“I felt we were not doing enough to help others whose lives have been disrupted,” said Laurie Skelly, Media Specialist at Lake Elmo Elementary. Earlier this fall, Laurie and her husband Mark Strand, took in an Iraqi family and helped them assimilate into American culture.
Because of the war in the Middle East, nearly 2 million Iraqis have had to flee and become refugees in other countries. Laurie and Mark were concerned that the United States government wasn’t doing enough to help Iraqi families, who cannot get work, find shelter, or provide for their families.
Laurie was also concerned about how Iraqi’s viewed Americans as a result of the war. She and her husband wanted to show them that “we are a kind, generous, and trustworthy nation.” They could not obviously help 2 million Iraqis, but they could at least help one family.
Laurie and Mark started by calling a variety of church groups and Muslim American organization. There was a lot of waiting time (approximately 2-3 years), but they eventually connected with Sami Rasouli, the owner of Sinbad’s, a Minneapolis-based restaurant. Sami had sacrificed his business, to help his countrymen.
Sami told Laurie and Mark that a middle class family in Karbala had received death threats and needed their help. Zuhair, the husband, refused to help terrorists and was therefore threatened; in order to protect his family, he fled to Syria. Less than 1,000 Iraqis are allowed entrance into the United States yearly. They are also not welcome in Syria; Zuhair’s family was not allowed to work and was robbed.
With Sami’s help, Laurie and Mark called Amy Klobuchar’s office requesting help in getting Zuhair’s family to the United States. It was eventually Norm Coleman’s office that sent a letter to Damascus, getting the family permission to travel to the United States.
In March of 2008, Zuhair’s family left Syria and arrived in Erie, PA. They were placed in a “bad neighborhood”, according to Laurie. During this time, Zuhair worked two jobs, even though he held a business degree and owned his own business in Iraq.
By this fall, the day before Halloween, the family traveled a long and difficult journey to Minneapolis to stay with Laurie, Mark, and their two children. They were “quiet, respectful, and clean” Laurie says of Zuhair and his family (wife Zatuna, and children Mohamed 5 years old and Fatima 3 years old). The family shared one room of Laurie and Mark’s home, and immediately “became part of the family.”
Once Zuhair’s family arrived in Minnesota, Laurie began the process of helping them get set up in Minnesota. They made phone calls on their behalf by organizing health care options, language classes, transportation, and living. During the three months the family lived with Laurie and Mark, Valley Outreach, local churches and the Holiday Bureau helped the family with warm clothing, food, and resources. In addition, the Stillwater Area Schools ECFE provided the family with ELL classes to learn English. While Zuhair’s family lived with Laurie and Mark, they realized “how much like us they really are.”
Zuhair applied for subsidized housing waiting lists, but many were closed. However, in mid-February, Zuhair and Zatuna moved their family to Plymouth so they could access subsidized housing and have their own home. They want to become independent and did not always feel comfortable accepting charity. Their goals are to assimilate into the United States, by learning English and eventually getting full-time jobs. Zuhair would eventually like to attend graduate school and better support his family.
Looking back on this experience, Laurie says, “I’m glad we did it.” She says there are 300 million Americans and wishes more people could do 1-1 help like she did. Laurie stresses the need to help these families impacted by war, not only because they need our help, but because it helps improve the United State’s image around the world. As a result of Laurie and Mark helping Zuhair and Zatuna’s family, their extended family in the Middle East have a much more favorable impression of Americans. Like most teachers, we see a need and act to fulfill that need.
According to Laurie, “$250 keeps an Iraqi family of five alive for one month.” If you are interesting in learning more about helping Iraqis in need, contact the Muslim Peacemaker Team, Sami Rasouli, at 612-889-6556.