San Diego Groups Bridge Divides By Breaking Bread With Syrian Refugees
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Thanksgiving is a celebration of different cultures dining together in gratitude. Some San Diegans are following that tradition by welcoming Syrian refugees with a hearty meal.
When you enter the City Heights home of the Assad family, you’re greeted with Turkish coffee. You’re invited to sit on the floor-level couch and snack on treats from a serving tray. Husband and father, Yahya Assad, tells stories and jokes while their three children listen.
The family from Syria resettled in San Diego after escaping to Jordan to flee the country’s civil war. The exchange of food is a sign of friendship and respect in his country’s culture, Assad explained through a translator. It had been a long time since he was able to engage in the custom and felt part of a community, until he arrived in San Diego.
Friend Lina Abi-Samra said when the family landed in neighboring Jordan, they felt like strangers. Assad told her he worked to afford a place and avoid the harsh conditions of a refugee camp but didn’t connect with the community, located just more than an hour away from his Damascus home.
"He had told us before that he had been in Jordan for two-and-a-half years, nobody had invited them to their home," Abi-Samra said.
Here in San Diego, thousands of miles away from the Middle East, Assad said he feels welcomed.
"I feel I’m a human being now," Assad said in Arabic to Abi-Samra. "Before, I felt like there was no dignity. I didn’t feel like a human being. I felt like nothing and now I feel like I have some value as a human being."
Part of that is because of people like Mike Glanz. He’s the chief executive officer of HireAHelper, a company that finds someone to help you move. It bussed the family of five and other Syrian refugees on Tuesday evening to his Oceanside offices for a Thanksgiving potluck.
"(By) just (hanging) out with them, (eating) with them and (playing) with their kids, then we can do our little part to helping bring them into our culture and welcome them," Glanz said.
Another group, Heart4Refugees, a local branch of the Syrian Community Network, raised money to buy Thanksgiving turkeys and trimmings for Syrian families. The organization arranged for San Diegans to deliver the meals on Wednesday, giving locals and refugees a chance to meet.
David Lubell, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Welcoming America, said actions like these are key to helping newcomers feel comfortable. The Atlanta-based organization encourages communities to become more inclusive and has a partnership with the White House.
"It breaks the tension that might exist when people don't know each other, because everybody understands food," Lubell said in a Skype interview.
HireAHelper's Glanz said breaking that tension is particularly important right now. San Diego County has welcomed hundreds of Syrian refugees out of 10,000 allowed in the country this past federal fiscal year, but President-elect Donald Trump and other Republicans have previously called for a ban. Although the future Commander-in-Chief has softened his tone since winning the election.
“There’s just a lot of fear in the country right now on what's going to happen to them, you know, if the borders are going to get shut," Glanz said. "And we felt like in general if we could just help open people’s eyes to these are real people who have been through a tremendously traumatic experience."
The Assad family (no relation to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said translator Abi-Samra) said it is grateful for that chance after what it endured in Syria. Assad said the family’s home was shelled and possibly gassed before he was detained for about a year.
"When after a year, I was released, my daughter, when I saw my daughter she ran away from me. She did not recognize me. I was so unrecognizable with all the torture and beatings I had received," Assad said in Arabic.
Now safely in San Diego, the children are enrolled in school and Assad is searching for a job — although it’s tough without a car — and they've made connections through the custom of sharing meals. Friends are encouraging wife and mother Mahira Assad to turn her culinary skills into a business.
At HireAHelper’s potluck, the family’s circle of friends continued to grow. Through translators, they talked, laughed, dined and engaged in their host’s traditions. Just before the meal, a pastor recited a Christian prayer. Yahya Assad, a Muslim, rose to his feet and bowed his head.
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