The phone call came to Lutheran Social Services’ Grand Rapids office out of the blue. A documentary filmmaker was trying to locate a newly arrived Iraqi family for a film he was making. He was at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, as were Lutheran Social Services refugee resettlement staff. They were all looking for the same family of nine, who left Iraq for neighboring Syria in 2006, their lives threatened by sectarian violence.
The filmmaker, a Syrian named Fadi Wahbeh, is making a documentary about the journey of this family to a new life in America. He spent a month last summer visiting with the family in Damascus and had just flown in from Dallas, where he’s a graduate student and teacher, to catch the family’s arrival.
A look of relief crossed father Hasan's face when he spotted Wahbeh at the airport. The children – five girls aged 9 to 18 and two younger boys – were excited to see him. “I used to bring them candy every day in Damascus,” Wahbeh said with a laugh.
Also at the airport were volunteers from Rogers Heights Christian Reformed Church in Wyoming, Michigan, home church of an American refugee relief worker in Damascus. She knew the family needed a sponsor in Michigan so she and Chris Cavanaugh, Lutheran Social Services’ manager of refugee resettlement in West Michigan, encouraged the church to take on those responsibilities. Church members are helping the family get settled and adjust to their new home.
Then another challenge arose. The group had arrived with 18 bags. “Usually a family will come with three or four suitcases,” Cavanaugh said. The Lutheran Social Services van could not hold all the people and all the luggage. With the help of Wahbeh’s rented car and a pickup truck belonging to a member of the church group, the family and their belongings were transported to their rental house in northwest Grand Rapids.
Inside their new home, Wahbeh watched through his camera lens as Hussam, 3, jumped up and down on a bed. He doesn’t know much English, but as he bounced he said, “Happy! Happy!”
“Did you hear that?” exclaimed his mother, Meithaq. “He said he’s happy.” It was a sign that life in America is going to be good.
Wahbeh plans to return to Grand Rapids in six months, around the time the family’s rent and food subsidies will be ending. “I want to capture how the program has been able to prepare them for society,” Wahbeh said. He plans to finish his film by the end of 2010.
(This is just one of many refugee families and individuals scheduled to arrive soon in Grand Rapids. In the week of April 19 alone Lutheran Social Services in West Michigan welcomed a family of six, a family of eight and two individuals from Burma. Every family needs furniture, especially beds and bedding, along with kitchen pots and pans, dishes, flatware, towels, lamps, even clothing – whatever it takes to turn a bare apartment into a home. Donations are welcome. Volunteers are needed to take the refugees to appointments, drive them to and from work or to medical and other appointments, share activities to help them get used to American life and customs, and to mentor or tutor them in English. What they need most are some friends in their new land. To learn more about how you might help, contact Chris Cavanaugh in Grand Rapids: (616) 356-1934 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. )