Rubin: Syrian refugees find a new home — and Batman

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The two Al Zoubi girls want a little sister, and the two boys want a brother.

Their parents are already assured of what’s most important to them, and it has nothing to do with pink or blue.

“I’m so happy,” says Louai Al Zoubi: His wife, Manal, is due May 1, and whatever color blanket their baby is swaddled in when it leaves a safe and well-equipped hospital, “it’s going to be an American citizen.”

The Al Zoubis live in Dearborn, where there are no explosions or militias or civil war. Only 18 months ago, they were in Syria, where comforting cowering children in bomb shelters had become a routine part of life.

They were the first family of Syrian refugees to reach Metro Detroit through the social service agency Samaritas since the war began, and the second to escape to Michigan.

In their old country, an estimated 400,000 people have been killed since March 2011, and half of an original population of not quite 23 million has fled, either internally or across a border.

At the Al Zoubis’ rented townhouse, Louai made a turkey for Thanksgiving.

The side dishes included tabbouleh and something with hot peppers that translator Arjwan Khadoori of Samaritas could not fully define. In truth, say daughters Ghadir, 13, and Hadeel, 10, they prefer vegetables to poultry, but Americans eat turkey on the fourth Thursday of November, so that’s what they did.

When Detroit News readers met the Al Zoubis in June 2015, they had been here for two months. The children were adjusting and their father was worrying.

A cab driver in Daraa, where the arrest of teenagers for writing political graffiti sparked what has become a global nightmare, he was anxious to find a job. Because fretting about your kids’ well-being is a universal concern, he was taking his anxiety a step further ... what if he lost the job he didn’t have yet?

Now he’s packing parts at a warehouse, often with an overtime shift on Saturday. The girls and their brothers, 11-year-old Habeeb and 8-year-old Mohammad, are in school. Manal is taking English lessons twice a week. His mother and brother have been approved for relocation, and he has found them a house in Dearborn Heights.

“Our new life is here,” Louai says. Maybe someday, when the killing stops, they will visit Syria again, but then they will turn around and come home.

Room to breathe

Immigration was already a hot button when the Al Zoubis arrived. Throughout the presidential campaign, it smoldered.

According to the U.S. State Department, slightly more than 200 Syrian refugees were resettled in Michigan in October, after L. Brooks Patterson announced plans to sue to stop Syrian immigration into Oakland County. They brought the total to about 1,600 amid a population of 9.9 million.

Patterson’s contention that his county was being inundated was erroneous, says immigration program manager Mihaela Mitrofan of Samaritas. The state department’s refugee website uses the locations of relief agencies as the newcomers’ destinations, rather than the cities where they are ultimately placed.

So while Samaritas, formerly Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, is based in Troy, 197 of the 437 Syrians it has assisted in 2016 live in Wayne County. One hundred of those are in Detroit, compared to 135 in Oakland County.

The Al Zoubis arrived in Michigan through Jordan, where they spent almost three years — first in a refugee camp, then in a one-bedroom apartment. In their townhouse, they have room to breathe and the freedom to relax.

As Manal serves visitors thick Turkish coffee in tiny cups, Habeeb makes a show of sitting on his little brother and his sisters giggle. The girls bring out saucers of sweets: wrapped, bite-sized Snickers and Three Musketeers bars, left over from Halloween.

The boys both trick-or-treated as Batman.

Following the rules

The kids speak English at school and alternate between that and Arabic at home.

They’re learning the language faster than their parents, but Louai can understand most everything he needs to at work. He asks people there to use his second language instead of his first, because improving his English is a big part of improving his life.

At school, Hadeel says, she has friends who can trace their roots to Yemen, Mexico, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Ghadir turns 14 next week, and she’ll bring cupcakes for her class, “the kind with plastic rings.”

Hadeel has decided she wants to become a teacher. Ghadir and Mohammad say they’re going to be police officers, or maybe lawyers.

“I’m going to be huge,” says Habeeb, the older boy, and even his straight-faced father laughs.

Habeeb brought an American flag home from school one day, and it’s hanging on a wall in the living room. Hadeel brought home a Christmas stocking with her name at the top in glitter, and it’s hanging on the back of the front door. In a house where Manal and her eldest daughter wear headscarves, the artificial ficus tree in one corner will be replaced this month with a Christmas tree.

“We are living here,” Louai says. “We have to follow the rules and traditions.”

In a few weeks, he says, everyone will get dressed up and they will go to the mall. The Christmas tree will be their second, but there’s one custom they skipped the first time around.

This year, they want to get their picture taken with Santa Claus.