Friday, October 5, 2012

Refugee Family Arrives in Boston

A few weeks ago, the community here in New England was able to come together and help a newly arrived family from Syria that really needed help of all kinds. The family has three children and the middle one has a very rare disease and had been getting treatment at the local teaching hospital here. The child was misdiagnosed for many years back in Hama and at the American Hospital in Beirut and had reached a very critical point when the doctors were finally able to pinpoint what the diagnosis might be and refer the child to the hospital here in the US. A doctor from here actually personally traveled to Beirut in December 2010 and diagnosed the child and helped the family get medical visas for treatment in the US that were good for three years. A month later the father arrived with the child and eventually ended up staying here for 8 long months while the child was in intensive care, at one point was hovering near death, and eventually turned much better.

The child Fauzia arrived here very ill and was admitted to the hospital about 2 weeks after arrival. The father had not been working for a few years already as he had been taking care of her full time, taking her from Hama to Beirut for treatment of secondary diseases, getting her medications, and getting her checked. The mother had stayed behind to continue her work as a nurse while also taking care of her older child and 6 month old baby. Fauzia was now here and getting stabilized and prepared to receive a bone marrow transplant - from none other than her sibling. The sibling arrived a few months later with the mother and had the procedure done so Fauzia could have a fair chance of survival. All her treatments were  - and are - experimental due to the rarity of her disease. A younger girl in the room next to her had the similar procedures done and actually died shortly after. The parents of Fauzia were there, witnessing the other family's agonies while their own child was still hovering between life and death.

Month of March after the transplant was really tough. The mother had gone back to Hama to work and take care of her baby who had been left there, the older child was in the US going to school in case they needed anything from him and the father was taking care of Fauzia night and day basically. During that month Fauzia became so severely ill that all the doctors basically expected this to be her end. She was moved to a special section of the hospital and the father had to decide on an hourly basis what kind of care he wanted them to provide her as they were ready to take her off life-support. It was three long, long weeks. The father barely ate or slept. He prayed to Allah and had Quran on in her room. Fauzia was deteriorating, but the father trusted Allah and never gave up hope. Fauzia's mother arrived at the hospital again, this time with a heavy heart and little hope. Honestly when she entered Fauzia's hospital room she could hardly breathe until a most wonderful thing happened. Fauzia had not moved or shown signs of recognition for almost three weeks, but upon hearing her mother's voice she literally opened her eyes. The room was full of the gentle voice of the qari and the love of her mother and father. Fauzi slowly began her recovery and was moved out of the  critical care section where most enter, but do not leave with their eyes still open...

Fauzia became stronger and was released from the hospital in the fall and returned with her father to Beirut. They had to stay in Beirut for several months due to her need for a very close follow up care and the fact that doctors were now a rarity in Syria. Spring of 2012 the father and daughter finally returned home to their family in Hama, just needing bi-weekly follow up appointments and a steady flow of medications as Fauzia needs 5 medications daily. For the first month or two the father and daughter were able to easily visit Beirut for medical care, but suddenly things changed. The father and daughter began being interrogated by the Syrian border patrol for hours when needing to cross back and forth. One time the taxi they were in mysteriously lost its way and they were driving in the desert for four hours, at the mercy of the driver. They were so scared.

Shortly after that kidnapping experience, the father continued to be stopped on the street for checks and interrogations. They were now too scared to try to get to Beirut for check ups and were not able to get the needed medication from inside of Syria. Around this time the father once got taken hostage and out in a tank and he said his shahadah and expected to die. Alhamdulilah, he was let free, but now more scared than ever and more desperate than ever to have access to medical care for Fauzia. Their building got bombed and was no longer safe. At this point their family members urged them to take advantage of the time they still had left on their visa and escape from the war zone and sure death for Fauzia with no access to medical care. With help from family and friends, they managed to escape to Beirut, collect a few important papers from the American Hospital, accept gifts to pay for their tickets and finally arrived here in the New England area middle of September. It had been a long journey and they had no clue what was going to happen now, but at least they were not under bombardment and shelling and worse acts and their daughter had a possibility to get medical care and her medications.

Fauzia and her family arrived in New England on a rainy September afternoon. The father and mother were leaving all their faith in Allah and were sure He would not leave them alone. When they arrived in the airport, then the father was thinking what to do, not having met anyone here except for nurses, doctors and families from abroad with sick children themselves (who had gone back with their child or buried their child if the treatment had failed). The father looked around at the taxi drivers waiting in the airport` and saw a man who looked like a Muslim. He approached him and discovered the brother was from Sudan and obviously spoke Arabic (the father does not speak English). It quickly became obvious that this brother is one of the most generous, open and kind-hearted brothers you might meet and a true gift for the family and eventually for all the people in the community who later heard about how this Sudanese brother Abdul went out of his way to help this family whom he now calls his own.

First Abdul drove around a while with the father and got their story, trying to figure out what to do and where to take the family of five with the little one, a child who needed a clean environment and protection from germs and then the brother. He called his wife who has a newborn baby and she immediately invited the family to stay. Said the Syrian refugee family was their family and that they would figure things out inshallah. Abdul and his wife had been married for over a decade and had just a few weeks earlier been blessed with their first child. To them, meeting Fauzia and her family and being able to extend their hands and hearts was a pleasure and a privilege and they were so thankful to Allah for this opportunity. Abdul was a wonderful host and did everything he could to help the family get some help. Abdul had been in this city for around a year; he was new, but knew a bit about refugees and being under-privileged and where to get help or ask for help as many of  his Sudanese friends also had difficult lives. Abdul worked as a taxi driver and he and his wife had always lived in a one bedroom apartment, but due to the wife's delivery and her mother visiting they had moved to a two bedroom apartment in a cheaper neighbourhood to have more space for the few months the mother in law was visiting. That extra space was a blessing now as Fauzia's family moved in and graciously got offered one bedroom.

We met the Syrian family almost three weeks after their arrival. That's the time it took for our Syrian community to understand there was a family here that needed our care and attention. The family never lacked anything and loved Abdul and his family, but they could obviously not stay forever. Another issue was also that due to Fauzia's fragile health, then she needed to be able to be isolated from germs in order to not get sick and the crowded apartment did not provide that extra space. As a matter of fact, the  her younger brother got ill a few days after they arrived and her mother got very worried about her picking up any germs. Incidentally then Abdul had gotten the family a refugee health insurance card right before the boy got sick, so they could take him to the hospital to get checked out without too many issues.

We received a call about the family from a private social service agency that told us about their case, how they had arrived and about their urgent need to find housing despite having no money. We initially met with them at an ICNA Relief office Monday, got their story and went to the hospital to collect letters from doctors testifying about Fauzia's case while making tons of phone calls looking for housing. We had lunch together while we chatted and tried to brainstorm ideas and ways to help them. That Monday afternoon they went back home with Abdul and we went home, working on getting them an apartment and thinking how to help them  with their visa. We initially thought about applying for the Temporary Protective Status even though it had expired, but found that some of its other requirements were also not met. Further then the TPS would possibly not grant them Green Card, so it did not seem worth pursuing that. To reach that conclusion took a few days of thinking and talking to people. We decided to look into having them apply for asylum and Abdul suggested that a medical asylum application might be a good idea. In any case, then the legal situation of the family was not urgent as their visas were still valid, but their living situation was not so good.

We spoke to a few Syrians and spent perhaps 30 hours brainstorming and looking for ways to help. Our best solution to housing wa at first to rent a house that was available until December and then move into another house, that subhanallah was available from December. A brother had offered to pay the whole rent (and other brothers also offered to help chip in). People here are not necessarily rich, but they take good care of their blessings and like to share if given such a noble cause.Life in America is hard work, but with hard work also comes monetary rewards many times. A few hours before we were signing the contracts for these two apartments, a brother called to say his house was vacant right now (he had been leasing it out, but had no tenants right now) and that he was willing to donate the rent for now so they family would not have to worry for a while at least. It took us a couple of hours to meet up and get the key, but by that Wednesday night the family had moved in. Before I left to get the key and pick up the family from the wonderful Sudanese family then  packed my car with necessities that I found in my house. Pillows, blankets, toys, cleaning supplies and what not. My van was packed. We also stopped by a walmart and got a set of pots and pans, plates and spoons, a few towels etc. Drove an hour, got the key rom this other Syrian brother and drove over and got the family. They were so excited obviously. We got to their house late at night, got everything unloaded and left.

he family was after almost three weeks in the States finally connected with other Syrians and settled in an empty, but safe and lovely town house. They were so grateful and appreciative of their Sudanese brother who had adopted them as his family, but he was now able to plan moving back into a 1-bedroom apartment as he had only been renting a 2-bedroom since his mother in law had been visiting after the birth of his son. This baby was the Sudanese couple's first after 12 years of marriage and a true longing to build their family. 

The sister who picked up the family late at night and brought them to their new place had filled her car with basic necessities and food so the family was not totally left on their own. The next day friends and community from all the area began bringing over a few items. Some people donated money, both small, modest amounts and even a few hundreds and a couple people donated $1,000, just to make sure the family had a bit. A brother got contacted by the owner of a store and they brought the family to his place and were able to furnish their house with basic items, beds and mattresses, living room, kitchen area. Because of Fauzia's immune-compressed health, then they could not bring in used items and had to carefully wash everything before bringing clothes op to the children. A sister in a somewhat close town with young children of her own at home became quickly the family's biggest advocate. She began bringing her children and come over and work on enrolling the two oldest children in school and looked into local food pantries so they could get a steady supply of at least a few items of food.. There were legal papers and medical exams that she and the other helpful brother both worked on and took time out of their own lives to take the family to appointments and so on. The Sudanese brother still kept touch with the family and was overseeing everything even in the middle of finding another place to live (being on a very limited budget and not able to pay for a 2 bedroom apartment even in this low-income neighbourhood). Looking at him, then you would never have guessed he and his family had to count their money before spending it as they had the most generous hearts of anyone, mashallah. 

The family has now been settled for almost one month. One child was able to finally begin school after the needed paperwork was done. Fauzia is still at home, waiting to get some immunizations and medical exams done and will probably end up getting a private teacher visit her daily  in order to avoid exposure to germs. The real work to get them asylum is about to start. The sister who had brought them to their new home, generously offered by a brother and supported by the community, had been working around the clock to try to get them a referral to a pro-bono and respectable legal service that would take the family under their wings and present their case as well as possible and facilitate their visa-process. After two busy weeks with emails, phone-calls and looking on the internet, an American friend used his connections and went out of his way to make sure a pro bono legal office try to take the case. At this time of writing, then their case is being reviewed. It is a bit more complicated than what appears, but we are all hopeful that our American friends and Syrian community here will make the process easy for the family and that they will soon be able to stay here permanently so Fauzia can get a chance at recovering and living with stable medical care at least until Syria is safe and back stronger than ever.

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