EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 29, 2013

Immigrants horrified by war in native Syria

SAMANTHA ALLEN
The Lowell Sun

---- — LOWELL (AP) — Wadia Khabazeh, a Syrian immigrant, knows how violence can tear lives apart.

She didn't learn that overseas as some may assume. When she lived in her hometown of Sednaya, a Christian city a few miles north of Syria's capital Damascus, she said the country was at peace — a delightful place to live. She has stories of neighbors walking in through doors without knocking to eat and visit with friends, of family members helping one another out and grand Christmas celebrations held every December with a tree decorated outside the Convent of Our Lady, one of the oldest monasteries in the world.

It didn't resemble any of the images broadcast on international television today, of war-torn cities with bloodied streets, mutilated civilians and collapsing buildings.

Khabazeh came to Lowell some 20 years ago with her parents who were looking to start a better life. She graduated from UMass in 2003 and pursued a career as a multilingual interpreter. She started a family, and took trips back home to visit her beloved nation.

Then, in November 2008, Khabazeh's husband was stabbed to death on the streets of the Mill City. Mazen Alwarad, a clerk at 7-Eleven, was attacked outside the Chelmsford Street store when he provided a stranger with a cigarette and a light. The man, Luis Rodriguez, hurled an ethnic slur at Alwarad and an argument ensued. Rodriguez was sentenced to life in prison for Alwarad's murder. Khabazeh said her husband was just about to come off his late-night shift with about 19 minutes left to go.

The holidays have presented a difficult time for Khabazeh and her children since then. Khabazeh is a single mother now with her 17-year-old daughter, Linda Lutfi, and 8-year-old son, Kenan Alwarad, who was only 3 when his father died. Their sense of loss weighs heavily, but even more so now as they learn of the bloodshed in Syria. The country is in a civil war now in its third year.

Khabazeh said as the violence escalates, she Skypes three or four times a day with her cousins, aunts and uncles, to check in.

"We're living in suspense every day," she said. "We never know. We talk to them on Skype and you never know. You'll think, 'Is a bomb going to come to their house today? I saw them on Skype this morning but now, I'm not sure.'"

Activists in the Middle Eastern country estimate the war has led to the deaths of more than 120,000 people — millions have fled their homes because of the fighting, seeking refuge in camps set up in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Khabazeh said her extended family members are under a constant threat of attack. Last November, her uncle was brutally murdered in Sednaya, likely by rebels.

Her cousin and another uncle have also been reported missing for months, but she says her family is too proud to leave.

"It's just the place where we were born, where we grew up," she said. "It's a very beautiful place. ... and it is something to be really, really proud of."

Khabazeh said today she struggles to find comfort, but her church — St. George Antiochian Orthodox on Bowers Street — is there for her family. The Rev. Leonard Faris said he continues to look for ways to supply humanitarian aid for those in need in Syria, touched by the Khabazehs' story along with many others.

The church took up a second collection for their relief fund dedicated to Syria at a recent Sunday's Mass.

Faris is now seeking to collect coats for children staying in refugee camps, freezing in exposed tents outdoors. Some of them, he says, have seen their own family members killed before their eyes.

"And that will stay with them for the rest of their lives," he said. "Really, your heart goes out to these people."

Just hours before parishioners exited Mass recently, reports came in that air strikes killed at least 32 people in the large city of Aleppo in Syria. Inside St. George's, the conflict was a hot topic of discussion for parishioners eating pastries and coffee after the reverend's sermon in the basement of the church. Wadia Khabazeh sat with her mother, Lila Khabazeh, who lives just down the road from her family in Lowell's Highlands. Both women had tears in their eyes as they spoke with Faris, discussing the many tragedies reported there in recent weeks.

Faris, who is originally from Lebanon, said he hopes the collection drives can bring some comfort to the troubled people of Syria. In the last several months, the church has sent over two U-Haul trucks filled with clothes for refugees, too.

"Amnesty International says there's so much torture going on, this is the most horrendous war in this century," he said.

Wadia Khabazeh says for her family, there are too many unknowns in her native Syria for her family to feel comfortable.

She said they'd like to send over money to help relatives, but with her own Syrian restaurant in Lowell closing earlier this year, it's tough enough for her family to get by. She's also supporting her children on her own, but the nightmare in Syria has her concerned day in and day out.

"It's affecting our lives. It's affecting our work," she said. "Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. I'll have a bad dream and I'll just get out of bed, go to Facebook, go the Internet, Sednaya websites, just to check to see if something happened."

Over a traditional Middle Eastern dessert earlier this month in their living room, the Khabazehs sat around their Christmas tree at the end of the work day, with Wadia's father, Salim Khabazeh. He was a celebrated poet in Sednaya before he came to the U.S. and found work at Market Basket.

They sat and enjoyed one another's company, speaking in both Arabic and English. A photograph of Mazen Alwarad hung over the fireplace mantel as the family passed around a painting of Sednaya. Wadia Khabazeh said she is praying for a swift resolution.

"Let's not hope for anything except peace," she said. "We just want peace. We want peaceful Syria, a peaceful Sednaya."