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For Syrian refugees, uncertainty returned with Trump order

<p>Ian Menzies, of Annapolis, and his wife, not pictured, protest at BWI-Thurgood Marshall International Airport.</p>

Ian Menzies, of Annapolis, and his wife, not pictured, protest at BWI-Thurgood Marshall International Airport.

(Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Ten days ago, this could have been a totally feel-good story about how the people of Baltimore County have been so welcoming and generous, helping the Almuhammad family feel comfortable and supported as they settle into American life after more than three years as refugees from their native Syria and its civil war.

Ten days ago, before President Donald J. Trump signed the draconian executive order that imposed an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, the story of Abdullah and Maha Almuhammad would not have the edge it does now. Ten days ago, I might not have heard, as I did Thursday night, their somber expressions of worry and fear: Maha, concerned about wearing a hijab, in accordance with her Muslim faith, beyond her neighborhood; Abdullah again feeling the uncertainty he knew for months in the refugee camp in Jordan; both of them wondering whether they should move their family to Canada.

Before the president's order on immigration, making official what Trump had promised during his campaign, the Almuhammads had little reason to feel this way.

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The outrageous and unnecessary Trump executive order on immigration constitutes, among other things, another effort by the new president to denigrate Obama.

Since their arrival in the Baltimore area last summer, Abdullah and Maha and their five children have received daily support, in one form of another, from members of a sponsoring Lutheran church and from the Almuhammads' neighbors in Rodgers Forge, including a Syrian couple, Malek and Monia Cheikh; they live just a few blocks away.

Neighbors and sponsors help with shopping and transportation. Someone provided the Almuhammads with a house — first, at no charge, then at a discounted monthly rent. Abdullah received not one but two sewing machines to keep up his tailoring skills and perhaps generate some income on top of what he takes home from his six-day-a-week job as a dishwasher at Panera.

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"The amount of help they've been getting has been unbelievable," says Malek Cheikh, an endocrinologist at Union Memorial Hospital.

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"Everybody's been super-helpful," says Monia Cheikh, a schoolteacher who served as my interpreter the other night.

The Almuhammads are from Daraa, at the southwestern edge of Syria, a city now known as the "cradle of the revolution." It's where the civil war started in 2011, and an area that was hit hard by the Syrian military.

"We were caught in the middle," says Abdullah.

After two years, with the war still raging, the Almuhammads decided to leave their home and drive across the border into Jordan. They ended up in a camp with thousands of other refugees, living with their five children in a camper that became unbearably hot in the desert sun. "In the camp, from day to day, you never knew what was going to happen," says Abdullah.

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From the camp, they moved to Amman, Jordan's capital. Conditions were far from ideal. Abdullah was not allowed to look for work, not allowed to own a motor vehicle or a home. But it was better than the camp.

Eventually, a United Nations representative gave the Almuhammads an opportunity to move to the United States.

"We are here," says Abdullah, "because there was no stability in Jordan. Honestly, when we came here, to Baltimore, until last month, we felt nothing but security and safety."

"But because of the executive order that came up," says Maha, "we now have the same feeling we had in Jordan. Very scared."

The neighbors have been great, they tell me. "But we are afraid to go out of the neighborhood, and that [executive] order makes us feel afraid," Maha says.

"We ran from fear," says Abdullah, "and now we've come back to fear."

What did they know of Trump before they settled here?

"Some people in Jordan scared me," says Maha. "They said, 'Don't go [to the United States].' Some said it is the enemy of Islam. ... They said we would not be accepted here."

Police in Harford County say they don't stop people just to check their immigration status, but the recent experience of a Bel Air woman raises questions.

But she and her husband were pleasantly surprised by their greeting in Rodgers Forge. Many were eager to help them and their children — Mariam, 11; Youssef, 10; Hala, 6, and twins Jana and Siba, 4. "The people here were very understanding and helpful," says Abdullah.

The children are in school, where they have made friends.

So, as I said, a feel-good story about big-hearted Americans supporting a family that had to flee its home because of a civil war.

All good, until Trump slammed the door on Syrian refugees. Abdullah's brother is one of them; he and his family have been waiting two years for resettlement in the U.S.

Fears and uncertainty returned with Trump's signature. Abdullah did not expect to feel this way in America, a country he considered "the strongest in the world."

But the reasons for that strength include the Constitution and the rule of law — "A government of laws, and not of men," John Adams said — and, since I spoke with the Almuhammads, a federal judge temporarily blocked Trump's immigration order. So stay tuned. This might be a totally feel-good story yet.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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