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How one Syrian couple found a new home and community in West Virginia

By Coco McCabe
A sprig of mint that Asmael Saifo helped to grow is still green--and even fragrant--despite the snow now blanketing the gardens in Charleston, WV. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

With a green thumb and plenty of grit, Asmael and Khetam Saifo have spent the past three years putting down roots in their adopted city, Charleston. And some of the gardens around the capitol are looking pretty good because of it.

In a tiny apartment in downtown Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, a tabletop American flag stands propped just inside the door. That patriotic symbol is one of the first things a visitor’s eye falls on when stepping over the threshold.

Across the room, under the window, rests a book with notes, in a careful Arabic hand, tucked between its pages. “A Dictionary of American Idioms,” reads the title. And pasted to an otherwise bare wall is a card-sized photo, a portrait whose features are impossible to discern until you draw close to meet their owner: a boy of about 6 with eyes shining so full of life they make you smile as broadly as he does.

This is the home of Asmael and Khetam Saifo, a couple in their 60s, who fled the carnage in Syria, leaving behind not only everything they owned, but an extended family now scattered across several continents. The bright-eyed boy on the wall is their grandson, a child they don’t expect to be able to see any time soon. After a harrowing escape, his family has now settled in Sweden, but for the Saifos a tangle of US laws regarding immigrant status and travel restrictions is keeping a reunion there in the distant future.

Outside, it’s snowing heavily and the temperature hovers in the 20s, a reminder of how harsh the climate can be in these West Virginia hills.  But here in the Kanawha Valley, deep inside a state that voted overwhelmingly for a president whose campaign vows included erecting a wall across the border with Mexico to keep immigrants out and blocking the entry of all Muslims into the US, the Saifos have, improbably, built themselves a new life—a life modeled on the one they loved so dearly in Syria. How?

How can a man and a woman of Ismaiili Muslim faith who spoke not a word of English when they first set foot here, who have no earned income, and who knew very few people now feel so attached to this quiet city that it’s the only place they want to live?

The answer is simple: Friendship is what keeps them here; it makes them know they are home, and anchors them the way their siblings and cousins, children and grandchildren once did in Syria.

“I feel we are living among our family here,” says Asmael, an author.

“It is like our life in Syria,” says Khetam, a former elementary school teacher.

This is the story of that new family life—Saifos and friends—forged, across cultures, from kindness and mutual respect, from shared interests and a commitment to community.

Khetam Saifo volunteers three days a week at Manna Meal, which provides free breakfast and lunch to more than 400 people a day in Charleston, WV. Photo by Coco McCabe / Oxfam

From garden to garden

Asmael ignores the fat, wet snow flakes settling on his head and shoulders as he hustles a pair of visitors down the street. An elegant man with expressive hands and a warm smile, he’s concentrating on his watch: We’re late, and if there’s anything a man of efficiency abhors it’s the failure to stick with the program.

The plan is to meet with some of the Saifos friends like Jean Simpson and Lisa Martin, Ellen Allen and Lynn Clarke—all, curiously, women and all very strong. They are part of a broad network of activists, some from churches and some from social service agencies, striving to make sure Charleston can meet the needs of all its residents. One wonders what kind of city the capitol would be without the focus and drive of these women.

Our first stop is St. John’s Episcopal Church where, for 40 years, Charlestonians have come together to offer meals for folks who need them—no questions asked. Manna Meal provides breakfast and lunch to more than 400 people a day, and for three of those days each week, Khetam volunteers to serve up the food.

Asmael Saifo likes to garden with Jean Simpson (in the black sweater) because he gets to practice his English with her, particularly slang. She's executive director of Manna Meal in Charleston, WV. With them is Kay Albright, Manna Meal's outreach coordinator. Photo by Coco McCabe / Oxfam

Jean Simpson is executive director of the program and she has, Asmael assures us, the strength of 10 men: she scrubs down tables, hauls heavy loads, and keeps an army of 150 volunteers marching in order. Oh, and one other thing: She’s an expert gardener—even better than he is. This last point is no small admission. Gardening is in Asmeal’s blood; it’s what has rooted him to his adopted city.

From churches to social service agencies, Asmael has volunteered to help them turn their sometimes neglected plots into oases of food production. In the last three years, he has poured his sweat into seven gardens across the city, working up to seven hours a day at the start of each growing season and then putting in 15 hours a week as the vegetables and flowers progress. Khetam often joins him, bringing a thermos of tea or coffee to sip during breaks from their work.

It was one of Manna Meal’s gardens that Asmael and Jean Simpson first bonded over: not only was he able to give his green thumb a workout, gardening alongside Jean allowed him to practice his English—especially his slang. And when a plot of land on a street nearby became available, she offered it to Asmael to maintain.

As good friends do, the pair of them laugh at the memory of what happened next.

Knowing the importance of water conservation from his many years of gardening in semi-dry Syria, Asmael worked the plot using a method West Virginians hadn’t seen before: He mounded the earth for planting sweet potatoes and then dug a trough beside the mounds to capture the rainwater.

“The other gardeners said ‘oh, no!’” recalls Jean. “But I said, ‘Let him try.’ Needless to say we got sweet potatoes the size of our heads.”

Asmael Saifo gets a hug from Lisa Martin, who is the office administrator at Christ Church United Methodist in Charleston, WV. Photo by Coco McCabe / Oxfam

A few blocks down from Manna Meal, at Christ Church United Methodist, Lisa Martin tells a similar story about the bounty Asmael and Khatem coax from the earth. The church had 12 raised beds that no one had tended and when Asmael asked if he could bring them back to life, church officials gave the project their blessing. Soon parishioners were dropping off plants and seeds, and under the constant care of the Saifos, a cornucopia of veggies began to grow.

 “People were surprised to see boxes in the middle of the city growing vegetables,” says Lisa, who is the office administrator and wearer of many hats for the church. And perhaps they were even more surprised that the peppers and squash, lettuces and tomatoes were all there for the taking.

“The first year we got a late start, but still it was amazing what he got out of the ground,” Lisa adds.  “Anyone who could start that late in the growing season and still get something edible was amazing.”

For each of the last two years, the church has held a party for 300: The church provides the barbecue and the garden provides the veggies.

Asmael Saifo and his English teacher, Bill Hutchinson, share a laugh. Photo by Coco McCabe / Oxfam

Learning from each other

Trudging through the snow, Asmael guides us into the First Presbyterian Church to meet another set of friends—this group instrumental in helping him and Khetam navigate all the challenges of living in a strange new place. They took the couple shopping, alerted them to interesting cultural events, and helped them with their English, all on the way to building a deep bond with them.

In a crowded, book-lined room at the church, Bill Hutchinson, a gregarious transplant from Maine, recalls his first English lessons with Asmael.

“It was extremely difficult,” he says. “He couldn’t understand anything I said and I couldn’t understand anything he said. But anybody who works as hard as he works has got to be successful.”

With the determination that drives so much of what he does, Asmael has even hit the lecture circuit—in an informal kind of way. A researcher focusing on the economy, history, and politics back in Syria, Asmael has written more than 10 books. Now, whenever he can, he shares that wealth of knowledge with local audiences. For a man who is still trying to master English, what’s his communication strategy?

“Twenty-five percent English and sometimes body language,” he says, cheerfully, along with a collection of photographs, a map, and a blackboard.

The lessons he offers have opened eyes.

“I didn’t know much about Syria. I feel heartbreak over what’s happened,” says Diane Mitchell, who took the Saifos on countless shopping trips before they got a car in December. She calls Asmael’s presentations on the history and culture of his country remarkable.

Diane Mitchell is one of the the Saifos' many friends in Charleston, WV. The trio got to know each other when Diane volunteered to drive the Saifos on some of their regular errands.Photo by Coco McCabe / Oxfam
Lynda Strickland (right) and her husband have become good friends with Asmael Saifo (left) and his wife. Photo By Coco McCabe / Oxfam

“He wants everybody to love Syria and understand their struggle and be supportive of the families,” adds another friend, Lynda Strickland.

It works the other way, too. As much as Asmael wants his American friends to understand his old life, he wants to embrace his new life, too—to understand every aspect of what makes Americans tick. And that’s why, though there are other Syrians living together elsewhere in the city, he and Khetam chose to plant themselves right in the heart of downtown, a decision that inspires the admiration of their friends.  

“I would say that was brave to do,” says Sam Strickland. “That was the hard way—not the easy way.”

Putting down roots

The Saifos’ choice to stay in Charleston is not something everyone can completely understand, including their son, a medical doctor who has lived in the US for nearly 10 years and is now practicing in St. Louis. He was the one who first urged his parents to join him—he was in Arizona at the time—when it became clear that the Saifos’ security in Syria was no longer certain: The cost of living in their community has skyrocketed, with prices for basic goods now 20 times higher than before the war. Electricity is sporadic and clean water is available sometimes just once a week. In 2014, when their son married a woman from Charleston and moved there to practice, the Saifos moved with him.

Here in the US, the Saifos have temporary protected status, or TPS, a legal designation the government grants to citizens of countries embroiled in armed conflict or other turmoil. It’s good only for a limited time—in this case until the end of March 2018 with the possibility of renewal—and provides the holder with permission to work in the country. They are making ends meet through a mix of support from local social service organizations and their son.

When their son asked them to move with him to St. Louis, the couple declined.

“The community and relationships we’ve built here, we don’t want to lose,” says Asmael, ticking off the dinner invitations the couple has received and extended during the past month. “It compensates for what we had in Syria.”

Lynn Clarke is the president of the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry, a newly formed group that is hoping to help more refugee families settle in the Charleston, WV, area. Photo by Coco McCabe / Oxfam
Ellen Allen is the executive director of Covenant House, a social service agency in Charleston, WV. Photo by Coco McCabe / Oxfam

Opening the door to more

The warm community the Saifos have found in Charleston may soon open its doors to others.

With a welcoming smile and an imperturbable demeanor, Lynn Clarke is the president of a newly formed organization that hopes to resettle about 30 refugee families a year in the Charleston area. The group, the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry, received word in late December that the US State Department had approved its application, filed jointly with Episcopal Migration Ministries, to start a resettlement program.

“It was like a Christmas gift,” says Clarke. “It was wonderful.”

But the news comes as the next White House administration, ushered in on a wave of xenophobia, was about to take office, and West Virginia was not immune to the fears the recent presidential election stoked. What might happen next is not at all clear.

And worrisome to Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, a social service agency working on homelessness and hunger in Charleston, is the fate of federal funding for housing programs once the new administration is in place. The Saifos have been receiving a subsidy through Covenant House for their apartment.

Despite the uncertainties ahead, neither Asmael nor Khetam are letting any of that darken their outlook. They are putting their faith in the rule of law—one of the great strengths of a country they hope sometime to call their own as citizens.

“There is a constitution in the country,” says Asmael with conviction, “and civil society organizations and legal rights that protect me and others.”

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