The first thing you might notice about an Omaha boy named Ghaith is that he’s very well-behaved.
He sits with his mom, Sahar, and his dad, Ahmed, on a donated couch in a donated house on a quiet old street in Elkhorn. He does not squirm or whine or ask to play Minecraft or complain about the strangers in his living room asking questions in a language he is just beginning to learn. He does not sulk the way a kid might after being warned to be good.
Watch as Ghaith patiently sits through a laborious interview that takes twice as long because of the Arabic translation. You may wonder how his parents do it. You may think: My 8-year-old can’t sit still like this.
Then, once the grown-ups are done, the second thing you notice about the eldest of the Al Kango children is that Ghaith positively glows. He could be on a cereal box. A real scrubbed-cheek American kid picture of health. Bright eyes. Darling smile. A face that shines when — and only upon request, because he’s not a show-off, but he IS proud — he recites what he has learned since coming here at Christmastime. The ABCs. Numbers. Words like “horse” and “elephant” and “zoo,” which he has visited here.
Good job, you say.
“Thank you,” he replies, clear as a bell and so eagerly you think, OK. This Syrian refugee kid is going to be all right.
He’ll be all right for a number of reasons, not the least of which is this: Ghaith Al Kango and his family got into the United States right before the door behind them slammed shut. Ghaith’s aunt and uncle are going to be stuck in their refugee home in Turkey indefinitely. President Donald Trump’s temporary executive order banned refugees for 120 days and Syrians for an indefinite period. A federal judge’s ruling appears to reopen the door, but no one knows for how long given the administration’s appeal.
I first met the Al Kangos at Eppley Airfield two days before Christmas, when welcomers from St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church greeted them. The west Omaha parish sent its pastor and two dozen parishioners holding balloons, signs, flowers, toys. Ahmed and Sahar, who is pregnant, and their three sons were absolutely stunned. They were tired and overwhelmed but wore faces of astonishment.
The greeting, which continued in the Elkhorn home with a hot meal on the stove and loaded fridge, new pajamas on freshly made beds and new toys, made such an impression that, five weeks later, they were still talking about it.
“We saw how the people received us in a great way,” Ahmed said through a translator. “We were so, so happy. We saw that the American people, they treated us very well. I really cannot describe how nice the people welcomed us, how they treated us. I felt safety. I felt relaxed. It was good, good.”
Sahar added that her children — Ghaith; Mohamad, who is turning 7 this month; and toddler Abdulrazzaq — love the women from St. Wenceslaus who come to visit. The kids cry when they leave.
“We didn’t expect all that,” Sahar went on. “They hugged us. They called us by names. We didn’t know what to say or do. I was so happy I was laughing. Nobody hugged us like that in Turkey.”
What did they think of Trump’s order?
Ahmed and Sahar said they could understand why Americans might fear people from places that are riven by violence. They get how terrorist attacks make people afraid. They believe it’s important to vet newcomers to the United States, as they were. It took four interviews, an ultrasound to confirm Sahar’s pregnancy and multiple document checks over the span of 15 months for them to come here.
“I think they’re right to be worried until they can trust. Because they don’t know,” Sahar said through the translator.
But they wish Americans could understand just how awful things are in Syria so they could truly appreciate why people who otherwise would want to stay put have uprooted themselves at great peril.
Ahmed tried to explain.
“The Syrian people are living in very hard times — like bombing from airplanes. Food is very scarce. Children are being killed daily. Many of the children don’t go to school,” he said. “The Syrian people are really traumatized. They are really in a big disaster.”
He added: “By nature, the Syrian people are very peaceful people, not violent in their nature.”
Ahmed explained how his brother and his wife were killed by a bomb, leaving their little girl an orphan. He explained how his father in Syria needed cancer treatment but had to travel to Turkey to get it. And Turkey’s got plenty of problems of its own, including a scarcity of jobs. A man might get lucky to find work that pays $200 a month, and that’s not enough there to cover needs.
“The life of a refugee in Turkey is very tough,” he said.
Ahmed has another brother, married to Sahar’s sister, and their family hopes to come to the United States. Everyone was heartbroken when Trump’s order was issued.
Ahmed tells his brother that Trump’s order does not reflect the wishes of many Americans. He tells his brother about the airport protests and pro-immigrant rallies in cities including Omaha. And he holds up the warm welcome the family received as further proof of the kindheartedness of Americans and their willingness to welcome the outsider.
Mostly, the Al Kangos discussed how they’ve settled in. They depend on their St. Wenceslaus friends for rides everywhere because they have no car yet and because their Elkhorn location makes public transportation impossible. They are still waiting for a doctor appointment so their two older boys can get vaccines and get into school. (The long wait is a typical hardship for newly resettled refugee children in Omaha because there is only one clinic handling all refugees.)
Ahmed has had one job interview and plans to work the first job he can get. Meanwhile, he and Sahar have already taken some English classes, but their out-of-the-way location makes it difficult. Their St. Wenceslaus helpers have kept the kids busy with games, educational videos and trips to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Children’s Museum.
“We’re just so happy they’re here,” said Kaela Volkmer, who is coordinating the parish care of this family and is personally hosting a birthday party at her home for Sahar. She is also arranging a parish “friendship” party on Feb. 12.
The help that Kaela and the other parishioners has given is more extensive than typical for other Omaha refugees, said translator Magid Girgis. He sees many refugee families arrive with no sponsors at all, just the already-strapped staff of resettlement agencies. Magid’s phone rings constantly with people in need.
On this quiet street in Elkhorn, it is not hard to see how an investment like the one St. Wenceslaus has made is paying off. The Al Kango family appears settled, stable and launched in the kind of way you’d hope. One look at Ghaith shows why.
In rapid-fire English, he says:
“What is your name?”
“How are you?”
And then, in a gesture we have long associated with American openness, Ghaith stood, waved his arm and said: “Come.”