EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) — When Razan heard an explosion rock her Syrian city in the summer of 2012, she felt a pang of terror.
Frantically scanning news reports, she called her son Nour at school.
“Don’t come home,” she told Nour. Police were arresting young men along the road to their house. “Go to your grandma’s. It will be more safe.”
Nour, then 17, rushed out of the high school with his classmates. He saw police and ran.
War had reached Damascus.
“My friend was arrested that day,” Nour, now 21, said recently at his Evansville apartment. “He didn’t do anything, he was just in the wrong place. They held him for one month. They tortured him. They pulled off his nails, can you imagine?”
It was then Razan and her husband realized Syria was no longer safe for their son.
Escaping the war-torn country would be an agonizing and dangerous journey. The coming years would tear the family apart, scatter them across the world and eventually bring some of them back together in an unlikely place — Evansville.
“It’s a long story about leaving Syria,” Razan said. She sat in her Evansville apartment last month drinking tea with her son and daughter. The family asked that their last names be withheld. In Syria, criticizing the government is a crime, and they fear speaking about the conflict will endanger family still living there.
It wasn’t always this way.
When Razan’s children were young, Syria was a near idyllic place, they said.
“I considered it heaven there,” Nour said.
“We had no worries,” his older sister Bayan said.
They were part of a large extended family. Nour remembers gathering at his grandparents’ home every weekend. As the adults talked and prepared food, Nour and Bayan played with their cousins.
But in 2011, everything started to change.
Countries across the Middle East were rebelling against authoritarian governments. In Syria, the government arrested a group of middle school-aged boys for writing revolutionary chants they’d heard on TV on their school wall. The children were held and tortured for weeks, some died.
Thousands of Syrians in the city of Homs took to the streets in protest. The demonstration was peaceful, but the government opened fire on the protesters, killing many. Within a year, rebel groups formed to overthrow the government.
Syrian’s once-peaceful cities became battlefields.
Razan’s daughter, Bayan, was in her last year of university as the violence escalated.
“They used to have fights at the university,” Bayan said. “They would come in with their tanks and guns and attack the students. If they started to have a fight, we learned right away to leave on the buses, or we would be trapped.”
At the last attack, Bayan’s bus did not get away in time. She and her friends watched in terror as men fought just outside their windows. Bullets flew, wounded men fell in pools of blood.
Soldiers attempted to board the bus. In a split second decision, the driver sped away.
“It was so scary,” Bayan said, softly.
After she graduated, Bayan and her husband decided to move to the United States. It was still early in the conflict, before Syria’s citizens began the mad rush to escape, so immigrating was simple.
By the time the family decided to get Nour out of Syria, leaving the country was more difficult.
In 2012, Razan and her husband enrolled Nour in a private high school in Jordan, a country just south Syria.
The border crossing between Syria and Jordan was clogged with people. When Nour and his parents finally reached the checkpoint, the guard announced that only Razan and her husband could cross.
“I was a little desperate, but what could I do?” Nour said.
After a moment of panic, Razan stood back and studied the guards. Many appeared unmoved by the family’s plight. But she spotted one who she thought looked troubled by the scene around him.
This man was their best chance, she thought.
“I know you are a nice person,” Razan told the guard. “You don’t look like an evil person.”
The guard’s eyes were full of pity, so Razan charged on.
“I don’t have any son but Nour,” she pleaded. “I cannot leave him here. He is a good boy. Please.”
To Nour’s surprise, the guard agreed to help.
“My mother was the happiest person in the whole world when we crossed the border,” Nour said. “I’ve never seen anyone so happy. Her face, it beamed.”
Jordan was not an ideal place for Syrian refugees. The country refused to give Syrians work permits, and often treated them as second class citizens.
Because Nour’s family was educated and well-off, they escaped the worst treatment. But there was still no future for them there.
In 2013, he visited an international university fair.
“I went to the fair hoping I’d find a way to get out,” Nour said.
He spoke with every university there, and found nothing. Disappointed, he was nearly out of the building when he spotted a table at the back of the room.
It was the University of Evansville.
“I almost missed it,” Nour said quietly.
Bev Fowler, UE’s director of International Admissions and Recruitment, still remembers meeting Nour that day. The university had just started offering scholarships for Syrian students — and he was a perfect candidate.
“I want to see you on campus in January,” Fowler told him.
Those words stayed with Nour. The next year, he was in Evansville.
Nour and Razan live together here. His older sister lives in Ohio with her husband and baby. She is now an American citizen.
Their father is still in Jordan, waiting for a Visa to come to the United States. The family has not seen him in two years, and it could take several more before he receives a Visa — if he ever does.
“He really misses us,” Nour said. “He really misses his family. He’s never met his granddaughter. He always wants to see his granddaughter.”
Across the room, Bayan quietly cried.
Razan and her husband planned to apply for Visas together and both move to Evansville to be with Nour. But, by chance, Razan came to the United States on a tourist Visa two years ago to visit with her pregnant daughter. She wanted to be there when the baby was born.
A few months after Razan arrived, Jordan all but closed its borders to Syrians. Around the same time, the United States seriously restricted Syrian visitors.
“We’re just waiting now for the day he gets here,” Nour said. “Hopefully, this day will come really soon. At least we have some hope.”
Nour’s voice trailed off.
The family is trying to build a new life in the United States.
Razan takes weekly English lessons. Though she was an electrical engineer in Syria, her certification means nothing here and it would take years for her to get the necessary American degrees and licenses.
So, she’s starting over. Once her English is good enough, she intends to return to school in Evansville for interior design or to become an Arabic teacher.
Nour will soon earn a Bachelor’s of Science in chemistry. He plans to become a dentist — like his father. His dream now is to attend Harvard School of Dental Medicine.
“We are so lucky to be here,” Nour said. “But now that we are here, I have a bigger dream. And maybe it is bigger than me. But I have the dream.”
From across the room, Razan shook her head.
“No,” she said. “You can do it. You can do anything.”
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press
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