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Syrian refugee: ‘Our experience in Buffalo, we find all love’

Mohammed Ay Toghlo asked if the captor was going to count the ransom money that he brought in a plastic bag in exchange for his son, Najati.

The captor just laughed.

The kidnappers had demanded 2 million Syrian lira, and Ay Toghlo was able to cobble together just 1.2 million lira in three days, raiding his meager savings and selling off a car and his wife’s gold jewelry. He worried it wouldn’t be enough to save Najati, a university student who went missing for nearly a month.

The captor’s laugh provided little assurance.

Ultimately, though, a blindfolded Najati emerged, flanked by two armed soldiers. He was ordered to take 300 steps before removing the blindfold and meeting his father again.

Ay Toghlo still gets choked up recounting the reunion with his son near Damascus, Syria, in 2013. He is now resettled in Buffalo, living in a second-floor apartment where he and his wife Eidah Al Suleiman were placed along with Najati a few months ago.

Ay Toghlo, 67, and Suleiman, 54, who is still struggling to recover from a stroke, arrived in Buffalo in August. Najati followed a few weeks later. They are among the estimated 11 million Syrians who have fled their homes since civil war broke out in March 2011. More than 10,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted into the United States this year, including at least 225 who have resettled in Buffalo.

Ay Toghlo rises from a living room sofa, wipes tears from his eyes and retreats to the kitchen for a few moments.

The Ay Toghlo family, refugees from Syria, are now residents on Buffalo's West side. Photo taken in their home, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. From left are Eidah Al Suleiman, 54, her husband Mohammed Ay Toghlo, 67, and their son Najati Ay Toghlo, 24. They talk about how they came to the United States and how happy they are to be here. Husband and wife arrived on August 24 and their son arrived on Spetember 21.(Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Najati Ay Toghlo talks about his kidnapping in Syria.(Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Najati Ay Toghlo, 24, picks up the retelling of the kidnapping story from his perspective, explaining how he was kept alone in a room of a house, where armed members of the shabiha, a Syrian militia group supportive of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, regularly beat and threatened him.

The kidnapping isn’t even the worst experience of their family.

A few months earlier, their 26-year-old daughter, Mona Ay Toghlo, was shot and killed by a sniper as she headed for a checkup appointment at her doctor’s office. She was nine months pregnant.

Government officials refused to release Mona’s body to her parents for burial unless they signed papers specifying that she died in childbirth, and not at the hands of a sniper.

“We signed the papers, and we agreed to the conditions that she died during childbirth,” Ay Toghlo said.

The Ay Toghlo and Suleiman family met Tuesday with Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who visited Buffalo in an effort to better understand the resettlement stories of a city with a robust refugee population.

[RELATED: The refugee vetting process includes many steps]

In an interview with The News, they discussed the devastation they experienced in Syria, while also acknowledging being in the crosshairs of intense political debates in the United States and Europe over the degree to which exiled Syrians should be welcomed elsewhere amid growing fears of terrorism.

President-elect Donald J. Trump has been highly critical of President Barack Obama’s efforts to embrace more Syrian refugees in the United States as a security threat, and he proposed during his campaign to ban Muslim immigrants and Syrian refugees from entering American soil.

“What we watch in media is that there are Americans who don’t like Syrian refugees,” said Najati Ay Toghlo. “But our experience in Buffalo, we find all love. We didn’t have any bad experience with anybody. Wherever we go, we find helpful people, loving people.”

Mohammed Ay Toghlo said he was well aware that terrorist attacks like the one in Brussels, Belgium, last March have made it appear that Islam is at fault.

“These religious terrorist organizations, they use religion as a pretext to advance their goals, but they have no relation whatsoever to religion,” he said.

Islam “calls for peace,” he added. “It doesn’t call for killing or for committing these atrocities all over the place.”

During the interview, which lasted about three hours, The News relied on Salah Elhag to interpret questions and answers. Elhag, a native of Sudan, is fluent in both English and Arabic. He works as a care coordinator at Jewish Family Services, the agency that resettled the Syrian family.

Kidnappers’ demand

Ay Toghlo and Suleiman married since 1978, and they raised three daughters and two sons in a Damascus apartment before they bought some land in a village outside the city and built a house.

Ay Toghlo operated a home business, making anti-microbial soap that he sold to laboratories and pharmacies. The business provided a “decent income,” he said.

“We were able as a family to eat and drink and have shelter,” he said.

All of that began to change as a result of the civil war and Assad’s crackdown on dissent and opposition.

His son, Najati Ay Toghlo, admitted being critical of Assad on social media, but he is not someone who would take up arms in rebellion.

Mohammed Ay Toghlo said both of his sons refused the advances of rebel fighters.

“They said, ‘Our weapons are our pens, our cameras. This is how we are going to fight the regime,’ ” he said.

Najati took the bus to Damascus University on a mid-August morning and didn’t come home. His father knew right away something was wrong. He also knew that it was best to be discreet if he was going to find his son safe and sound. More than three weeks into his search, he caught a break at one of the military checkpoints that are common in Syria. After he presented his ID, an armed militia guard asked him a question.

“Najati, what is your relation to Najati?”

Ay Toghlo explained that Najati was his son.

“Do you want him dead or alive?” the guard replied.

It was a Tuesday, and Ay Toghlo was instructed to bring back two million Syrian lira – or nearly $19,000 U.S. dollars at the time – within three days, in exchange for his son.

Ay Toghlo went home crying, wondering how he was going to come up with the cash. He cobbled together whatever savings he had and sold off his wife’s gold bracelets. Another son, Mohammed, sold his Hyundai. He was still short by 800,000 lira, but the kidnappers took what he had and let Najati go.

Less than two weeks later, the same captor warned Ay Toghlo of future problems. Ay Toghlo was ready to leave.

“My two sons said, ‘No, we’re not going anywhere. Where would we go? It’s not safe anywhere,’” he recounted.

Two days later, the decision was made for them. Their village was under siege. A mortar shell blasted their home. The family took shelter in the basement of a large commercial building.

Soap formula for freedom

Ay Toghlo needed a government permit to be able to travel outside the besieged area and get across the border to Lebanon.

The pharmacist to whom Ay Toghlo sold his special soap had government connections, so Ay Toghlo called for help. The pharmacist agreed, with two conditions: It would cost 400,000 lira, and Ay Toghlo would have to provide the pharmacist with the recipe for the soap.

Ay Toghlo agreed.

The pharmacist secured a travel permit signed by Assad’s brother.

“All I wanted to do is get out safely, me and my kids,” he said.

Ay Toghlo, Suleiman, Najati and Mohammed and his wife and two kids arrived in Lebanon on Nov. 24, 2013. They rented a house and waited.

“We never thought of going anywhere. We were hoping, or we thought, the Assad regime would go out at any moment and we would go back to our place,” said Najati. “The idea of going to other countries was still not in our minds.”

Nonetheless, the family registered at a United Nations office, primarily to get food, and when officials there asked if they would agree to travel to a foreign country, they said yes. It was many months before the family learned they would be resettled in the United States.

“I thought I’m dreaming because the United States for us is a big thing. I don’t even see that in my dreams. I was so happy,” said Ay Toghlo.

“That was a big relief for us,” added Najati. “In Lebanon, we never felt safe because at any time we can be extradited or kidnapped by the Assad forces.”

Ay Toghlo and Suleiman flew from Beirut to Hamburg, Germany, to Chicago and finally to Buffalo, where they were greeted at the airport by Apple Domingo, director of resettlement for Jewish Family Services. Najati joined them a few weeks later.

Mohammed and his wife and children are still in Lebanon, which is a cause of grave concern for family members in Buffalo.

“Now his visa expired, and we are afraid he will be deported to Syria. This is a real threat to his life,” Najati said.

In a sparsely decorated apartment on the West Side, a small television in the corner of the living room is set to Al Hadath, an Arabic news channel out of Saudi Arabia.

Ay Toghlo walks to another room and returns with another illustration he sketched to show his appreciation for Jewish Family Services. An earlier drawing features a menorah and Jewish star with an Arabic inscription that translated reads, “Thank you Jewish Family Services.”

While many Muslims in Syria have harbored negative views of Jews, Ay Toghlo said he has never felt any ill will.

“I don’t have any problems with Jewish or Christian or any other religion,” he said. “Muslims, we were killed by other Muslims. And now it’s Jewish people who are helping us. So it’s not religion, it’s politics.”

Jewish services

It’s only natural for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to be resettling large numbers of refugees from Syria, said Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive officer of the national refugee resettlement program that is affiliated locally with Jewish Family Service.

“It’s the biggest refugee crisis in the world, so we feel we have to participate in a large way with it,” he said.

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was founded in the late 1800s to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, but the mission of the organization has changed over time.

“We used to resettle refugees because they were Jewish,” he said. “Today we do it because we’re Jewish.”

Hetfield dismissed as “a myth” the notion that refugees from Syria could pose a security threat. He pointed to the multi-level vetting process that all refugees are subjected to before being allowed admission to the United States, which includes multiple background checks and interviews.

“They’re already subjected to what Donald Trump calls ‘extreme vetting’,” Hetfield said.

A ban on Syrian refugees would be particularly difficult on those who have already resettled in the United States, he added.

“It’s heartbreaking to talk to Syrian refugees about this,” he said. “Obviously, their total obsession is being reunited with their families. It’s harder for them to integrate into American society if they have family left behind. Keeping families apart is not good for anybody.”

Ay Toghlo and Suleiman and their son Najati are struggling to adjust in Buffalo. Both parents have some health problems, and they could use a car so their son can get them to doctor’s appointments. Suleiman in particular needs warmer clothes for Buffalo’s dipping winter temperatures. And overcoming the language barrier is difficult.

“But our main concern,” said Ay Toghlo, “is our son in Lebanon.”

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