Monday, Alabood shared the classroom with Haitian refugees Latanie Lero, Chalinette Edouard and Clairmina Bonhomme; with Krishna Dahal, who fled Bhutan; and Afrah Guma, a refugee from Sudan — each one able to tell tales of terror and courage.
All of them are beginning English learners, who on this day were reciting the days of the week, then rehearsing the messages in warning signs and traffic signs.
“No left turn,” they repeated after the teacher, Rocio Ramsey, as she pointed to a picture of the left-bent arrow behind the red circle and slash line. Soon the sign that appeared on the screen was the image of a cigarette behind the red-slash circle.
“Uh, oh, Ahmad,” Ramsey said, knowing about Alabood’s smoking history. “See that sign?”
Truth is, amid everything else Alabood is going through — having shrapnel removed from his face and body, his nose realigned and teeth extracted — he has marked the Islamic holy days of Ramadan by quitting smoking, cold turkey.
He’s trying to do it for his children, for his family and for himself, said his interpreter, Fariz Turkmani, a limousine service owner who has been helping the family find its way through Kansas City.
Help has come from doctors and dentists volunteering their services for the family, assisting not just Alabood with his medical ills, but dental work for the whole family and a critical follow-up check for his 5-year-old son who is recovering from emergency heart surgery while the family were refugees in Jordan.
The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement allocates $2,025 per person to resettlement agencies to support the needs of refugees for 90 days. Securing housing, rent, groceries, clothing and education and employment assistance are enough to exhaust those costs long before they could pay major medical bills.
Everything he is doing, from quitting smoking to learning English, as well as the steaming batch of fresh Syrian tea his wife prepares for every generous visitor in their home, repays a debt.
These are the kinds of things he’d like to be able to tell us someday, simply, without the need for an interpreter, he said.
He believed before he came that “America is a great country” and that “the people are super nice,” he said through his interpreter. “I believe in them even more now.”
His younger brother and his family of four children, who remain refugees in Jordan, have been approved to be resettled and will be following Alabood’s family to Kansas City, hopefully soon.
They too will be “starting from zero,” he said. He has warned his brother that it will be “no vacation,” harder than he thinks, but that there will be “wonderful people” to care for him.
Right now, he’d been away too long from his classmates who were wading on into that confounding English language. With a smile he was off, back to class.