Elias Nasri waited in the prison cell, worried about the safety of his family.
Earlier that day, a bomb exploded on a bus in Damascus, killing 27 people. Three of those killed in the explosion were Syrian army officers. Even though he had nothing to do with the terrorism, Elias owned the bus company. He was a successful man in Syria, but now the police had come to arrest him. Everything he had ever worked for vanished in an instant.
His family rallied together and paid a bribe of around $30,000 USD to have him temporarily released from prison, but Elias couldn’t take any chances. He had heard enough stories about what happened to those blacklisted by Assad’s government.
“When they opened the door of my jail, within two hours, I’m in Jordan,” Elias said.
That’s how the Nasri family became Syrian refugees – a classification they never thought would describe their lives.
The rest of the Nasri family met Elias in Jordan a few days later, and then they traveled to Cairo. He gathered the gold jewelry he had given as gifts to his wife and children and sold it so that he could buy a taxi cab. For the next five years, that’s how he provided for his family. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Nasri family started making plans to leave Egypt. With the UN still processing their paperwork, the Nasri family decided to take a life or death risk. They bought tickets for a boat headed to Greece, knowing full well that many of the boats sank en route with no surviving passengers.
But on the way to the harbor, the bus was pulled over by Egyptian police and everyone was arrested. Elias’s wife, Rasha, and newborn daughter, Amena, went to prison, but were soon transported to a hospital because Amena was so sick. Around this time, word arrived that the UN had finally processed their paperwork and would be sending the Nasri family to the United States. Rasha said she would happily go anywhere but Texas, because she thought cowboys with six shooters and boots roamed Texas. They looked down at the sheet and saw they were going to Austin, Texas.
After stops in Rome and Miami, the Nasri family landed in Austin. Unsure of where to go or what to do, they were greeted by a crowd of people from Austin Ridge.
“They had no idea who we were,” said Heather Moga. “And all we knew is they spoke Arabic and were coming from Egypt.”
The goal for the volunteers was to welcome the people to our city, help them setup their apartment, and walk through any cultural barriers or paperwork that may otherwise be daunting. Several Austin Ridge members have maintained a deep relationship with the Nasri family for the past year.
The Nasris are Arab Muslims and practice traditional customs. The women wear hijabs and full body covering. Just recently, they invited a group of Austin Ridge members over to celebrate a home-cooked meal after sundown during Ramadan. They have cherished the friendship that has been cultivated between the two groups who, before the war in Syria, lived on opposite sides of the world.
“God’s heart for the refugee is apparent throughout the Bible, and he has grown my heart towards those who have been uprooted,” Heather said. “Now, they’re no longer strangers, but friends.”
The Nasri family is integrating into American culture day by day. All four of the kids have learned to speak fluent English, and the parents are improving daily. Kamar, 20, wants to be an engineer. Yana, 18, is studying to be a journalist. Nizar, 10, and his little sister, Amena, 5, are energetic and playful. They live in an apartment in North Austin, just a few miles from the mosque they attend.
Elias has found a job as a security guard, but fears he will never be able to access the flush bank account he has in Syria.
“I have a lot of money in Syria,” he said. “I have my account, but it’s on the blacklist. I’m afraid if I go there, I’ll be killed.”
Even though life hasn’t gone how he expected, Elias’s is a happy man. He feels respected, and is hopeful that his children have an opportunity to succeed here. Even though half of his heart is still in Damascus, which he nostalgically refers to as the City of Jasmine (a nickname for Damascus gained from the ever-present scent of jasmine), he feels completely at peace that his children are becoming more and more American.
“I may go back one day, but for my kids, they are American now,” Elias said. “They have a future here. This is our destiny.”
With hundreds of Syrian refugees in Austin, many members of Austin Ridge have taken the opportunity to build relationships and share the love of Christ. Sometimes this means long nights of laughter and food, ESL training, and helping them navigate immigration paperwork. But more than anything, it means being willing to join in their joys and struggles, while also representing Jesus.
* For the safety of the family, all names have been changed. If you are interested in engaging with this population, check out austinridge.org/refugee.