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Seven refugees grateful for new home, worry about relatives in Lebanon
BY KATHRYN GRONDIN
Daily Herald Staff Writer, Posted Sunday, October 15, 2006
If Hassan and Iman Al Samurrai could get better TV reception with a basic antenna, they'd be glued to the small screen in their Glen Ellyn apartment. After years of waiting, the couple and their five children, ages 2 to 17, emigrated from Lebanon in late June, not a moment too soon.Just days later, the war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah militants began, with Israel dropping missiles into Beirut, the Al Samurrais' former hometown. If they had cable or satellite TV, they would have been scouring news footage for a glimpse of one of their many friends and relatives caught in the skirmish. They'd agonize over their inability to bring some relatives here to safety. They left behind Iman's two brothers, several aunts, uncles and cousins - family and friends who lived in and around the bombed area of Beirut. Even now, as the violence has subsided, they still haven't accounted for all their loved ones.
Hassan Al Samurrai, endured a difficult odyssey to make it the U.S. in late June. A native of Iraq, he was persecuted under Saddam Hussein’s regime and eventually fled to Syria, where he was jailed. "The whole area has been destroyed," Hassan Al Samurrai said through an interpreter. After days of uncertainty, the couple learned that dozens of people they know in Lebanon had gone underground. But one brother suffers from mental disorders and panics every time bombs go off, and the other brother's health is precarious because he has artificial intestines. The latter is trying to care for his brother in addition to supporting his own wife and two children. "My brother was crying out of despair ... pleading for help," Iman said through an interpreter. "It's not livable underground." The Al Samurrais are relieved for their good fortune, leaving just before the airports shut down. But they are concerned over the continued turmoil in their homeland.
"I don't care who gets the land," Hassan Al Samurrai says. "I just want peace so people can live." Starting over - again Settling in the Western suburbs has been just another bittersweet chapter in the 48-year-old Hassan Al Samurrai's odyssey. He was born and raised in Iraq, where he counted himself fortunate to hold sergeant's rank in the police force. That was until one day in the early 1980s, when he found himself facing charges of political crimes because, he said, a friend was outspoken against Saddam Hussein's regime. Believing he'd never get a fair trial under Saddam's rule, Al Samurrai fled for Syria, leaving behind five brothers. It wasn't an ideal choice but the best he had: He knew Syria wouldn't deport him to Iraq because of the political climate between the two countries at the time. Jordan and Turkey likely would have sent him back, he said. But, without a passport or other travel documents, Al Samurrai had to explain to Syrian officials why he sought entrance to their county. He was promptly jailed.
During the yearlong incarceration that followed, he said he was repeatedly beaten with sticks, given electrical shocks and burned by cigarettes. He was kept in a box not much larger than a small filing cabinet with a hole for his head. All the prisoners were "packed in like sardines," he said. But at least he was alive. The Syrian government eventually recognized him as a refugee, released him and sent him to Lebanon. It was there he met his wife, Iman, now 39, whose own parents and their families had fled Palestine in 1939. The couple married in 1987, eventually having three sons, Koutaba, now 17, Hussein, 16; and Mohammad Ali, 2, who was named for the boxer, his parents said; and two daughters, Nahida, 15, and Isha, 12. As a refugee in Lebanon, though, Hassan lacked the same rights as legal citizens and was denied many opportunities.
The family most recently lived in a two-room, windowless basement apartment they often shared with rats. Hassan struggled to make ends meet. His work as a bodyguard and chauffeur paid barely enough to feed his family and provide other basics. "I had no future there," he said. 'Castle' in Glen Ellyn Hope blossomed anew in 1994 when Lebanon granted Hassan official refugee status, opening the door for him to apply to emigrate. Finding a country to accept the family proved difficult. Canada, Australia and Finland turned them down before the U.S. granted them entrance. Worrying about their relatives in Lebanon and Iraq has been the bittersweet flip-side to making a new life in Glen Ellyn. "This is a castle," Hassan said of their three-bedroom apartment with kitchen, dining area and family room near Roosevelt Road.
The family is trying to learn English through a program at nearby Faith Lutheran Church coordinated by DuPage United, the social service network. And life is still a struggle. Iman got a job cleaning hotel rooms but since had to give it up, partially because of health issues. Hassan, whose leg remains weak from an old bullet wound, still hasn't found work but remains optimistic. That positive attitude, common among the refugee students in the ESL program, impressed its organizers and tutors. "They've shown so much resilience," said a program organizer, Naazish YarKhan. "They're just happy to be alive."
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