New Canton family looks back, forward after fleeing war-torn homeland

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The Aboukhater family on a visit to Plymouth: (l-r) Hassan, Jude (with Roxy), Layla, Noor and Matthew

The Aboukhater family on a visit to Plymouth: (l-r) Hassan, Jude (with Roxy), Layla, Noor and Matthew

This story originally appeared in the December 24 edition of the Canton Citizen. Click here to order your subscription today.

Thousands of miles from home in the comfort and relative safety of his Canton apartment, Dr. Hassan Aboukhater cannot seem to sit still.

Gathered in the family room with his wife, Noor, and his two youngest children, 17-year-old twins Matthew and Jude, he moves about the space frequently, changing his seat on more than one occasion. He is friendly and talkative, but also restless, his heart still transfixed on the world he left behind in his native Syria.

“We liked it there,” emphasizes Hassan, a Tufts-trained dentist who ran a successful dental practice in Syria’s most populous city and economic hub, Aleppo. “We were friends with all sects of the Syrian society.”

Even today, a full year after arriving in the United States and with the Syrian Civil War dragging on through its fifth year, Hassan admits that a part of him still feels guilty for leaving, like he somehow abandoned his friends and neighbors who did not have a way out like he did.

He mentions an initiative that he had been working on in Aleppo with two Syrian senators — a program designed to “help the youth stay and to find work for people.” One of the projects they pursued was to dig a drinking well so they could defend themselves against ISIS when and if the Islamic militant group “cut the water from the city.”

“But I felt that I betrayed those people because I left them,” he says. “I stayed for three years [after the war broke out], but in the end I decided to move because of [my family], not because of me.”

***

By now, most Americans have at least a passing awareness of the brutal civil war that has raged in Syria since the launching of the Arab Spring protests in 2011.

The politics behind the violence are exceedingly complex, marked by constantly shifting alliances and various degrees of international involvement. At the center of the conflict, however, is an entrenched and vicious clash between dozens of rebel groups — including the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army — and the regime forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Both sides have been accused of human rights violations and war crimes, and both have direct ties to radical Islamist groups, with the rebels fighting alongside the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front (Sunni) and the Syrian Army drawing substantial support from Hezbollah (Shi’ite).

Then there is the so-called Islamic State, a Salafist jihadist terrorist group and a magnet for foreign radicals that is currently waging war with both sides of the conflict. Known for its particular brand of cruelty and intolerance, ISIS has managed to seize a wide swath of territory in the eastern half of the country, where they have imposed strict Sharia law, brutalized scores of civilians, and laid waste to several cultural heritage sites, including most of the monumental ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra.

The most recent estimates from the war in Syria put the death toll at somewhere between 250,000 and 330,000, which includes more than 100,000 civilians. Meanwhile, the situation within Syria’s borders has become so dire that only half of the pre-war population remains in their homes, and nearly all of them are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. According to the latest United Nations figures, a staggering 4.4 million people have fled the country since the start of the war, while another 8 million have been displaced internally, prompting a senior UN official to label it the “worst humanitarian crisis of our time.”

For the Aboukhaters, who happen to be Christian, this is not the Syria that they would prefer to remember. The Syria they know, while far from perfect, is a country to be proud of — the “cradle of civilization,” home of the first written alphabet and the oldest known piece of music ever discovered.

And they didn’t simply live there, says Noor. They literally “walked through Syria,” journeying hundreds of miles on foot every summer under the guidance of Father Francis van der Lugt, a beloved Dutch Jesuit priest who dedicated his life to the people of the region.

Their journeys, which were a type of spiritual retreat, brought them to countless small villages throughout the country, and each time they were treated with kindness and generosity by the locals, whether they were Sunnis or Alawites or Druze.

“We would be a group of 100, or sometimes 200 or more, and they would welcome us with whatever they had,” recalls Noor, herself a Maronite Christian whose roots in Syria date back thousands of years. “So we know all of Syria. That’s what it means for us. It doesn’t mean only where we lived. This is, you know, very hard for us.”

Hassan says that some of those same villagers who used to offer them food have since become radicalized and pledged their allegiance to ISIS, and the Syrian Christians, who once enjoyed relative peace and security, are now in grave danger and a prime target of the jihadists.

Still, as bleak as it seems now, Hassan has seen it work before and he continues to preach a message of peace and reconciliation. He still talks often with many of his Muslim friends from Aleppo, and he recently organized a reunion in New York City with two of his former Syrian classmates — one a Muslim and the other a Jew.

“These people they love each other,” he says of his classmates, who were thrilled to reconnect after more than 25 years apart. “But sadly it’s the crazy politics in the Middle East that has caused everybody to hate each other now.”

***

As they reflect on their experiences in war-torn Syria, the Aboukhaters cannot stress enough just how fortunate they were.

For one thing, both parents had jobs — Hassan had his dental practice with its state-of-the-art office, and Noor, an architect, was a professor in the architectural school at the University of Aleppo.

Their children also enjoyed advantages — the oldest, Layla, continued to attend university while the twins received their education at a private Christian school with a rigorous curriculum. As Matthew put it, they had “the best Syria could offer.”

Matthew waves the Syrian flag during a demonstration in Boston last winter.

Matthew waves the Syrian flag during a demonstration in Boston last winter.

“So when we describe the education that we had,” he continues, “most other kids from the surrounding villages, they would stop at like high school and they would go try to find a job or something.”

The Aboukhaters’ living situation was also better than most, as they had a nice home with a garage and a garden in what Hassan describes as the “safest neighborhood in Aleppo.” And yet even with all of these advantages, they still were not immune from the violence. Their street was still shelled twice, and the sounds of mortar attacks eventually became part of their everyday existence.

“It was like the alarm for the kids to wake up — the starting of shelling,” notes Hassan.

Kidnapping also became a very real threat, and leaving the house became so dangerous that Hassan had to hire and arm a bodyguard just to make the five-minute trip to and from work every day.

Access to roads going in and out of the city were cut as Aleppo fell under siege, and the family went days at a time without electricity or hot water.

“We were surrounded in Aleppo for two years,” Hassan recalls. “We couldn’t leave the city. One day, we did not have even little vegetables on the table, so me and Noor we pretended that, ‘Oh my goodness, yes we are so full,’ because we didn’t want the kids to feel that there is no food. So that day we got really scared that we were going to die from hunger.”

But the toughest part about those years in Aleppo was coping with the loss of loved ones and friends, including one of Noor’s cousins, who survived a mortar attack but fell into a severe depression and died six months later.

Jude’s basketball coach, a 21-year-old woman who continued to coach every day even as the war escalated, also was killed, shot by a sniper while walking home from a game. And their beloved Father Francis, a saintly man who cared for the sick and disabled of all faiths, was shot in the head at the community center he founded by jihadist rebels.

As the situation in Aleppo worsened, the Aboukhaters sought advice from another Jesuit priest about whether to stay or flee the country, and while he refused to make the decision for them, he told them “a little story about a frog” that resonated in the days and weeks that followed.

Noor recounts the tale: “One day, they got a frog and they put him in cold water, and he jumped right away. They put him in hot water and he jumped right away. Then they put him in room temperature water in the pot and they lit a fire, and very, very slowly it heats up and the frog got boiled and died without knowing what was happening.”

Noor says it eventually dawned on them that they were becoming like that frog. “You get used to no electricity. You get used to no water and you can manage that. Then you get used to snipers; you get used to shellings. You get used to people dying, you know, people leaving.”

Hassan says the final realization came when he and Noor were relaxing at a street café. “We were having a good time and a mortar came, hitting a civilian area from the rebel area to the government area. And of course we got alarmed, but the thing that alarmed us most is that people they decided to keep sipping their coffee and tea. So we looked at each other and we said, ‘Look around you, everybody is okay with that?’ So it’s desensitization and it became just like that frog.”

***

Tomorrow the Aboukhaters will celebrate their second Christmas in the United States, and it will once again be a bittersweet occasion.

Last year, Hassan and the three children had all made it to Canton, and they got an unexpected gift as their dog, Roxy, had a litter of puppies. But Noor, who had stayed behind to take care of the family’s affairs, was unable to join them due to a delay in processing her visa.

The family even appealed to Senator Elizabeth Warren, and while they were unsuccessful in getting Noor in time for Christmas, Hassan was nonetheless touched by the responsiveness and kindness of the senator and her staff.

At the same time, the Aboukhaters also recognize that they are a “very lucky case,” as Jude puts it. All three children, despite spending most of their lives in Aleppo, were born in the United States — during the period that Hassan was studying at Tufts. That makes them American citizens, and because Layla is now 21, she can sponsor both of her parents as permanent residents.

Yet there are millions of others in Syria, including members of their extended family, who are not as fortunate. Even Noor’s mother, who is in her 90s and battling cancer, is currently in Lebanon awaiting a visa to Australia, where one of her brothers lives.

Coincidentally, the first planeload of Syrian refugees that arrived in Canada to much fanfare earlier this month happened to include cousins of both Hassan and Noor, and Canada’s minister of immigration and citizenship recently pledged to settle as many as 50,000 by the end of 2016 — which is double Canada’s original number and five times the amount promised by the Obama administration.

But the way Hassan sees it, Syrian Christians like his cousin are a “very safe bet” for western nations, and he feels for the millions of suffering Muslims who are treated with suspicion and sometimes outright scorn. “This is not an easy issue,” he acknowledges. “Of course every country needs to protect its citizens and to screen people, but the media has handled this in a hypocritical way.”

“We are the victims of all the world’s jihadists coming to our country to ‘see God.’ They want to die in Syria. So why are the victims, who are the Syrians, being shown in the media like they are the terrorists? Of course we have some Syrians who are fighting with ISIS, but I mean the Syrians themselves are the victims.”

***

As Matthew and Jude settle into their senior year at Canton High School, both are still in awe at how much their lives have changed in such a short period of time.

They rave about their teachers and are both thriving academically — both siblings were recently inducted into the National Honor Society, and they have both since received early admission to Boston College, where Layla is currently studying.

Jude says many of her Syrian friends are also going through a stressful, high-stakes academic year, but they are doing so in a warzone and studying in the dark with candles or tiny flashlights.

Jude (left) and Matthew will be joining sister Layla at BC next fall.

Jude (left) and Matthew will be joining sister Layla at Boston College next fall.

“We were doing that over there,” she says, “but now that I got used to this I can’t even imagine going back to that, and the bad thing is that they got used to it. Now I talk to them and it’s normal for them.”

Jude mentions that most of her friends are currently searching for a way out of Syria. Many are also struggling with depression and are overwhelmed by the prospect of starting over in a new country without their families.

Matt says that he too keeps in touch with his friends from back home, but he admits that his sister is more hopeful. “I know that eventually we’re not going to talk to them anymore,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Both say they plan to go back to Syria for visits but that their future is here in the United States.

“We definitely will take and raise our children on values that we learned from over there,” says Jude, “but we wouldn’t even think about living over there again because we know that history will repeat itself.”

And as hard as it is for them to admit, both Hassan and Noor now seem to feel the same way.

“My grandfather fled from Turkey 100 years ago this year, when the Syriac and Armenians were driven out of Turkey and slaughtered,” says Hassan. “He kept saying that you don’t take our experiences seriously. Those people are going to slaughter you again, and we tell them, ‘No, the new generation is very good. We’re going to live happily ever after in Syria,’ and it turned out that our grandfather was right.”

As for Noor, she is still homesick and personally heartbroken over the life she left behind, but she is happy for her children and committed to making things work here.  The way she sees it, her children were fortunate in that they got to take the “best of both countries.”

“Now you’re the citizen and the children of this country,” she says to Matthew and Jude. “You have to work for this country; you have to do something. You have to start to belong — to give, not take, give, okay. You have something you have to give.”

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