It’s a breezy afternoon at Fort Mellon Park where Majed Al Edany watches his young children playing soccer from afar. It seems like a normal afternoon where a large group of people have gathered for a picnic, enjoying a spread of delicious food and their pavilion is ringing with conversation and laughter.
But Al Edany’s story is far from normal.
Fleeing Iraq earlier this year, Edany had been struggling to make ends meet for his young family when he was forced to leave his job at an American company four years ago. As militias targeted him as a traitor and killed his brother, Edany knew living there was no longer possible.
After waiting four years to get to the United States, Edany’s family finally settled in Orlando, FL. But when he arrived, with little money, he faced new challenges adapting to the environment and searching for work, while his family of six was placed in a small project home in a dangerous neighborhood, with a leaking ceiling and a barren floor.
“I came with $1,000, my life’s savings, and I spent it all the first week because I didn’t understand the system.”
Soon, the struggles worsened and Edany found himself lonely with little support.
“We needed food so I went out walking looking for the market –It took me five hours to get to Wal-Mart and when I got lost, I couldn’t ask for directions because no one could understand me.”
The family continued to live this way for five months until Edany met the Floridians Responding to Refugees (FRRC) team, who found him a new apartment, a car, a job, language tutoring and community support.
Edany is one of hundreds of refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East who have found help through United Nations appointed NGO’s such as International Rescue Committee and World Relief who provide basic housing, food, healthcare and language training when they arrive to the United States.
Edany’s family, initially assisted by the IRC, is the third family FRRC, an umbrella relief organization, has helped resettle into a new home.
“We came together to fill the gaps” says Dr. Wasim Assaf, co-founder of FRRC and its finance director. A dentist in Central Florida, Assaf was born in Syria and moved to America when he was 16 years old. “When I heard about what was going on, I felt I needed to fulfill my responsibility towards those who have faced oppression. I wanted to welcome them the same way I was welcomed by the American people when I arrived.”
FRRC’s concept was first founded when Safaa El Dannaoui, owner of Safaa Fashions, discovered that a Syrian refugee family was resettled in her area in South Florida and did not have a washer and dryer.
“Raising four children myself and always having so much laundry, I empathized with their situation, sent them a washer and dryer and went over to introduce myself.”
Her pro-active approach in wanting to help the family snowballed from one thing to another.
“Coincidentally, the IRC lady was there at the time, and was having a difficult time understanding the family as they didn’t speak English. So I left my phone number and she reached out to me the next day to help translate some documents.”
El Dannaoui and a few others began formally helping the family, and soon after six other refugee families, with necessities such as groceries and transportation that the IRC did not provide.
“IRC is an incredible organization with some of the nicest people I have seen; the employees there are not just workers, they’re people who really care. But just as with many NGO’s, they have their limitations. They are not working 24/7 so if you’re sick at night, or need long-term support, you’re not going to get that. These families needed a bigger boost.”
After realizing they were duplicating efforts, such as getting too many groceries or double booking rides for the families, El Dannaoui and her friends began organizing themselves into a team that would continue to welcome families in their area.
When the Orlando community heard of their efforts and the overwhelming need these families faced in transitioning to their new lives, they mobilized an out-of-garage collection drive that would send trucks loaded with furniture, supplies, monetary aid and clothing to the now eight Syrian refugee families in South FL.
“People from all cultures, religions and backgrounds began reaching out, donating their own furniture, money and time to help buy, sort and load the items we needed” says Assaf. “The collection was very uniting for the Orlando community and because of this we came together and decided to extend our help in resettling some families from South FL to Orlando.”
Running solely on volunteer aid and donations from the community, FRRC resettled two Syrian families in Sanford FL into beautiful townhomes, with furniture, groceries, transportation, in home English tutoring and help with job placement.
“The goal is to give them the best shot at success for the future, so that they can be productive members of society and eventually pay it forward to others in need” says Assaf.
With stocked pantries and intimately decorated homes, FRRC began gaining attention of many around the state.
“Many people tell us that we spoil the families by giving them so much” says El Dannaoui. “But Prophet Mohammed and Jesus taught us how to love for others what you love for yourself, no matter who they are and what their background is. We gave these people homes any one of us would want to live in.”
With more than four million having fled Syria since the conflict began four years ago and over four million displaced in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion, El Dannaoui says the 2,350 syrian refugees that have arrived here since 2011 and the possibility of up to 10,000 next year is a minute fraction of the suffering population.
“The amount of refugees we are getting is a drop in the ocean and cannot affect our resources. With the right support, these families are already working and paying taxes within six months, and they end up giving back to help other people.”
A concern now among many refugee families who have been victim to the backlash of the hate rhetoric in the media and amongst American leadership is what their future looks like here in America.
“These people have fled so much terror and oppression” says El Dannaoui, her voice cracking. “When I see these people, I see myself. I remember myself as a young child in Lebanon, when my house was bombed and I had to step on dead bodies on the way to my uncle’s home. I remember the fear and the pain and what it’s like to lose everything.”
And when it comes to the FRRC, El Dannaoui and Dr. Assaf both agree the organization is founded on American principles.
“No cause is more important than the other” says Assaf. “Our country was founded on helping those fleeing oppression and providing a safe haven to those in need.”
El Dannaoui agrees. “Helping refugees is just one aspect of what our members do; many of us wake up early to feed the homeless, volunteer at shelters, tutor children at schools and help with many charities. Wherever there is a need, we have to do the best we can.”
And while his children giggle as they run around the park’s lush fields and his expecting wife chats with a new friend at the FRRC picnic, Majid Al Edany does not have to worry for the first time in many years.
“I feel better about my family’s future” he says. “I finally feel I am home.”