The Said Abdullah family is happy to have found a home in the Valley. The family was forced to leave Damascus, Syria, in 2012 due to civil unrest.
STORY | MATT D’ANGELO
PHOTO | SAM TAYLOR
A lot can characterize the journey of the Said Abdullah family — four flights, two political amnesty rejection letters, long, cold nights in Jordan, gun shots, explosions or fear.
Ultimately, the journey can only be defined by one thing: a dream.
“Since I was a kid,” Munzer Said Abdullah said via a JMU student Arabic translator, “I’ve had a dream to come to the United States.”
For Munzer, it seemed unlikely that his hopes would become a reality. Less than one percent of the world’s refugee population is successfully resettled permanently in a country once they flee their homes.
While he and his family waited, they had a better chance of getting struck by lightning, winning the lottery, getting attacked by a shark or even being drafted to the NFL.
Despite these challenges, Munzer’s dream came true.
“We were so happy after they called, we couldn’t sleep,” Munzer says.
The Said Abdullah family was forced to leave Damascus, Syria, in 2012. As Munzer describes it, civil unrest and violence began to plague Damascus, creeping closer to their home.
At one point, missiles were exploding near the city’s center, and a few landed in Munzer’s neighborhood.
“My children were shaking,” Munzer says. “They were shaking and then their mother tried putting them in areas they could hide near the washing machine.”
Munzer knew they could no longer stay in Damascus. They left in August of 2012 and resettled in Jordan where he applied for refugee status and awaited resettlement.
Their time in Jordan wasn’t easy.
Munzer worked construction jobs where he operated heavy machinery for 13 Dinari, which is about $18 a day. Often times he was suspended almost 230 feet in the air working on tall buildings. The meager wage and dangerous conditions made for a tough life. After rent, Munzer could barely afford water, electricity, food and an education for his children.
“There was only water and bread in my fridge,” Munzer says. “In all of three years we only got cheese two times.”
His salary also barely covered the heating bill. The winters in Jordan are cold — 14 degrees Fahrenheit cold — and he couldn’t afford to have gas piped directly to his home.
In order to heat his house, Munzer had to walk a mile to a fueling center with a tank strapped to his back. The tank weighed upward of 65 pounds, and the gas would slosh back and forth, knocking him off balance the whole walk home.
Sometimes, the family decided to improvise when Munzer couldn’t get the gas.
“We wore clothes and ran around the room to keep warm,” Munzer says.
Despite the low-paying, dangerous work and a lack of food and heat, Munzer’s biggest concern was his kids’ education. He spent 20 percent of his salary on a car service to drive his children to and from school.
“Education and language are more important to me than food,” Munzer says.
Despite Munzer’s commitment, his kids didn’t get the best attention from the teachers in Jordan. The Said Abdullah children went to school later in the day because they were Syrian, and often times the teachers would be worn out and less motivated to teach.
“Syrians had their own time from 11 to 4,” Munzer says. “By the time it got to 4, the teachers would be tired. The education wasn’t as good as in the mornings.”
Munzer’s twin boys agree. Nrt, 12, says, “I think in high school, I won’t do as well because the teachers didn’t explain things well” in Jordan.
The Said Abdullah family lived this life for four years before getting a call saying they had been granted resettlement in the U.S. Munzer immediately accepted, and two months later the family was on a plane to America.
The family stepped onto U.S. soil for the first time in late May — it was dark; they could most likely hear the echo of their footsteps as they walked through the terminal at 11 p.m. Nervous and scared, they wondered if someone would have sat through a five-hour delay to take them to their new home.
A volunteer named Dean Neher was waiting, ready to take them the final 20 minutes of the journey they began 1,370 days earlier when they left their home in Damascus.
“It’s very rare to find such people,” Munzer says. “I have always prayed for people like that in my life. I am thankful.”
Neher, who has been helping refugees since the late ‘90s and has worked with nearly 25 families, says it was just another day on the job.
“We have to help them get settled,” Neher says. “It needed to be done, and it was something I could do.”
Neher brought them to a single-level home that’s about a block away from Bridgewater College. The house, which is provided by Church World Services Harrisonburg, was fully furnished with couches, a TV, a kitchen and had a few bedrooms.
Since arriving in the U.S., Munzer’s focus has remained on working as much as possible to provide for his family. As winter approaches, Munzer says that he’s excited to take his family skiing at some point — a break from the stress of moving and joining a new community.
Rebecca Sprague, the community outreach coordinator for CWS Harrisonburg, says that one of the office’s goals for resettlement is, “strengthening [the families’] activities and their community organization so that they can better help themselves … and advocate for themselves in the community.”
CWS Harrisonburg accomplishes this by providing some core services, which include housing, education and immunizations for children and setting up social security and job placement.
The office set Munzer up with a job at the local Marshalls, where he puts the tickets on the clothes for three days a week, 12 hours a shift. He’s hoping to pick up a second job so that he can “pay back what has been given” to him.
“I wanted to work two things, not just one,” Munzer says. “I want to not need anyone and provide. I want to work hard.”
Munzer says that the hardest part about adjusting to life in the U.S. has been learning English. Once he is able to learn English and get a driver’s license, he will be able to pick up that second job.
In the meantime, Munzer’s three children attend school in the Valley. Nrt and Brt are twins who are in seventh grade. Nrt boasts about being able to ride a bike without holding the handlebars, and hopes that after some time in the school system here, he will be able to pursue his dream of working as an engineer.
The Said Abdullah family has only lived in Bridgewater for a few months, and CWS Harrisonburg has made the family’s transition easy with a few distinguished social programs that accompany their core services.
CWS Harrisonburg has partnered with the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition to provide free bicycles and lessons to refugees, a program that Munzer and his family have benefited from.
“My job allows us to do some things that go beyond those core services,” Sprague says, “because [the core services aren’t] really as much as we wish we could do. There’s so much more that could be done and needs to be done.”
While CWS Harrisonburg has played a role in the adjustment, Munzer says that his neighbors have made him feel like Bridgewater is his new home — his children love playing with LEGOs with other kids in the neighborhood, and Munzer sometimes volunteers at the church to give back for all the services they’ve provided him.
As they head into winter, Munzer and the Said Abdullah family will continue to build their lives in Bridgewater. Nrt, Brt and Missam will continue in school, Munzer will keep working and the family will come together in their new home as members of the community.
“I like how here the American people always smile and always talk to me,” Munzer says. “I don’t feel foreign.”