By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Syrian family escapes civil war for Gainesville
Refugees describe violence in Homs, journey to US, where jobs, transportation are a challenge
0423Syrian 0001
Lana, Hadi and Mohamad Alhawari sit together during an interview Tuesday at their Gainesville apartment. After escaping Syria, the Alhawari family lived in Jordan for five years before moving to the United States. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Walking along the walls of the embattled Syrian city of Homs, Hadi Alhawari and his uncle could see bombs and snipers on the way to the bakery.

“We look everywhere just to be careful we’re not going to be hit, but we needed to get to the bakery to eat, to get groceries,” Alhawari said last week through interpreter Lina Muhanna.

He remembered a line in front of the store, a truck outside filled with injured people.

The next time he woke up, he was screaming from pain in his leg from a bombing.

Alhawari and his family — wife Rania and children Mohamad, 8, and Lana, 5 — escaped the civil war in Syria and spent five years in Jordan before coming to the United States in September. The family now lives in Gainesville, sponsored by Westminster Presbyterian Church, which is taking part in the World Relief refugee resettlement.

The protests started in March 2011, when Alhawari owned his shoe store.

“From the beginning, Homs was one of the cities that the government was targeting, because it has a lot of opposition,” Alhawari said.

A riot would pour into the city streets from the mosque, placing protesters next to Alhawari’s shop.

“(There) were people with civil clothes, regular clothes, not police clothes. Usually those are the security people ... which is a very strong service, stronger than the military,” Muhanna said. “They use them if they have any movement against the government.”

To evade the security forces, some sought shelter in Alhawari’s store, though he was not taking part in the protests. He closed the store and went home.

But the security forces would soon upgrade to guns and bullets, as barriers were set up every few feet, Alhawari said. As more people were arrested, more people would take to the streets.

“They saw the Iranian Army coming with the Syrian Army, taking every male who’s over 15 years old,” Muhanna said, noting that people were jumping from balcony to balcony to evade arrest.

At the time of the riots and military response, Rania was pregnant with Lana.

“She does not have a registration like she was born in Syria, because they could not do it. They could not cross the barriers,” Muhanna said.

Rania and the children went to live in another neighborhood, as the prevailing practice was to evacuate women and children to a safer part of the country. The men stayed behind to protect their homes.

“Apparently, they agree, everybody, the opposition and the government, we’re not going to hurt this bakery, because people need to eat,” Muhanna said.

As Hadi and his uncle made the way to the bakery, a bomb came down, killing 13 people, he said.

When he woke up at a clinic, Hadi said volunteers attempted to straighten his leg. On the car ride to his family’s home, he said he felt terrible pain from his leg jostling on the bumpy trip. He would later have a rod and screws put into his leg.

After moving from city to city, the family finally applied to get passports to leave Syria, but Lana wouldn’t be able to get one without her missing birth certificate. A passport employee offered them a ride to the border, where the family joined a refugee camp in Jordan. Hadi’s aunt in Jordan later sponsored the family.

“His thinking was at that time that he’d rather go back to Syria. He was hoping that one year or a few months and he will go back,” Muhanna said.

But Mohamad, who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the backbone, was beginning to get worse.

“When the opportunity comes to the United States, I know it’s the best medicine in the world,” Hadi said. “Maybe if I go there, my son will have opportunity to be better.”

Dr. Jim Froehlich, a member of Westminster, said the treatments for Mohamad have been covered under Medicaid. After a surgery this month, the concern is now for the boy’s legs.

“His feet have sort of contracted, and it almost looks like clubbing,” Froehlich said, adding that physical therapy is needed to correct the situation without surgery.

At news of the United States’ airstrike on Syria earlier this month, the family said they were glad to see a world power intervening.

“They were happy, because something needs to be done,” Muhanna said.

Beth Kendall, who is the “Good Neighbor” program coordinator at Westminster, said the World Relief process began in November 2015 with a number of local churches taking part.

“In general, all of the churches there were thinking this is a place for the church to respond with compassion to people who are running for their lives,” Kendall said.

Three churches moved forward in the process, with members of the congregations taking training classes on the issues facing refugees.

After arriving in Gainesville, Hadi Alhawari and his family faced issues finding transportation and employment. Mohamad needed medical attention, which requires someone to drive the family to and from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Members of the church helped furnish the family’s apartment and assist with meals.

“The reason World Relief brought these families here was because there are so many chicken plant jobs, and there are busloads of refugees coming out of Atlanta every morning at the crack of dawn to work in chicken plants,” Kendall said.

Having the family in Gainesville would eliminate the commute, but the 10-to-12-hour shift at the chicken plant was not feasible for Hadi.

“Hadi’s injuries prevent him from working on his feet in a cold environment — which it has to be in the chicken plant — for those kinds of hours,” Kendall said.

Hadi and Rania also need transportation to the thrice-weekly English lessons at the Lanier Technical College center downtown. Hadi is illiterate in Arabic, though Rania can read and write in their native language.

Members of the church have taken Hadi to every place of employment within walking distance to see what would be available.

“Almost all of those places have said we really need at least a first-grade level of English to have somebody,” Kendall said.

In the meantime, Kendall said Hadi has been developing his woodworking skills.

The family is considering moving to Atlanta, as Mohamad will need physical therapy three times a week and possibly undergo more surgeries.

“When they bring people here, they should tell them this is the language. If you don’t know the language, you cannot survive. If you don’t drive, you cannot survive,” Rania said.

Regional events