A group of Syrian refugees and Christian churchgoers in Fresno met last year with a simple greeting: “Peace be upon you.”
The members of Wesley United Methodist Church taught themselves how to say it in Arabic during a Sunday service before walking across their parking lot after church to introduce themselves to their new neighbors in El Dorado Park, a community just west of Fresno State.
Deep friendships have formed since then that continue to support a growing number of Syrian refugees in Fresno.
“I call them our new neighbors – I do not call them Syrian refugees,” said Jackie Holms, a volunteer with Wesley who runs a community classroom with donated computers that Syrian families often visit.
I call them our new neighbors. I do not call them Syrian refugees.
Jackie Holms, member of Wesley United Methodist Church
A majority of around 25 Syrian families now here in Fresno as either refugees or asylum seekers live near Wesley. Many arrived in the fall. The latest arrivals – one Syrian family that had been living in Texas, and another previously living in Dubai – relocated to Fresno a couple weeks ago.
One of the first persons they met was Jim Call, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He’s become a go-to volunteer furniture mover and provider for Syrian families. He says “where much is given, much is expected, and I’ve been given much.” His Mormon faith also calls him to lend a helping hand.
“Really, in serving those who are underserved or not taken care of, we are serving Jesus Christ,” he said.
Call and Holms are among numerous volunteers from different faiths working in tandem with Muslims at Fresno mosques and centers to help Syrian refugees – and faith-based groups aren’t the only ones offering support. Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries is expected to soon receive a major boost from Fresno County – a commitment of around $375,000 over the next four and a half years to fund several part-time staff to help Syrian refugees in Fresno. County staff will ask the Board of Supervisors to amend a contract later this month to include Syrian refugees among those eligible to receive assistance from “cultural-based access navigation specialists,” who provide linguistic support and culturally-appropriate health education and services to underserved groups. County staff say funding for these contracted specialists is provided through the Mental Health Services Act (created by the passage of Proposition 63).
Among the specialists is Wasan Abu-Baker, a key Fresno coordinator for people helping Syrian refugees in Fresno.
The best way people can help these families, she says: Just letting them know that “they are home, and we all hear their voices.”
The first family to settle in Fresno after fleeing the civil war in Syria was Said Habbaba, and his wife, Iman Akroum, and their young daughter, Malak Habbaba. In Syria, Said worked as a real estate developer and Iman as an attorney. The couple now run a catering business out of their Fresno home.
Through an interpreter, Said said that Fresnans “always have smiles on their faces and are ready to help people.”
This is about people who care for each other and spend the time to get to know each other.
Jackie Holms, member of Wesley United Methodist Church
Among those assisting his family are volunteers Ani Chamichian and Susan Popovich, who visit several times a week to teach Iman how to speak English.
Chamichian’s mother is from now war-torn Aleppo, Syria. Her Buddhist faith also inspires her to help.
“We need to take care of each other,” Chamichian said, “and we really are all one. … The bottom line is love.”
Said and Iman reciprocate that love.
On a recent evening when Popovich didn’t answer the telephone, the Syrian couple rushed to her home to make sure she was OK. Popovich was at an Ash Wednesday service at First Congregational Church of Fresno (the Big Red Church).
“I live alone – my only child is out of the country. They are family now,” she said of Said, Iman and Malak. “They were almost instantly family from the first hug.”
It’s heartening to see people opening their arms and their hearts and acting out of love rather than fear.
Helen Siporin, member of Temple Beth Israel
Maraika Kuipers-Sharsher – who is helping organize fundraiser dinners to help Syrian refugees through the Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley at Wesley and the St. Paul Catholic Newman Center – said that some people’s perception of Syrian refugees as “radical and nonapproachable” is far from the truth.
“My hope is that the community will come together in a loving way to not only welcome the new families, but to let them know we support them and we value them and we don’t give into the stigma that attaches to the name ‘refugee,’ ” Kuipers-Sharsher said. “We view them as strong, and we view them as human beings that are truly valued in our society.”
Helen Siporin with Temple Beth Israel is showing her support by teaching Syrian women how to sew.
“Jews for a very long time have been on the run from many places and have experienced that feeling of being a refugee,” Siporin said. “There’s a real bond the (Jewish) community feels with people who have to flee.”
Through Abu-Baker, serving as his interpreter, Said said he wanted to come to the U.S. because he learned the country has historically opened its doors to immigrants and refugees and that Americans “respect diversity and they respect his beliefs.”
He and his family are officially here as asylum seekers, instead of refugees, because they only planned on staying in the U.S. for a few months. Said expected the war in Syria would have ended by now.
“He’s asking our new president to work with other countries to stop the war in Syria and start the peace process there,” Abu-Baker said. “He wants to go back, that’s what he wants. If Syria is in peace, the war ended, he will go back.”
Fresno’s refugee past
Fresno has lots of experience helping refugees. Over the years, the city has been a safe haven for many Hmong, Armenians, Central Americans and other people groups fleeing violence in their homelands.
“Our Central Valley has a long history of assimilating refugees and really receiving the blessing that comes with assimilating new people, groups and cultures into our lives together,” said the Rev. Ara Guekguezian of First Congregational, whose Armenian mother immigrated from Aleppo years ago. “We see that influence all the time in a very positive way.”
A huge call here in Fresno over the last generation, certainly from the late 1970s, is assimilating refugees in large numbers.
The Rev. Ara Guekguezian of First Congregational Church of Fresno
One small example of this positive influence, he says: It’s hard to imagine Fresno without good pho – a Vietnamese noodle soup.
Abu-Baker’s office with Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries is located in a building used by Stone Soup Fresno – an initiative born out of Wesley to help Southeast Asian refugees who settled in Fresno after the Vietnam war.
“We have an open door to all people – this is who we are,” the Rev. Karen Stoffers-Pugh of Wesley explains simply.
Kathleen Chavoor-Bergen – who worked with Abu-Baker to create a Facebook page, “Fresno Support for Syrian Refugees,” to better coordinate services – believes supporting these families can also help heal the wounds of those affected by the Armenian genocide.
“In order to not forget their past, they have to look at what’s happening currently and how trauma is not just culturally specific, that it’s pervasive,” she said of her Armenian community. “It’s my hope to get more Armenians to remember their trauma through others.”
Zachary Darrah, executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, said “Islamophobia” remains a barrier to getting affected families more support.
They are victims of the same terrorism that we feel we’re victims of.
Zachary Darrah, executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries
Darrah said it’s important to remember that Syrian refugees are victims of the same terrorism that Americans feel they are victims of.
In the name of security, a presidential executive order issued in January that blocked citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. also suspended the U.S. refugee program. After President Trump revised the order earlier this month – which included reducing the number of blocked countries from seven to six, and replacing a ban on Syrian refugees with a 120-day freeze requiring review and renewal – it was blocked last week by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland before it was scheduled to take effect on Thursday. The Hawaii ruling addressed both the travel ban and refugee ban, and the Maryland ruling applied only to the travel ban.
“The reality is most of the people who speak the loudest against refugees or undocumented or the Muslim community don’t know one personally … and in our community, it’s not hard to be personally connected,” Darrah said.
Holms describes the Syrians she’s met in Fresno as intelligent and competitive because it “was not easy for them to get here.”
“I do not see them as needy people,” Holms said. “I see them as people with a lot to offer.”
Darrah is encouraged by support he’s seen Fresnans show new neighbors from Syria.
“Compassion and love,” he said, “that’s the unifying factor for all of these groups.”
Symposium: Series of lectures about Syrian refugees and the refugee resettlement program, 1-9 p.m. April 4, Fresno State’s University Business Center rooms 191 and 194, 5245 N. Backer Ave., Fresno. Schedule of lectures: fblinks.com/syria. More information available by emailing email@example.com.
Related lecture: “68 Years of Illegal Occupation: Palestinian Refugees and the Path to Freedom” with Ahlam Muhtaseb from 6 to 8 p.m. March 23 in Fresno State’s Peters Business Building, 191.