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Kansas City Middle Easterners Come Together To Seek Out News From Home

Lisa Rodriguez

For the last few weeks the American public has been inundated with news about Ebola, leaving other news — like theongoing crisis in Syriaand the Middle East — in the background. But for many Middle Easterners in Kansas City, news from home remains important, and they often struggle to find information.

As a result, many Kansas Citians who have family afar have turned to each other for support, crossing  religious and political boundaries that may have divided them at home.

Middle Easterners come together in search of news from home

Every night, Ahmad Alhabashi closes his store, Al-Habashi, in the River Market area near downtown Kansas City, Mo., to run home and check Western media for news from Syria. His family opened the Middle Eastern grocery store 24 years ago, after moving to the United Stated from Irbit, Jordan in 1980.

“Needless to say, I get my sleepless nights," says Alhabashi. "You don't get the whole picture on the news here, it’s hard because you're in a different world."

Alhabashi relies on first-hand accounts from his family near the conflict, although communication can be infrequent. His sister lives about 15 miles from the Syrian border in northern Jordan. He says they are close enough to hear the conflict on the other side. He hears from his sister about once every two weeks, but communication is almost impossible with family closer to the conflict.

“I have an aunt who lives in Syria, she lost two kids, she lost a grandson," he says. "Every once in a while we are able to get hold of her, but she keeps moving from one part to another, so it’s really stressful."

Alhabashi also gets information from people who shop at his store. Arab-Americans from all over the Middle East gather there to shop for products from home and catch up on news. Their home countries may be divided by religion and politics, but they come together in concern for loved ones thousands of miles away.

Finding community in unlikely places

Although the conflict has brought the Middle Eastern community closer to one another, for one Syrian man, it has also brought him closer to his American neighbors.

Fariz Turkmani sits at his office on the 2nd floor of the Marriott Hotel in Overland Park, Kan. He streams Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, two competing Arab media groups for news from his home in Syria. He watches a video of a man being tortured by members of the Syrian Armed Forces.

“This is a hole in the ground, this is a head of a young man, these are the soldiers of the regime,” he says. He stops the video and finishes describing it in detail. “I saw the entire clip where the guy is taking his last breath. That is so horrible ... you can’t help but cry.”

Although Turkmani supports U.S. involvement in Syria, he says it hurts to watch his home being bombed. In fact, he owns a condo in Damascus and doesn’t even know if the building still stands. He says he doesn’t even care, his greatest fear is what will happen to his hometown once the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, referred to as ISIS or ISIL, is eliminated.

“ISIS is extremely bad, but those areas and villages and cities that are under the control of ISIS ... once they are freed from ISIS they are given back to the Syrian president to be under his control, so what did it accomplish? We went back to square one,” he says.

Turkmani struggles with feelings of helplessness. He wishes the U.S. could isolate the threat rather than take out entire villages, but acknowledges the difficulty of the situation and wonders if U.S. involvement simply came too late.

“When you have your family and the country that you grew up in suffering like this … you can’t help but think about it all the time,” he says.

Throughout the development of the situation in Syria, Turkmani has been overwhelmed by words of support from his American neighbors and clients. He describes the kindness of a neighbor after she heard news from the region.

“She baked a cake and she brought it to our house and she says, ‘I’m so sorry it took something like this to come to you and introduce myself,” he said.

For now, Turkmani feels that spreading the word is all he can do for his home country, and with such support from Syrians and Americans alike he says he’s lucky he is to live in the United States, where he can speak freely with his neighbors without fear of repercussion.

This story is part of a Central Standard series exploring how international communities in the Kansas City area are following and responding to crises in their home countries. We also checked in on local West African and Ukrainian communities, and had a conversation about what it means to have your head and heart in two different places.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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