Last day for a great subscription deal: $1 for 6 months. Sign up here

Rubin: Alive and grateful, first refugees from Syrian civil war adapt to Metro Detroit

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The grown-ups are talking about war and bombs and shattered lives, which you might expect to keep the kids' attention.

Kids are kids, though, and besides, the Al Zoubi children have already seen those things firsthand. So the four of them grow restless in the living room of the family's rented Dearborn townhouse, and before long they're switching seats or fiddling with an iPad or writing in their notebooks.

As his parents talk about what they already treasure here and what they miss, Mohammad, 6, settles backward into a padded folding chair and starts riding it like a jockey.

He is the youngest member of the second generation of the first family of Syrian refugees to reach Metro Detroit. Six thousand miles from a civil war nearly as old as he is, he is finally free to be a little boy.

Louai and Manal Al Zoubi did not have a gilded life in Syria, but they had a comfortable and familiar one.

They lived in Daraa, in the southwest, a city so ancient it is mentioned under earlier names in both Egyptian hieroglyphic tablets and the Old Testament.

Amid friends and family, Louai drove a taxi and Manal stayed home with daughters Ghadir, 12, and Hadeel, 8, and sons Habeeb, 10, and Mohammad.

"It was very normal," says Louai, 34. "No problems. It was a secure city."

Then came the Arab Spring of 2011, and protests that became a revolution that all but wrote the law of unintended consequences.

Some estimates put the death toll at more than 300,000. Nearly 4 million Syrians have become refugees, according to the United Nations, and 5.5 million more have been displaced in a country whose pre-war population was only 22 million.

"No life, no job, no electricity, no water," Louai says.

No present, no future, no hope.

'We were in a dream'

The Al Zoubis didn't let themselves believe it was real until the wheels touched the runway in the United States.

"Even in the sky," Louai says, "we couldn't imagine we were flying to America. We were in a dream."

Waiting in Detroit in mid-April were a team from Lutheran Social Services of Michigan (LSSM), and beyond that a wide welcome mat: the local Syrian community, the schools, the Lebanese and Moroccan neighbors who brought food and salutations and playmates for the children.

One other Syrian family had already been relocated to the southwest part of the state, LSSM says. A second has followed the Al Zoubis to the metro area, and two more are due Saturday.

The federal government loans money for travel, with repayment beginning six months from arrival. LSSM and other agencies and donors help with an apartment, furniture, clothing and a stipend.

From day one, there's an emphasis on employment. Louai hopes to get back behind the wheel, driving to and from the airport.

He needs to learn enough English to read road signs. The kids, as kids do, have sped ahead of their parents: the girls already spent a few weeks in school, and they proudly show off the notebooks where they've written their names.

"The children asked us to escape," Louai says. He and the others are speaking through an LSSM translator, Arjwan Khudhur, who fled Iraq in 2007. "They said, 'We can't sleep. We're scared.' "

Starting over

They are resting easier now, but they remember when they couldn't.

"When we heard bombs," Ghadir says, they would run to their parents and then hurry to a shelter. "It was loud."

"Every day we said, 'We are going to leave today,' " Louai says.

Finally, on July 18, 2012, a throng of neighbors and relatives made the decision for them. Two hundred strong, they began walking to the Jordanian border, only a few miles away. Louai and Manal assembled their children and fled with them, carrying nothing but the weight of responsibility.

The Al Zoubis lived briefly in a refugee camp, then spent more than two years in a one-bedroom apartment. Now they're in Dearborn, calling their families once a week and realizing that might be all the contact they ever have.

Without work, Louai says, the days go slowly. Ask how he pictures his life in five years and he says "much, much better," but he worries about losing the job he doesn't have yet.

Optimism is hard to re-learn once you've been stripped of it. Fortunately, it comes naturally when you're young.

The kids have brought out an electronic spelling toy called the Alphabet Apple Tree. They have food and beds and there are no explosions.

Their father is talking about starting over in a place where everyone has a chance.

The kids are trying to be quiet, but they can't help themselves. They're giggling.