The Kashak family of Syria has been busy since arriving in the U.S. three months ago.
For two of those months, Thafer Kashak has worked as a sous chef in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Fresno. The rest of the time, he was preparing to work and getting his wife, Nour, and their three children settled into a Fresno apartment an ocean away from home and a war that ripped the lives they knew apart.
On Saturday morning, the family will also be cooking a traditional Arabic breakfast for those participating in a fundraising walk for Syrian refugees in need overseas. They’re grateful for the hospitality shown to them by new neighbors and want to give back. They say their Muslim faith stresses the importance of “manners, acceptance and tolerance, love for others and respect.” Terrorists are not Muslims, the family says; they are criminals.
So many religions – including Unitarian Universalism – teach that welcoming the stranger is an essential part of living a life of faith. We seem to have forgotten that. Saturday’s march will help us all remember together.
Rev. Tim Kutzmark
Funds raised during the walk will benefit the Syrian American Medical Society, an organization that brings medical care and humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and other displaced people in Syria, the surrounding countries of the Middle East and Europe. The Kashak family are among about 10,000 exiles in the U.S. who fled the Syrian war – just a sliver of the millions displaced, reports the Associated Press. Aimee Abu-Shamsieh with Central Valley Physicians for Humanitarian Aid, helping organize Saturday’s fundraiser, says the pre-war population of Syria was estimated at about 23 million, and roughly half its inhabitants have since fled their homes due to violence.
The Kashak family fled Syria in 2012. People were being shot in the streets outside their home and cars set ablaze. They previously lived a quiet, peaceful life, sustained by income from a sweets shop and factory that Thafer Kashak owned and operated.
They ended up in a refugee camp in “subhuman” conditions on the border between Jordan and Syria, living in a tent in the desert without running water for a few days before family living in a nearby city came to claim them. But guards didn’t let them leave, citing a lack of paperwork, so they had to escape. Now, their eldest son says, to leave a refugee camp, people there must pay a “sponsor.”
The refugee crisis in Syria, Iraq, and other war-torn countries is one of the most dire crisis facing our world today.
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno
In Jordan, Syrian refugees were not allowed to work at first, so Thafer Kashak had to bake sweets illegally to provide for his family. He was later approached by United Nations officials, who asked if he wanted to go to the U.S. He wanted his children to receive a good education and have more opportunities, so he accepted. He says the interview and background check process took 20 months before they were allowed to come to the country. They settled in Fresno because an extended family member is in the city.
The White House announced last week that it will accept more refugees from countries throughout the world next year, increasing the number to 110,000 compared to the 85,000 allowed in 2016. Rev. Tim Kutzmark of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno – the halfway point for those participating in the 2-mile fundraiser walk departing from the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno – says the U.S. should accept many more.
“Many members of our church are concerned that such a small amount of Syrian refugees are being allowed to enter this country compared to, for instance, Germany,” Kutzmark says. “We are doing so little as a nation at a time when the need is so great.
“This march is allowing Fresno to do something. At a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is spewing from some politicians, the march becomes a shared statement declaring that all people have worth and deserve to be treated with fairness, kindness and respect. My heart breaks each time I see a photo of a frightened Syrian family fleeing for their lives. So many religions – including Unitarian Universalism – teach that welcoming the stranger is an essential part of living a life of faith. We seem to have forgotten that. Saturday’s march will help us all remember together.”
Among those who will be in attendance at Saturday’s walk is Jim Grant, director of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno’s social justice ministry, who says Pope Francis is urging people to help refugees.
“He said welcoming refugees into our homes is the greatest security against terrorism,” Grant says. “The pope sees that refugees are not a national threat. They are a benefit, and if we could please take care of them, that could end terrorism.”
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, shared a similar plea.
“It is terrible that it has become a political issue instead of the humanitarian issue that it truly is,” Nekumanesh says. “Families are seeking safe haven from war and terror, and because of ignorance and a supposed fear of importing terrorism, the families become targets of suspicion and hatred. They are seeking safety and solace from the very terrorism that Americans fear.”
Fundraiser walk for Syrian refugees
What: Fundraiser walk organized by the Central Valley Physicians for Humanitarian Aid to support Syrian refugees displaced by conflict overseas
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 24
Where: Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, 2111 E. Nees Ave., Fresno
Details: After the 2-mile walk, participants will receive a traditional Arabic breakfast, and there will be speakers and activities. Registration is $20, $10 for students age 6 or older, $50 for families, and free for children age 5 or younger. Day-of registration is available, beginning at 8 a.m., but early registration is requested by visiting fblinks.com/walk. For more information, call 559-473-7564 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.