Fort Worth

Newly arrived Syrian refugee in Fort Worth says travel ban left family in limbo

Fahmi Mousa Al Kazma has been looking for a safe place to raise his six children since 2011, when militias forced the farmer out of his village near Aleppo, Syria.

The family’s new safe haven is a four-bedroom apartment in Fort Worth. They arrived Wednesday night during a window of opportunity thanks to a federal judge’s halt last week of President Donald Trump’s ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries.

“We just wanted to arrive,” the-38-year-old father said in Arabic through an interpreter. “We were on the plane [with] our hearts in our hands.”

The family almost arrived Feb. 2, but Trump’s travel ban for Syrians and citizens of six other countries threw up a roadblock. Mousa’s family had been vetted before the order was signed. The family is the first group of refugees to arrive in Fort Worth since the ban was blocked. The countries covered under the ban are Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Yemen.

“We kind of look at this as our miracle family,” said Chris Kelley, a spokesman for Refugee Services of Texas in Dallas.

Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth is helping resettle the family of eight — Fahmi Mousa Al Kazma and his wife, Amoune Al Ayed, 38, and six children ages 7-14. Moussa Moussa Al Kazma is the oldest at 14. He is followed by 13-year-old twins, Zeinab Moussa Al Kazma and Charif Moussa Al Kazma. They are followed by 10-year-old twins, Najwa Moussa Al Kazme and Amal Moussa Al Kazme. The youngest sibling is 7-year-old Mohamad Moussa Al Kazma.

“We are normal,” the father said. “We just want to feel safe. ... We want to live like other people.”

‘What about Texas?’

The family’s flight from Syria began with attacks in Mousa’s agricultural village where he grew grapes, olives and pomegranates.

Mousa said he was forced to leave and move his family to safety when armed militia took over his home.

“I ran for my kids’ lives,” he said.

He ended up in Lebanon while his wife and children found safety in another Syrian village. He was able to find work in Beirut as a security guard in exchange for rent. In 2012, he brought his family to Beirut.

While separated from his family, he said he lived a father’s worst fears — wondering how he could protect his children from harm.

“I was unable to eat,” he said. “Unable to sleep.”

With refugee status came hope for a new beginning, Mousa said, adding that someday his children won’t be shaken by the sound of fireworks.

“They are looking forward to studying — to securing their futures. To feeling safe,” he said.

Mousa and his family didn’t know much about Texas when they learned this would be their new home. He asked friends, “What about Texas?”

“They tell me it is nice. It is a good state.”

Refugee Services of Texas is working with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to help the family. Volunteers from St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, St. Christopher Episcopal Church and Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth are helping, too. They helped furnish the family’s apartment. The volunteer work follows a recent plea to aid refugees by several local faith leaders.

“We want to make sure everyone feels welcome and our tradition has a strong emphasis on welcoming the stranger and offering hospitality,” said the Rev. Tracie Middleton, who is on the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth staff.

Becky Storey, area director for Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth, said they will help enroll the children in schools. The family will also be able to take English-as-a-second-language classes and receive job training.

“It is a chance for them to have a second chance at life,” Storey said. “We are so excited to welcome them and to help them rebuild their lives in America.”

‘Extreme vetting’

Before being granted refugee status, the family underwent 18 to 24 months of “extreme vetting,” Kelley said.

It included four in-person interviews with a total of seven agencies, as well as biometrics, blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans and a review of any social media activity, Kelley said.

Nationwide, there were 33,740 individual refugee arrivals between Oct. 1 and Wednesday, according to data provided through the Refugee Processing Center operated by the State Department.

Texas had been leading the country in refugee arrivals, but in January, California overtook it. As of Wednesday, California had resettled 3,366 individuals to Texas’ 3,201.

In Texas, most refugees typically settle in Harris, Dallas and Tarrant counties. Refugee resettlement groups and churches have opened their doors to refugees fleeing conflicts worldwide.

“I think the city of Fort Worth is very welcoming to refugees,” Storey said. In recent years, many arriving in the area are from the Democratic Republic of Congo. There have also been waves of refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma; Bhutan; Afghanistan; and Iraq.

‘A huge relief’’

Texas received 380 Syrians out of 5,132 who arrived in the U.S. between Oct. 1 and Wednesday. Since September, Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth has helped resettle 45 Syrians. The family that arrived Wednesday night brings the total up to 53. Another Syrian family was resettled in Fort Worth before the executive order was signed Jan. 27.

This family is also among refugees coming to Texas as resettlement dollars go through nonprofits instead of the state of Texas, Storey said.

In September, Texas officially withdrew from the nation’s refugee program. At the time, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said on Twitter: “The lax security of the refugee program is indefensible & endangering all Americans.”

On Thursday, Mousa said he is ready to work at any job he can find.

He and his family believed they were in limbo until they received news that the travel ban was halted. The federal judge’s ruling and images of U.S. protestors standing up for refugees gave Mousa hope. The family was happy to make a long journey from Beirut to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Houston and eventually Fort Worth.

“We felt a huge relief,” he said.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1