Two Syrian Families Trace Their Long Routes from War to Refuge in Austin
By Swathi Narayanan
Muna and Khaled Al Hout welcomed their guests with smiles that never left their faces as they talked about their life in Syria.
But the smiles were a veil that disguised the horrors they endured in Aleppo, which they fled in 2012. Muna Al Hout said Aleppo had been a beautiful city before the civil war began five years ago.
Now it has become the biggest battleground of the war and the site of one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises, with widespread civilian casualties and bombings of hospitals. The rebel-held east side of the city has been under siege for months by government forces. Tens of thousands of people have managed to leave. But that is not easy.
In July of this year, the Al Houts became refugees in Austin, joining nearly 800 other Syrian refugees who have resettled in Texas in the last year. The new residents include the Al Radi family, which lived in Daraa, a city in southern Syria where the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad began in 2011.
Both families shared the stories of their lives amid a brutal war, and their years-long path to escape, with Reporting Texas. They spoke only Arabic; the interviews were conducted with the help of a translator.
Even as the Al Houts settle down in their new home, they can’t help but mourn the loss of their old one.
Muna, 28, reminisced about Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, and described it as a beautiful city before the war. She fondly remembered her childhood there. “My father would bring hot, freshly baked pita bread from the next door bakery,” she said. “It was delicious.”
Khaled worked as an interior designer and remodeler, and Muna was a homemaker. They were a close-knit family, with relatives who lived nearby.
The rebellion against the Assad regime came to Aleppo in 2011. Khaled joined in the demonstrations against the government. He even took his pre-school daughter, Fairouz, painting the flag of Syria on her cheek.
That stopped as the government cracked down and violence escalated. Khaled said that the minute he and his friends participated in a demonstration, government forces would send a rain of bullets down on them, and people would scatter.
“We could not continue walking for a few meters.” He said that by the “grace of God” he managed to run fast and find shelter.
The war also destroyed the country’s economy, and Khaled lost his job. The family held out as long as they could, but it became apparent that they would have to leave. They knew people who had been killed and would soon suffer their own personal loss.
The Al Radis lived in Daraa, a city in southern Syria where the uprising against Assad began in 2011. Rakan Al Radi, 47, remembered the exact day that changed their lives forever: March 18, 2011, when protests erupted in Daraa.
Al Radi was a cigarette wholesaler. A few days after the uprising began, the military occupied the streets, and he could not get to his store. Four days later, when he was able to check on his shop, he found that the lock had been broken and the store looted.
His wife Salwa had worked as a nurse at Daraa National Hospital. But the hospital was closed and she could not go to work.
The couple kept thinking the situation would improve, but it only worsened.
“There were snipers on high buildings,” who started shooting people, Rakan said. “People would go walking to buy something and get killed by a shot straight to the head.”
One day, a neighbor knocked at their door and said that the men of the town were running away because the military was coming to arrest them. Rakan started running toward his car. As soon as he opened the door, he was shot in both legs. He showed the scar from the wound on his left leg. His right leg had to be amputated, and he now has a prosthetic leg.
Government soldiers took Rakan to an interrogation center in Damascus.
“I had never participated in any demonstrations,” he said. But at the interrogation center, he was tortured. “They kept beating me and giving me electric shocks,” he said. “My ribs were broken.”
After eight months, he was transferred to a prison. His wife and four children, meanwhile, did not know what had happened to him. A friendly policeman from his hometown agreed to contact his wife and tell her that he was alive. He was freed 11 months after his arrest.
When he returned home, Rakan did not recognize his neighborhood, which had been largely destroyed by bombs. He walked around on his crutches, looking for his home. He didn’t know his wife and children were living with her parents.
He found his empty house, then called his wife and asked her to come home. “They could not even believe that I was alive,” he said.
For both families, there was a breaking point when they decided that they had to leave.
In March 2011, when the uprising was in its early stages, Muna Al Hout was in her eighth month of pregnancy. She went into labor and was rushed to the hospital. The hospital was empty and she, her mother and her doctor were the only people there.
“As I was pushing the baby, I could hear the demonstrations. People were screaming and then came the sounds of the gunshots,” she said.
Muna was very scared. She developed complications while giving birth and the doctor warned her that things did not look good.
“The baby made it out, but he needed oxygen,” she said. There was no hospital staff to help them; by that time, the hospital was flooded with injured demonstrators.
Eleven months later, their baby son died. Muna believes he did not receive adequate medical care when he was born. And by that time, Khaled was out of a job.
“I was very angry and frustrated. There were financial problems because of the child. I was very stressed.”
In February 2012, they decided to cross the border into Jordan.
It was not just the death of their son that summoned their resolve to leave. Khaled had lost two brothers to bombs and air strikes in 2012. Muna said her brother had been taken prisoner by government forces and tortured for 40 days.
By the time they left, Aleppo was a “ghost town.” By sunset, the streets would be empty. Khaled said he was “depressed and desperate.”
The Al Radis also remembered when they made the decision to leave Daraa. By the time Rakan came back from prison, a part of the Syrian military had defected and formed the Free Syrian Army to fight the regime. One night, clashes broke out between the army and the defectors.
“My youngest son while sleeping, heard the bombing and jumped up,” said Rakan. At that moment they decided that home was no longer safe. “We could not stay at home…And we decided to go to Jordan,” he said.
In Jordan, Khaled Al Hout found work remodeling homes. He immediately applied for asylum with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Three years later – and after five interviews with various refugee agencies — he got a call from the UN commission asking if he and his family would be willing to go to the U.S. He agreed.
Rakan Al Radi found a job as a taxi driver in Jordan. His family also applied for asylum. Four years and many interviews later, they were on their way to Austin.
“I was encouraged because some people who came to America said there is good education in America and there is work.” Everything he knew came from Facebook posts by Syrians who had moved to the U.S.
Austin non-profits are helping both families – Refugee Services of Texas for the Al Houts and Caritas of Austin for the Al Radis.
Rakan has found a job in a gas station. Even as his family tries to rebuild their lives here, the Texas government has withdrawn from the federal refugee resettlement program. The state had been a pass-through agency for federal money, but said it’s not satisfied with federal measures to assure that refugees are not security threats.
Salwa said that there is no cause for the government to fear the refugees.
“Basically, people who come here, they come for safety. They are looking for better life for their children. So I cannot understand the attitude,” she said.
The Al Houts are trying to put the past behind them. But Khaled fears for three of his sisters, who remain in Syria. “They keep moving between Aleppo and another city called Idlib,” he said.
“If the regime bombs one area, they move to the next. They keep moving with their families and children.”
He keeps in touch with his sisters through WhatsApp, but communication depends on the availability of internet service in Syria.
“We send them a message and don’t hear from them for a month… We think they are probably dead until we hear from them again,” he said.
Muna Al Hout was pregnant for the fourth time when she came to Austin.
“I would walk around the apartment not knowing what to do. I was pregnant and tired, and there was no one to talk to.” Adnan Al Hout was born a few weeks after they came to Austin. She introduced him as her American baby.
Khaled said he is “working in a factory that made something related to computers.” He said his Iraqi neighbor drives him to work. “The Americans at work are very kind….They are teaching me English,” he said.
Both Khaled and Muna want to start formal English classes soon.
“My heart is broken because they (children) bring back homework and notes and I can’t read anything,” said Muna.
“We want to give them a secure life and raise them to become what they want to be. The move here is definitely a good move, and many people dream about having that so we are glad we made it,” said Khaled.
When the Al Houts left Aleppo for Jordan, they thought the move would be temporary. They did not think of taking any mementos with them. Now they miss everything about their country.
For now, the love that they have for each other helps them cope. “We are doing fine because we married each other for love,” said Muna.
Mai Barazi, a student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, was the interpreter for the story.