PHOTO BY PAULA MULLER
From left, Renee Keaney, Ann Cohen and Deborah Cherry, all from Marblehead, listen as Amira Elamri, a Syrian refugee who lives in Watertown, talks about her life at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead on Sunday.
By GAYLA CAWLEY
MARBLEHEAD — As the legal battle continues over President Donald Trump’s executive order that would temporarily ban all refugees and travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, a Syrian mother shared her own refugee story at Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead on Sunday.
The talk, which took place in front of about 150 people, was billed as “the human side of a complex issue,” by organizers of the Meeting House Speaker Series. Amira Elamri described conditions in Syria, which went from a peaceful home for her and her family, to a war-torn country almost instantaneously, and her family’s escape from Damascus three years ago.
Recently, a federal judge blocked Trump’s travel ban, which includes Syria, and his administration’s appeal of the decision was denied.
Elamri, 32, said before the war her family lived in a very quiet and peaceful way in Syria. She said there was no problem at all, as Syria was a mixture of Christian and Islam. People lived in harmony.
“Just a day, a single day flipped all of that upside down,” Elamri said. “Nobody knew that was coming and that’s why, do not take anything for granted. And always be grateful for everything you have. I took it for granted. And I thought that what I had would remain mine forever. But I was wrong. In 2011, when the war started, me and my family, and most Syrians lost everything. My personal family lost their main source of income. We got stuck in our house in (a) Damascus suburb for several days.”
She said her kids saw fire under the bedroom window. Her family heard bombs and explosions and could begin to differentiate just by the sound what weapon was being used. At some point, she said they couldn’t reach their house, because the highway wasn’t safe to drive. They began spending nights at hotels in downtown Damascus away from their home, Elamri said.
“Our neighbors got killed,” Elamri said. “Later on, we got the news that our dream house was vandalized. I felt angry, heartbroken and devastated.”
From there, the family moved into a studio apartment in downtown Damascus, where Elamri and her kids slept on the same bed. Her husband, Bassel Aldehneh, slept in the living room on the sofa. The view was great on the 15th floor, she said, but there was no electricity, so no elevator service in Damascus. So, she and her two kids had to go up and down the stairs every day with heavy school bags. They also had no water, because it couldn’t go up to the 15th floor without a pump.
Elamri said she had to keep a schedule for when the family could do laundry, shower and cook. In winter, they had to wear coats inside the apartment, because there was no heat.
In 2013, Elamri said the family got a U.S. visa, but didn’t want to use it. They received threats in Syria, and decided to move to Lebanon, where they opened a business.
“But also, threats kept coming and we decided to take the chance and use the U.S. visa,” Elamri said. “In 2014, we came to Watertown looking for a safer place for our kids. We applied for asylum.”
She and her husband were able to get their work permits. They went from arriving in the country with only their clothes to achieving much afterward. Elamri said she works as an inclusion aide in public schools, while her husband is a travel agent. Her kids, now 7 and 11, are happy, safe and have lots of friends.
“We couldn’t have done anything without the people that we met,” Elamri said. “They offered us help, resources, respect, and that’s how all communities should be showing, welcoming the newcomers.”
Her family is lucky, Elamri said, but millions are still suffering inside Syria, in Damascus suburbs and in camps.
“All they need is a shelter and a safe place,” she said. “We cannot turn our backs because they cannot do it on their own. Should the U.S. stop receiving refugees because ISIS is getting in with Syrian refugees, that’s not true. Because, first Syrians are fleeing ISIS themselves and the person who connects ISIS with Muslim, this is not OK, because ISIS are barbaric and Islam is a peaceful religion. If ISIS claims they are Muslim, believe me, they are not, because what they’re doing is not what Islam is. They do not represent Islam.”
Elamri said despite efforts to improve vetting by the Trump administration, people who come to the U.S. already experience an extreme vetting process that could take up to two years. When they arrive, she said, Syrian refugees don’t live on taxpayer dollars or welfare. They receive a few hundred dollars from the government for housing and furniture, and small monthly payments, which stop after six months.,
Typically, only the financially well-off Syrian refugees are able to come to the U.S., with the less fortunate living in camps. So, Elamri said the Syrian refugees in America are usually highly educated and positively contributing to society.
“Syrians left Syria because they wanted a safer and better place for their kids,” Elamri said. “Don’t you think they deserve a chance to survive? I think I will survive and I will keep fighting for them and for everybody. Let’s not let this crisis divide us, instead unite us.”
Before her lecture, Elamri dealt with a disturbance from a woman outside the church, who criticized her for wearing a hijab, a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women. She said it was the first time that had happened to her in Massachusetts, and said the interaction was most likely due to ignorance, or a lack of knowledge about the Muslim religion.
“The hijab is not about being oppressed,” Elamri said. “It’s a choice.”
Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley