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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on May 11th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 10

A new home: Syrian natives speak on war, religion, and starting fresh in Santa Maria

By BRENNA SWANSTON

On a clear April morning in Santa Maria, Samir Fadel sat with his brother Tony and uncle Yaser Antoun Shleel in the back office of their family-owned liquor store on S. Blosser Road. The men were mostly working, clacking away at keyboards and calculators, but they took breaks now and then when people popped into their office to laugh with them and chat in the Arabic dialect native to their home in Syria.

The Fadels and their extended family make up much of Santa Maria’s Syrian community—a small group, but active in the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in Santa Maria and owners of several Central Coast businesses, including Hapy Bistro in Pismo Beach, Santa Ynez Cafe in Solvang, and Sr. Taco in Santa Maria. When their friends and relatives from back home decide on a move to the United States, the Fadels take it upon themselves to make it happen.


SYRIA TO SANTA MARIA
(Pictured, clockwise from center back: Samir Fadel, Anower Ibraham, Amer Fadel, Yaser Antone, and Adbo Shahada.) A group of Syrian immigrants own local businesses, attend church, and help other immigrants from their country of origin make a home on the Central Coast.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Samir estimated he and his brothers have helped at least 25 families emigrate from Syria, often putting them to work at one of the family businesses to start off with, though most of them eventually move on to start their own lives elsewhere.

According to Samir, Tony’s the one with the “famous name” in the Syrian community. When people are looking to come to the Central Coast from Syria, Samir said, Tony’s always the guy they hear about.

“They get here, they talk to Tony, and we all help them out,” Samir told the Sun. “We can’t say no. We’ve got to help them out, because they do need the help. They have no other places to go. We are obligated, because we’ve been helped before when we came here, and I think we have to give it back.”

Shleel was the one who helped Samir and Tony when they first came to the United States in 1998, along with their parents, brother, and two sisters. Samir was 14 years old at the time—his father, who’d left their home city of Homs about a decade earlier, brought the rest of the family to Los Angeles, where they lived in North Hollywood for five years before moving to Santa Maria.

“Since we’ve been here, this became our hometown,” Samir said. “We know everyone.”

And they try to return the favor. When Syrians contact Tony asking for help relocating to the United States, the Fadels pitch in to arrange housing and work and help them with their legal documentation.

“We help them out in the beginning until they get to know the country,” Samir said. “And then they go on their own after that. Some of them stick around and work with us, and some of them move forward.”

He added that he likes to see the people he helps move on from here: “I’m happy they’re doing well.”

Gifts from a saint

Back in Syria, Samir and his family were part of the country’s minority Christian population. Saba Soomekh, who earned her Ph.D. in history of religion from UC Santa Barbara and works as the associate director of research at UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, said about 14 percent of Syrians identify as Christian, and the vast majority of them are Orthodox.


HAVEN OF FAITH
A vast majority of Christians in Syria practice Orthodoxy, according to religious history expert Saba Soomekh.
PHOTO BY BRENNA SWANSTON

The Fadels have practiced Christian Orthodoxy their whole lives, Samir said, though they’ve only been involved with Santa Maria’s Orthodox parish for about two years.

Father Lawrence Russell, pastor at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, said he clearly remembers the day his Syrian congregants arrived at the church’s doorstep. It was Feb. 27, 2015—the anniversary of the death of Saint Raphael Hawaweeny, the first Orthodox bishop consecrated on American soil.

Hawaweeny also hailed from Syria, escaping to the United States in 1895 during a “civil persecution” of Orthodox Christians by the Muslim population in Syria, Russell said. So when local Orthodox Syrians introduced themselves to Russell on Hawaweeny’s feast day, the priest noticed the significance.

“I told them, I said your countryman is looking out for you from heaven,” Russell said. He added that he thinks of his Syrian congregants as “a gift from St. Raphael on his own feast day, and a kind of connection to this long history of Syrian Orthodox Christians in America.”

Now, about 25 of the church’s 125 regular attendees are from Syria, Russell said, and the community has worked to welcome them as part of the parish family. The church provides side-by-side Arabic and English translations of literature for its main service, and it’s started English classes conducted by an Arabic studies graduate from UCLA, since half of the Syrians in the congregation speak “little to no English,” Russell said.

“We’ve tried to make this place an accepting haven of faith for them,” he said. “Given the crisis in Syria and the difficulties, we’ve just tried to provide a welcoming spiritual home.”

And according to Russell, the Syrian church members have returned the favor. Samir, for example, consistently offers to drive Russell when work requires him to travel, though for Samir it means dropping his business responsibilities to do so.

“If you ask them for a dime, you’ll get 100 dollars,” Russell said of people in the Syrian culture. “They’ll go above and beyond in their generosity. They’re extremely generous, kind-hearted, family-oriented, close-knit people.”

War-torn reality

Russell said most of Santa Maria’s Christian Syrian community arrived to the United States before the current Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, when a series of democratic uprisings—now known as the Arab Spring—rose up across the Middle East, including in Syria. According to UCLA’s Soomekh, the rebel uprisings pushing for democracy in Syria were met with violence and torture from the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his government.


WELCOMED
(Pictured, left to right: Fayad Khouri, Issa Droubi, Bahr Droubi, Lawrence Russell, Dima Khouri, and Valeria Khouri) Syrian natives make up about a fifth of the congregation at Santa Maria’s Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, according to Father Russell.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

The conflict eventually developed into an all-out war, with the United States backing the moderate rebel groups, and Russia, Iran, and Turkey supporting Assad. ISIS is also involved, fighting against other rebels and meeting little resistance from Assad. According to the United Nations, about 400,000 Syrians have died in the conflict, and the Syria Regional Refugee Response estimates more than 5 million registered refugees have fled the country in search of asylum.

Samir described his home country’s current state of violence as “not human.”

“I don’t call it human,” he said. “It’s so much evil.”

The U.S. refugee program has come into the spotlight in recent months, with two attempts by President Donald Trump to put it on hiatus.

In January, Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries (including Syria) and an indefinite suspension of the refugee program.

He said at the time that a temporary ban on refugees and immigrants from certain countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism was necessary in order to establish a new screening process for people coming to the United States from those places.

“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” Trump said at a January press conference. “We don’t want them here. We want to make sure we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.”

After a federal judge blocked the first draft of Trump’s refugee and immigrant ban, he came back with a revised executive order, barring immigrants from only six of the previously mentioned seven countries and pausing the refugee program for 120 days—but it was also blocked, by another federal judge.

Still, the debate on the refugee program’s safety continues nationwide, including on the Central Coast. Dozens gathered in the plaza in front of Mission San Luis Obispo on Thursday, April 17, for a Syrian refugee vigil, where Syrian residents of SLO County spoke out alongside Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) against Trump’s attempts to suspend the refugee program.


ST. RAPHAEL
The church’s Syrian congregants arrived at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation’s doorstep on the feast day of Saint Raphael Hawaweeny (painting pictured), who immigrated to the United States from Syria and was the first Orthodox bishop consecrated on American soil.
PHOTO BY BRENNA SWANSTON

SLO County residents Riman Alfadel and Mirna Yacoub, both originally from Syria, described how their home country has changed in the past six years of war. Yacoub said that when she grew up in Syria, most people there enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle with access to health care, education, and religious expression. But when she returned for a visit in 2014, she found a different country.

“People were living in great fear,” Yacoub said at the vigil. “Stealing, kidnapping, and killing become a part of Syria’s daily life, regardless of which area you live in.”

She expressed particular regret that Syrian children aren’t receiving the education they deserve—a concern Alfadel shared.

“We need to open our hearts,” Alfadel said. “We need to open our doors to families and children who have lost everything—lost their loved ones, their home, their homeland, and most importantly, they lost their dignity and pride.”

At the vigil, Carbajal condemned last month’s U.S. military attack against a Syrian airbase, telling the Sun in an interview following the event that Trump should not engage in further military action in Syria without a “clear and transparent strategy.”

“It is hypocritical and callous to use military force to intervene in Syria while simultaneously turning our backs on the millions of refugees resulting from this war,” Carbajal said. “We must always exhaust diplomacy before resorting to war.”

Debating refuge

Father Russell said he has written two character references in support of his Syrian congregants’ friends and family members seeking asylum in the United States, adding that he thinks the United States should try to preserve an attitude of openness.

“I don’t think a person should be judged by their ethnic affiliation,” Russell said of the Syrian refugee debate. “Naturally, people want to be conscious of the dangers in the world, but I think we should hold on to our American values and not capitulate to fear.”

But not everyone opposes Trump on the refugee issue—in fact, Samir and Shleel said they support the president’s stance.

“It’s good to close your door and see who’s in,” Samir said of Trump’s proposed refugee program suspension. “You have to clean house first before you keep receiving people. It’s hard. It’s really a mess out there.”

Samir and Shleel both expressed a wariness of Muslim Syrians in particular, with Shleel claiming, “They’ve been indoctrinated for hatred.” Samir added that as members of a small minority, Christians in Syria experience intense persecution.

“It’s brutal what’s happening to a lot of Christians in Syria,” Samir said. “In some areas, you can’t even mention that you are Christian, because you’re gone. You can’t even go there. You can’t go to certain cities. They’re just trying to get rid of Christianity from Syria.”

Soomekh said she couldn’t necessarily agree with Samir and Shleel on that point.

“I think if anything, Muslims are being persecuted the most,” she said. “But that’s not to say Christian churches aren’t being harmed by what’s going on there.”


VIGIL FOR SYRIA
Dozens gathered at the mission in San Luis Obispo on April 13 in tribute of the more than 5 million refugees who have fled Syria since civil war broke out there in 2011.
PHOTO BY BRENNA SWANSTON

She added that many Syrians who grew up in Christian areas see Christianity as the victimized underdog, since Christians comprise such a small fraction of the country’s population. That perception stems from a fear of who might replace Assad if he was ousted, Soomekh said, since his government is relatively secular and has historically allowed most Christians to practice their religion in peace.

“Their fear was anything that’s going to be worse than him is going to be ISIS or an Islamist,” she said. “They don’t know which is going to be worse. This is basically a gray area for Christians.”

Soomekh added that Assad’s regime targets Syria’s Christian residents specifically, attempting to convince them that they’re better off with Assad than with a potentially more extremist leader. The Syrian president can push his propaganda most effectively in densely Christian areas, Soomekh said.

This could explain Shleel’s position that the April 4 chemical attack that killed approximately 80 people in Syria—presumably at the hands of Assad—was actually staged by rebels.

“These kinds of secular dictators created a situation for decades where people needed them, or else the country would fall apart,” Soomekh said, pointing out that in the past, the alternative to the regime was the radical Muslim Brotherhood. “[The regime] can push that agenda, like, ‘This is why you need me in there.’”

Despite Samir’s opinion that it might be better to temporarily halt the influx of Syrian immigrants, he said he and his family would help anyone who came to them for aid.

“I’m open to helping whoever needs help, but at the same time, who I’m helping—is he going to be beneficial, or will he damage?” Samir said. “We honestly should know that. Because to me, this is my country now, and I don’t want it to be the way back home, Syria is.”

Samir remembered his father’s advice to him and his siblings: To hold Syria in their hearts, but make a new home in the United States.

“When we got here, it was a little hard for us,” Samir said. “We got through it. He said this is our country now. We still love Syria and we care for Syria, but this is where we think of our future. Plant your roots, and go on here.”

Contact Staff Writer Brenna Swanston at bswanston@santamariasun.com.




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