First resettled Syrian refugee family in US faces challenges

AP News
Posted: Jun 13, 2016 7:09 PM
First resettled Syrian refugee family in US faces challenges

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Syrian man whose family was the first to be resettled in the U.S. as part of the new U.S. "surge" refugee program has faced several challenges since arriving in Kansas City — from trying to learn English to having all his teeth removed.

But on Monday he wanted to express his sorrow over the nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida.

Ahmad Alabood, a 45-year-old former construction worker from Homs, Syria, spoke through an interpreter at a news conference at a school operated by Della Lamb Community Center. The center has been handling the family's resettlement since they arrived in April from Jordan, where they lived in a refugee camp after fleeing Syria's civil war three years ago.

"He heard about it, and he says we are so sorry this happened from somebody like that. Islam is not like that," Alabood's interpreter, Fariz Turkmani, said of the Orlando shootings.

"This is not Islam. And he feels for the families that lost loved ones or have injured people."

Alabood said he has concerns about potential backlash against Muslims after the Orlando shootings, which left 49 people and the shooter dead and scores more injured. The gunman was identified as Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old U.S.-born Muslim.

"It's so sad when somebody like that kills people, and he thinks he's going to go to heaven," Alabood said.

Alabood, his wife and their five children arrived in Kansas City, the first Syrians to be resettled in the U.S. under the Obama administration's surge program designed to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by Sept. 30. The family was among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled their nation's civil war, which sparked a humanitarian crisis as they began pouring into Europe and the Middle East last year.

Whether the surge target will be met is unclear. From last October through June 8, there were 3,887 Syrian refugees resettled in the U.S., according to State Department data.

Alabood said a couple of his children, who range in age from about 1 to 12, have had health problems, including the baby, who had elevated lead levels in his blood and a 5-year-old with a heart ailment. He said both concerns have been addressed.

He said he's been working on his English since dealing with own health problems, including having all his teeth removed because they had gone bad and talking to doctors about shrapnel in his head and legs from a bomb blast in Homs a few years ago.

Alabood attends English classes given by Della Lamb four days a week. On Monday, he sat in the back row in a polo shirt, jeans and flip flops, intently listening and quietly participating.

His two older children are also enrolled in Della Lamb's charter school, where they have an interpreter. The younger children are picking up English quickly, thanks in part to cartoons, and will attend school in the fall, he said. He said his wife stays home with their baby.

Alabood said through the interpreter that he had warm feelings toward the U.S. before he arrived and "whatever thoughts he had about America before he believes in them even more."

Alabood has not yet started a job, said Judy Akers, Della Lamb's executive director. She said the first priorities have been tackling the family's health issues and learning English. Alabood is expected to be employed within the next several months, she said.

Della Lamb is also expecting to be assigned the resettlement of Alabood's brother, who is now in Jordan, but it's unclear when he and his two children will arrive, Akers said.

Alabood said he tells his brother it will be challenging in the U.S.

"He always tells him, you know, don't think that you're going on vacation when you come here. You are starting all over from zero, with the language, with everything," the interpreter said for Alabood.