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Among The Lucky Few: Syrian Family Rebuilds In America's Heartland

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Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson is welcoming Syrian refugees to her city and hopes they can add to its already diverse population.

Neatly trimmed lawns divide dozens of identical two-story brick buildings that make up the Kenwood Gardens apartment complex in Toledo, Ohio. The people who live here are college students, blue-collar workers and — as of recently — refugees from Syria's civil war.

It's where Omar Al-Awad and his family are settling into their new life in America. On a recent morning, the apartment is already bustling: a tea kettle is on the stove, and Omar's wife, Hiyam, is helping their three children review what they learned in their first day of American school.

"I feel very happy, very excited and at peace inside," says Omar. "I was overjoyed today."

Awad is a carpenter from the Syrian city of Homs. The war destroyed his house and business. His family spent two years at a refugee camp in Jordan.

"There was no future in Jordan. None whatsoever," he says.

Finally the U.S. approved the family's medical exams, security checks and piles of other paperwork; they arrived in Toledo in September.

Fewer than 2,000 Syrians have come to the U.S., though the war has displaced more than 12 million since it began in 2011. The refugees in America are scattered widely across more than 20 different states. So far, eight families have come to Toledo. The Awad family is the newest.

A group called Water for Ishmael offers free language lessons for new arrivals and day care for the younger kids at a small local church. As the children head off to a classroom, Omar begins the long road to learning English. Omar and his family will come here a few times a week.

Janelle Metzger, the group's executive director, says the real challenge for them is building the capacity to take in all the new arrivals.

Two years ago, she says, there were no Syrian refugees in the group's program. But even then, it was already quite full, serving the immigrant population at the time.

"So to add 36 people in one year — and they're talking about maybe double that next year — that's a huge influx for us to figure out how to serve," Metzger says.

Language training is just one small piece of this resettlement puzzle. A network of volunteers helps provide everything these new refugees need to get started.

On the outskirts of Toledo, a bunch of white-haired Midwesterners are unloading mattresses from a moving van into a warehouse full of used furniture; they call themselves the "free loaders." They collect furniture donations and distribute them to people in need. They gave the Awad family a kitchen table, chairs, beds, a sofa.

"We greet them with a warm smile. That's a universal language," says Keith Webb, one of the organizers of the Epworth Furniture Ministry.

"It helps them in part of their transition, provides a mechanism for them to feel that it's their home," he says. "At the end of the day, they have a place to come home."

All of these men are retirees or people with day jobs: After Webb finishes unloading this furniture, he'll go back to his day job as an engineer.

One woman in Toledo ties all these threads — English lessons, housing, furniture — together: Corine Dehabey, coordinator of Us Together.

On a recent day, her station wagon is overflowing with donations: food, furniture, car seats, pillows, toys.

Dehabey is the only paid staffer at her organization; everyone else is a volunteer. She's constantly being pulled in 12 directions. Her phone rings nonstop. She met the Awads at the airport and she drives them to English lessons. She does this for all the Syrian refugees in Toledo.

Dehabey grew up in the U.S., and her family is Syrian.

"It's not easy to watch on TV and see your own people getting slaughtered," she says. "As a Syrian, I feel like because I'm here, and all the problem in Syria, I can't do anything from here to help my people there, at least I can help when I'm here."

Last month, President Obama announced that the U.S. will increase the number of Syrian refugees it takes in to 10,000 over the coming year. By comparison, 20,000 migrants arrived in Munich, Germany, in a single weekend recently.

Dehabey's organization is petitioning the U.S. to take in 100,000 Syrians.

Her group is funded by an organization called HIAS — which used to stand for "Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society," because it was founded to resettle Jews fleeing persecution more than a century ago.

"That's real humanity. ... You want to help everybody, you put religion on the side. That's it, we're human before religion was formed," Dehabey says about this historically Jewish group taking mostly donations from Christian churches to help mostly Muslim immigrants. "So that's what makes the United States unique because everybody comes together to help this person."

Some of the refugees who come from Syria supported the government of Bashar Assad. Others supported the rebels in the civil war. Dehabey's organization doesn't ask questions; it helps everyone.

In some cities around the U.S., locals have pushed back against the idea of Syrian resettlement. They fear that people like the Awad family could be terrorists trying to infiltrate the country.

Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz echoed that sentiment at a campaign rally in neighboring Michigan this month.

"It would be the height of foolishness to bring in tens of thousands of people including jihadists that are coming here, to murder innocent Americans," Cruz said in Kalamazoo.

Toledo has a long history of immigrants from the Middle East, and the concern here is more nuanced.

Local Sharon Ostrowski says it doesn't bother her that immigrants are coming to live in her town, but she is bothered by what she perceives as pressure to change the way she lives to suit those people.

"We shouldn't have to give up our things we like. If they're coming here, they need to adapt to our way. We can't have Nativity scenes, I mean all this stuff. They get offended," Ostrowski says. "Well then what are you in our country for?"

Other people complain that Americans' tax dollars shouldn't be spent resettling people from Syria.

Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson has no patience for that argument.

"By helping them we're helping everyone. We're a community, and so you don't carve out one individual group from another individual group," she says.

Back at the Kenwood Gardens apartment complex, the Awad family is already starting to feel at home — and in more ways than just one.

When the Awads arrived in Toledo, they discovered something incredible: A family they'd been friends with in Homs, a family that was in the same refugee camp in Jordan, had arrived in Toledo just three days earlier.

Omar the carpenter talks with Hilal the barber. Their children play together — just as they did in Syria, and in Jordan.

"As long as I have Hilal by my side," Omar Awad says, "I'm fine."

The next family from Syria arrives in Toledo on Wednesday.

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