From Syria to Seattle: When worlds collide

They did not know each other, but simultaneously, their lives were plunging into an abyss.

Six years ago in mid-March, a bid for democracy known as the Arab Spring spread to Syria with demonstrations across the country. Three days later, at a large protest in Daraa, on Syria’s southern border, security forces opened fire on demonstrators. Syria then cascaded into a horrifying civil war. For the Alhamden family living outside Daraa, life went topsy-turvy.

At the same time, in Kirkland, Wash., software programmer Cari Conklin was recovering from a ski-accident brain injury, watching her marriage disintegrate, and wondering what had happened to the life of meaning she’d dreamed of.

“I was consumed with my own problems and had no capacity to consider what else was going on the world,” she says.

She would find out. Cari Conklin was on a collision course with the Alhamdens, one of the millions of Syrian families caught in the crossfire.

The Alhamdens flee Syria

Bassam Alhamden and his wife, Rabah, have six children, the youngest 7, the oldest 21. Bassam had a steady job as a security guard in a village outside Daraa, in southwestern Syria. Rabah made things grow.

“I used to grow tomatoes,” she says. “I would sell them in the market.” Her other crops were spectacular. There were trees — 80 olive, 50 pomegranate, and seven fig. She grew green beans, mounds of strawberries and all kinds of grapes — black, red, and green — fenced in with live cactus.

“It was beautiful,” says Rabah. “We had everything.”

But there were rumblings. “We were aware of the revolution in Arab countries, but we didn’t expect it to happen to us,” says Bassam. “Our town was peaceful.”

In March of 2012, the airstrikes began.

“We wouldn’t have food for weeks,” says Rabah. “There was no power. No utilities. No bread. Sometimes we would eat the [food] for the animals.”

But worse was the ever-present fear of death. “We couldn’t sleep because of the airstrikes,” she says. “The kids would cry every day.”

In January 2013, the family made the difficult decision to go to Jordan — just a few miles away.

“There’s a river by the border where the injured would be taken,” says Bassam. They crossed there, wading through shallow water to an uncertain future.

The Syria civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 11 million from their homes.

Children become so covered in dust at Za’atari camp in Jordan that their parents can’t recognize them. (©2013 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)

Life in the refugee camp

After living in the village, with fresh air and a garden teeming with vegetables and fruit trees surrounded by the cactus fence, Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp — bulging with 80,000 people, no electricity, and no opportunity — was a nightmare.

“There were times we would prefer to die in Syria than stay in Za’atari,” says Bassam.

Camp life was hard for the kids. They didn’t go to school. “They lost weight. There was so much dust,” says Bassam. “Sometimes my kids would play [outside] … and come back to the tent. I wouldn’t recognize them because they were covered in so much dust.”

What started as a peaceful protest for democracy threatened to dismantle a happy family. “It wasn’t fair,” says Bassam. “It destroyed our lives and other people’s lives.”

One morning, when oldest son Mohannad went to search for bread, he touched a metal building and was electrocuted. Rabah came running to find him unconscious and being given CPR. When she saw his toe move, she knew he was alive.

The family existed on starches — pasta and rice. “There were no fruits. No vegetables. No money to buy produce,” says Rabah. “For seven months, we didn’t have tomatoes.”

After seven months in the camp, they registered to go back to Syria. They’d take their chances.

“We gave away all our possessions,” says Bassam.

“I dressed my children in the night,” says Rabah. Everyone was ready to go.

They waited.

At 2 a.m., the phone rang.

“A family member said, ‘You can’t come. There was an airstrike that killed 14 people in our village,’” says Bassam. The family began to weep. They had given away all their belongings and had nowhere to go. Kind neighbors gave them a few possessions, but now they had next-to-nothing.

Finally — a miracle

“A week later,” says Bassam, “we were asked [by the United Nations] if we wanted to go to a foreign country.”

Bassam went quiet. “I was shocked.” He said yes. The UN caller could not tell him which country they would be going to, but Bassam knew that anyplace was better than the refugee camp.

Then began 18 months of interviews, each lasting five hours. Everyone in the family would be interviewed numerous times to ensure their stories corroborated.

“I went to city hall to see the results,” says Bassam. “They post the results — pending, refused, or accepted.”

Bassam’s family was accepted. They learned they would be moving to the United States. A month later, the family went through a four-day orientation about American culture, especially how to get by at the airport.

After a long flight from Jordan through New York and Chicago, in November 2015, they arrived in Seattle.

Cari Conklin was waiting for them at the airport.

Cari’s journey

Cari, 48, grew up north of Seattle in Mill Creek, Wash. She learned to be an accountant under the tutelage of her mother, but learned software programming when Bill Gates and Paul Allen turned a place known for lumber, passenger planes, and grunge music into a cyber metropolis with the growth of Microsoft.

She had married, hoped for children, but knew that dream had died when her 23-year marriage ended in divorce. Another dream had died as well: her dream of mission work. When Cari was 10, her father had taken her on a mission trip to Honduras. The memory of hearing “Cristo,” the name of Jesus, sung in Spanish, had stayed in her heart. Seeds had been planted.

But in November of 2014, Cari was on her own. She had recovered from neurological complications from the skiing accident and subsequent spinal tap gone awry, followed by the dark days of divorce and emotional healing. She was dating a man who sponsored children through World Vision.

“I saw a picture of two or three kids on his fridge,” she says. “He excitedly shared the model, and I loved the idea. I thought, ‘What a no brainer. Why wouldn’t you sponsor a child? It’s so inexpensive — the price of a manicure.’”

The software programmer went online. “I sponsored Areth from Tanzania and then Leidy from Honduras.” At Christmas, she sponsored a child for her parents. “I thought I could either spend $200 on a gift for them or sponsor a child.”

But she had more to give.

“I knew I wanted to volunteer somehow,” she says. “I knew God had wired me for that. I wanted to be more involved with people who are making a difference.”

The way forward happened on a bus. The man Cari was dating was applying for a job at World Vision, and she was praying for him as she rode the bus from work in Seattle to her apartment in Kirkland, across Lake Washington.

“A memory came to mind,” she says. “A pastor had come to my church when I was 14. He pointed to me and said, ‘You will someday have many children, but not necessarily your own.’ I was on the bus and it was like God said, ‘This is your many children.’ I knew that this was my calling.”

Two years ago, on the King County Metro Bus heading to Kirkland — Cari, tears streaming down her cheeks, knew she had been called to become a World Vision Child Ambassador.

An ambassador for children

In becoming a Child Ambassador, Cari became part of a very special community — volunteers across the country who promote World Vision’s child sponsorship. “They love God, and God put this on their hearts,” she says. “Maybe not on a bus, but somewhere.”

In 2015, Cari visited World Vision headquarters in Federal Way, Wash., with other Child Ambassadors to learn more about the needs of the world.

“Our table was asked to pray for Lebanon,” she says. “They had so many refugees from Syria. I had not heard any of this in the news, at least not that I could remember.” The Child Ambassadors bowed their heads to pray. “We were crying as we were praying,” she says. “Why is [the Syria refugee crisis] not on the evening news every day? Children are dying.”

Cari then became a World Vision Refugee Responder, raising money to help World Vision serve refugees from Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan.

She continued to learn what war does to people, especially children. “It just seems like a horror movie that’s going to be over in a couple of hours,” she says. “The movie is over, you throw the rest of your popcorn away and go home. You go back to work. To soccer practice. Your book club. Whatever you do every day. You’re done with it.”

But Cari was just getting started.

“This has been a personal journey I’ve been on with God,” she says. “As a Child Ambassador it became more real.”

In the fall of 2015, when the body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, Cari knew she had to do more. Through a friend who worked with World Relief, she was among a group who greeted the first Syrian family to arrive in Seattle that November — a family that had escaped Syria, lived through hell in Jordan, and were given the miraculous opportunity to move to the United States: Bassam Alhamden, his wife Rabah, and their six children.

Our colleague Dr. Chawkat Moucarry grew up as a Christian in Syria. Join him in prayer today for Syria, for guidance and understanding of this crisis. Hear his “Prayer for Refugees” and pray with us for refugees and disaster survivors. (©2017 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)

Getting to know them

In getting to know the Alhamden family, Cari’s circle of friends in her community widened as well. There was Julie, who took the family in for the first 15 days after their arrival, and two couples in Federal Way who housed them for another month. There was Methal, who grew up in Syria, who made a welcome sign in Arabic for the family’s airport arrival. The sign, written in a language they knew, made them cry with joy. Cari’s family was suddenly much bigger.

“That’s how it went from head to heart,” she says. It was at a dinner that she began to love Rabah. “We connected very quickly,” she says. “‘Now we have family again,’ said Rabah. Then she began to cry. The translator began to cry. We were all crying,” says Cari. “Rabah hadn’t seen her family in three years. At that point, I had a person in front of me who had been through hell. They were so thankful to be here and have a person they could call friend.”

To see Cari with the Alhamden family in the West Seattle apartment they found through World Relief and Muslim Housing Services is to see a prophecy fulfilled. “You will someday have many children, but not necessarily your own,” the pastor had told Cari. Today she has six sponsored children around the world, three boys and three girls, and six more beautiful children to love from Syria.

“Cari loves refugees,” says Rabah. “She loves everyone. We love each other and we share good moments.”

There have been so many good moments. They’ve shared Thanksgiving, decorated Cari’s Christmas tree, and celebrated a January 1 birthday bash for youngest child Ahmad, who is 7. “Or 7-ish,” says Cari. Like Ahmad, many refugees take Jan. 1 for their birthday if their records have been lost in the war.

There have been challenging moments. For Ahmad, now scampering happily around the apartment, the transition to a new location was challenging.

“At first he would scream a lot,” says Cari. “He was unhappy — partly because of the change. Partly because he was sick. He finally got some medical treatment here.”

She took care of Ali, 8, when he was sick. “Ali might be my favorite,” she says. “He’s shy. He got really sick when they started school. The school called me to come pick him up and take him home. I sat with him in the nurses’ station. After that, we were friends.”

There have moments of pure crazy as well, such as the first day of school. “She came at six in the morning to make sure everything went great,” says Bassam. It was sheer pandemonium that morning. “It was like a fire drill,” says Cari.

And then there’s the really hard stuff. “Every week a friend they knew dies,” says Cari. “An uncle. A cousin.”

The family learns through Facebook or WhatsApp about the deaths. So far they have lost 20 family members to the war.

Without Cari, says Bassam, “Life would have been difficult. But there are good people everywhere. All the people we’ve met are good people.”

A Seattle software programmer found herself on a collision course with one of the millions of Syrian families caught in the crossfire of Syria's civil war.

“Even when they are deeply saddened about life and Syria and loved ones,” says Cari Conklin, “they find ways to live life with passion and laughter.” (©2017 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)

Moving forward together

Bassam hopes to start training to become a security guard. Their oldest son, Mohannad, 21, who survived electrocution at Za-atari camp, has applied to intern at a nearby hospital this summer. He’s hoping to become a nurse. Yara, 17, goes to Seattle’s World School with other students learning English. Although everything is new and different, she says she’s happy. She has friends and most importantly, she feels safe. Their four younger siblings attend school as well.

Watching the news from Syria, the family sees the suffering. “They need medicine and food,” says Bassam, of those left behind.

“We ask God that peace will come back to Syria and that families will be safe,” says Rabah. “That the war will stop one day, and they’ll have food again. And no more deaths. That Syria will be what it was before.”

Rabah misses her garden, especially her tomatoes. “Tomatoes here are a beautiful shape,” she says, wrinkling her nose, “but they don’t taste good.”

But that doesn’t stop her from cooking delectable meals. Cari says she has gained 10 pounds from Syrian cooking. She’s able to spend much more time with the family since she recently moved from Kirkland to West Seattle — just to be closer to them.

A true responder

In August 2016, Cari learned that Shakila*, who had fled Afghanistan for safety, needed a place to stay. There was one catch: Shakila was two weeks away from giving birth.

“When I learned she was pregnant, I thought, ‘I have to take her’,” says Cari. She gave her new roommate a baby shower and two weeks later, Kayenat — a bright, beautiful girl — was born.

The two women are connected by their love for one another, for children, and unexpectedly, through World Vision. Shakila worked for World Vision in Afghanistan before fleeing.

In responding to the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time, Cari Conklin is living out her mission. “Welcome Home Refugees — Washington State,” a Facebook page she started with her Syrian friend Methal, now has 1,700 followers. She continues to volunteer for World Vision as a Child Ambassador and a Refugee Responder.

“What World Vision is doing in and around Syria is literally keeping people from starvation,” says Cari. “If there was anything I could give by waving a magic wand or performing a miracle beyond bringing peace to Syria,” she says, “it would be scaling the efforts and ability of World Vision to do what we do best — which is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, [and more].”

And World Vision can because of people like Cari — Child Ambassador, Refugee Responder, and friend.

*Name changed to protect identity

The Syria civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 11 million from their homes.

The Syria civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 11 million from their homes.

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