Syrian refugees, U.S. vets come together in Georgia amid dark times

Eliza sings carols in GP

Credit: Shannon McCaffrey/AJC

Credit: Shannon McCaffrey/AJC

Eliza sings carols in GP

The Syrian refugee women spent hours preparing the generous smorgasbord for their bearded and tattooed guests. On a pair of long white tables inside the Clarkston Community Center, they laid out dishes of fragrant tabbouleh, zucchini stuffed with lamb and long rice sprinkled with cashews.

Their young children colored homemade cards decorated with bright miniature flowers and U.S. flags and declaring “America is our new home. Thank you for welcoming us.” Then they and their parents played traditional Syrian-Kurdish music and danced hand in hand in a widening circle with their guests: U.S. military veterans.

Organized by a Syrian-American doctor who came here as a refugee and a decorated U.S. veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the event was aimed at bringing the two groups together and fostering understanding amid a particularly fraught time for refugees and immigrants. Planned weeks in advance, the get-together took on added significance following Tuesday's deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria and the U.S. military's retaliatory Tomahawk missile strike days later.

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Those unsettling developments were on the mind of Araz Mousa, who was among the scores of people who showed up for the festivities on Sunday. She arrived in Georgia in 2015 after fleeing Syria with her husband and two young children. Their home outside of Aleppo was destroyed in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions of others. Mousa supported the Trump administration’s missile strike on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime but said more needs to be done to protect the civilians remaining there, including her parents and siblings.

Hayat Ibrahim (R) and Saadia Kelli (L) fuss over Leonardo Garcia-Ide at a luncheon organized by local American military veterans and Atlanta-area Syrian refugees Sunday in Clarkston, GA April 9, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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The Trump administration, meanwhile, is fighting in several federal courts to save its proposed travel ban, which would temporarily bar all refugees like Mousa from coming to the U.S. The government says the pause is needed so it can tighten its security screening process for newcomers. Advocates for refugees say the new violence in Syria highlights the urgent need to continue welcoming refugees fleeing that country’s humanitarian crisis.

Mousa is overwhelmed by how welcoming her adoptive country has been. Guessing she has already made “a thousand friends” here already, she said she is learning English and hopes to soon get a job working as a cashier.

“I’m not scared,” she said, her tone conveying profound relief. “My house is gone, but I’m safe and my kids are safe.”

Patrick Griffith of Kennesaw took a seat at one of the round tables inside the community center with a pair of young boys, both recent arrivals from Syria. Griffith had one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Army: destroying improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. He now works at a nonprofit group that assists veterans. A professional musician who fled the violence in Iraq gently played a piano atop a nearby stage as Griffith got to know the Syrians.

“It’s an opportunity for people to see that people are people,” Griffith said as he ate some traditional Syrian bread and hummus. But he revealed he had another motive: “I’m not going lie to you, the food is pretty darn good.”

Yaser and Barwin Musa, Kurdish-Syrians who came here as refugees last year with their five young children, grew emotional as they talked about the chemical weapons attack, which reportedly killed as many as 80 men, women and children in a rebel-held part of northern Syria. Their eyes filling with tears, the couple said they want to see more U.S. military intervention in Syria.

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Watching for responses from Syrian and Russian troops, U.S. forces have reportedly reduced their attacks on the Islamic State in Syria as a precautionary move since the Tomahawk missile strike. Syrian government forces, meanwhile, have resumed their bombing campaign since the U.S. attack, though without chemical weapons.

“When I see (the veterans), I will say, ‘Welcome to our party. We have food to give you and we will have fun together,’” Yaser, a tailor, proudly said in Kurdish, speaking through a young translator moments before the event began.

Garrett Cathcart — a West Point graduate, U.S. Army veteran and three-time recipient of the Bronze Star for combat leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan — organized the event with Dr. Heval Kelli. A cardiology fellow at Emory University School of Medicine, Kelli and his Kurdish family came to the U.S. as refugees in 2001, fleeing persecution in Syria. The two formed a friendship after Kelli treated Cathcart for kidney stones at the Atlanta VA Medical Center.

The crowd participates in traditional Kurdish music and dance during a luncheon organized by local American military veterans and Atlanta-area Syrian refugees Sunday in Clarkston, GA April 9, 2017. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Cathcart, who works with Griffith at the nonprofit veterans aid group, said the event stemmed from something U.S. combat veterans and Syrian refugees share: Love for this country.

“The goal is to break bread, share a table with someone you don’t know,” he announced at the start of the event. “Get to know someone and get to know their story — and just enjoy each other. That is kind of the whole point.”

Marshall Brown of Atlanta served with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan, manning a machine gun atop a Humvee. Sunday’s event reminded him of the hospitality the people there showed him whenever he and fellow U.S. troops visited their homes.

“This is a nation of immigrants,” he said, “and sometimes we as Americans forget that.”

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