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As Biden ends travel ban, a Syrian refugee family in Spokane hopes for the future

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 21, 2021

The Al Zouabi family, from left, Hala 8, Sawsa, Baraa 5, Nabil and Huda 13, arrived in Spokane months before Trump signed the Muslim ban and now President Joe Biden is repealing that ban. The Al Zouabis were refugees from Syria.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Al Zouabi family, from left, Hala 8, Sawsa, Baraa 5, Nabil and Huda 13, arrived in Spokane months before Trump signed the Muslim ban and now President Joe Biden is repealing that ban. The Al Zouabis were refugees from Syria. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Sawsan Al Zouabi used to stand on her balcony and count the bombs falling on the horizon.

So she’s certain of this – there were seven or eight bombs falling every day around her village for six months before her family fled Syria.

Sawsan and Nabil Al Zouabi’s youngest daughter, Hala, was only 7 days old when one bomb fell close enough to shatter the windows of the family’s home.

But even then, Sawsan Al Zouabi said they believed “until the last minute” that the war would end.

Then, 10 days after their windows shattered, Free Army rebels attacked a point where about 20 regime soldiers had set up in town, Sawsan Al Zouabi said. In retaliation, the government’s fighters fired on the entire village, destroying homes at random and driving rebels out of the area.

Rather than estimate a number of bombs dropped, Sawsan Al Zouabi said simply, “It didn’t end.”

The Al Zouabis’ eldest son, Sultan – now 20 and studying pre-med at Gonzaga University – described Syria’s civil war as “evil from both sides” that unfairly caught civilians in the middle.

After taking refuge in Jordan for three and a half years, the family arrived in Spokane in 2016, mere months before then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order dubbed “the Muslim ban” on Jan. 27, 2017.

Wednesday, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden reversed that decision in his own executive order.

The original ban temporarily blocked citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entry into the United States and indefinitely barred Syrian refugees’ entry. New iterations of the order continued to block Syrian refugees through Trump’s presidency.

When Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol this month, Sultan Al Zouabi said his family worried for their safety again, but not for long.

“Our country is different from the United States,” Nabil Al Zouabi said in Arabic, with his son translating. “In the end, the government here cares about the civilians, and the law is what governs everyone. It’s the country of freedoms, different from any other country.”

Biden’s inauguration Wednesday brought Nabil Al Zouabi more hope for America’s future.

During his first day in office, Biden set the tone for his administration by reversing several Trump orders, including the Muslim ban. Biden’s new executive order also instructs the State Department to restart visa applications for the previously blocked countries, CBS reported.

Nabil Al Zouabi wouldn’t criticize Trump, adding that he’s not an expert on policy, but said repealing the ban “is a step that Biden is taking toward peace and the diversity of American society.”

‘This country is no more’

The Al Zouabi family’s village of 10,000 people, Al Yadudah, lies near the border with Jordan, about 70 miles south of Damascus. Palm trees line some streets. Sultan Al Zouabi described it as a beautiful town, home mostly to agricultural workers.

“Our house was very beautiful,” Sawsan Al Zouabi said. “We worked hard to decorate it and make it beautiful. Any person tries to have his own dream house, three meals a day with your family. We had a lot of brothers, sisters, uncles – big family.”

Nabil Al Zouabi worked many jobs, including in customs on the border with Jordan. The work that meant the most to him, though, was at the falafel restaurant he owned.

The first day their village was heavily bombed, the Al Zouabi family fled to a neighboring Syrian village to stay with Sawsan’s uncle.

“The people that came after us, they said ‘It’s like a fireball. The village is just burning,’ ” Sawsan Al Zouabi said.

As they waited for the violence to end at home, Sawsan said she still believed they could return to life as it had been before the war.

Her belief was so strong that when they packed for Jordan, they planned to stay for only a month, leaving nearly everything they owned behind.

“It took almost two weeks of dislocating,” Sawsan Al Zouabi said. “And we decided that this country is no more.”

The war began when the state used deadly force on protesters demonstrating against President Bashar al-Assad, and has since drawn military involvement from several countries with different agendas, including Russia, the BBC reported.

Of the 500,000 people dead or presumed dead by 2019 as a result of the conflict, the BBC reported the majority were civilians.

In the Al Zouabi family’s hometown, Nabil said more than 100 houses have been destroyed and 300 people killed in explosions.

Seventy miles northeast of the Al Zouabis’ home, rebels pushed regime forces out of a Damascus suburb in late 2012, and the government responded with a siege that blocked food, medicine and people from entering or leaving, Time magazine reported. In August 2013, a chemical-weapons attack killed more than 1,400 civilians in that area.

At that time, the Al Zouabis were taking refuge in Jordan. They were nominated by the United Nations and came straight to Spokane through a resettlement program by the World Relief Organization in 2016, Sawsan Al Zouabi said.

‘We achieved something here’

In Spokane, Nabil Al Zouabi works doing laundry at the Centennial Hotel. About once per month, he sells Syrian takeout through local nonprofit Feast World Kitchen. Sawsan Al Zouabi is studying at Eastern Washington University to become a teacher while her husband saves money for his dream to open a restaurant.

“He has a vision that the future will be better, especially because of all his hard work,” Sultan Al Zouabi said. “He has a dream for him to be educated and own a business, and through that, he’d like to introduce something to American culture. Opening a restaurant is opening something new to the culture.”

Sultan Al Zouabi is working to become a doctor, possibly a surgeon focusing on trauma victims. He took inspiration from the White Helmets, an organization of civilians who took it upon themselves in Syria to pull people from the rubble left by explosions.

Though Sultan Al Zouabi didn’t witness White Helmets in Syria, he’s studied them in the years since he left. Some White Helmet groups have been featured in award-winning documentaries, including “Last Men in Aleppo,” which follows men in the northern Syrian city hollowed out by warfare.

The film captures the men as they wait for bombers to fly overhead, then get in their vans and drive toward the falling bombs. At the explosion sites, they scramble to free people – many small children, and many already dead – from the piles of debris.

It was in a bomb strike like this that one of Nabil Al Zouabi’s close friends lost several of his children.

Despite the atrocities their country has endured, the couple still have hope, and the source of that hope is the same for them both.

“My kids,” Sawsan Al Zouabi said. “They were the reason that we left in the first place. We wanted them to be safe and to have a good life. When we came here, we thought that we should do our best to create a new life that gives them hope, or at least gives them a beginning.”

Nabil Al Zouabi said it was the “little successes, all the small steps” that kept him going as he overcame language barriers and established a home in Spokane.

Since March, Nabil Al Zouabi – with help from his wife, son and their second-oldest child, 18-year-old Abdul – is able to make extra money selling Syrian dishes at Feast. The nonprofit allows former refugees to rent a commercial kitchen at a low cost and sell food using the organization’s building and website.

On a good night, a family cooking there can make enough money to pay rent for a couple of months, Feast co-founder Ross Carper said last month.

Nabil Al Zouabi can’t think of a restaurant in Spokane that comes close to reminding him of home. But Saturday, he’ll offer a taste of Syria with chicken and falafel wraps, a traditional roasted chicken meal and a beef-based dish served with pita bread.

“I’m trying to show my culture through my food, and I hope it makes Spokane a better place,” Nabil Al Zouabi said.

Nabil Al Zouabi finds Spokane warm and welcoming. Sultan Al Zouabi said while serving Syrian dishes over the past few months, some customers who order their Saturday meals days in advance have thanked his family for making Spokane a better place.

Nabil Al Zouabi is still hopeful Syria will improve, but said it’s hard to imagine it becoming safe again in his lifetime.

America, on the other hand, is “going up and up.”

“I think we achieved something here,” Nabil Al Zouabi said. “Being different shouldn’t stop you from achieving your dreams.”

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