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In Buffalo, a Syrian family worries about those left behind

Najati Ay Toghlo now lives and works in Buffalo, more than 5,700 miles away from Syria, the lawless, war-shattered country where his beloved sister was murdered by a sniper, the violent land where Najati was kidnapped and held captive for 30 days before his father was able to rescue him with a ransom payment.

But over the past few days, the 27-year-old refugee has felt almost like he was back in Syria, worrying about friends and family members in a country ravaged by civil war, human rights atrocities, chemical weapon attacks and missiles fired by the United States and its allies.

"I am very thankful to be in Buffalo. People here have been very friendly… very helpful to us," Ay Toghlo told The Buffalo News in an interview at his apartment in the Black Rock neighborhood on Saturday. "But there are so many people in danger in Syria. I don't just worry about my sisters and my brother. I worry about everyone over there."

The latest spike in Syrian violence – beginning with the April 7 chemical weapon attacks that killed at least 70 people and continuing Saturday with a series of targeted air strikes from the U.S., British and French military – has captured headlines and outraged people all over the world. But it really hit home in the little apartment where Ay Toghlo lives with his cancer-stricken father, Mohammed Ay Toghlo.

Ay Toghlo, his father and his mother, Eidah Al Suleimanere – who recently died – were brought to Buffalo in 2016 by the Jewish Family Service, and Najati Ay Toghlo said he is thankful every day for the organization's kindness.

"The people from Jewish Family Service, they are like family," said Ay Toghlo, sitting in a neatly kept living room where he and his father display the American flag and a three-starred Syrian revolution flag. "They were so kind to us when my mother died... they paid for her grave stone, which was a lot of money."

He also expressed thanks for the kindness of nurses and other health care professionals at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where his father receives cancer treatment.

Ay Toghlo, the only person in his Buffalo family who speaks English, said he was supportive of the missile attacks because he despises Syria's embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, and is convinced that Assad ordered the April 7 chemical weapon attacks.

"He doesn't care about anyone. Anyone who speaks against him, they will be killed or sent to jail," Ay Toghlo said. "He ordered chemical attacks before, and said he would never do it again. He lied. He says he didn't do it this time. I don't believe him. These were women, children, old men who were killed. It's horrible."

In Ay Toghlo's view, only brute force – such as Saturday's missile strikes reportedly targeting chemical weapons sites – will prevent Assad from using prohibited weapons again.

But that is only one of the things that worries Ay Toghlo about his home country. He said he agonizes every day over the millions of people – including his two surviving sisters – who are desperately trying to leave Syria but cannot because other countries are reluctant to take them. In the United States, immigration of Syrian refugees has slowed to a trickle under President Trump, who has voiced concerns about security while sharply cutting the numbers of refugees the U.S. will accept from Syria or any other country.

The NPR news organization reported Friday that the U.S. has admitted only 11 Syrian refugees so far this year.

"In 2016, near the end of Barack Obama's presidency, the U.S. resettled 15,479 Syrian refugees," NPR reported, citing State Department figures. "In 2017, the country let in 3,024. So far this year, that number is just 11. By comparison, over the same 3 1/2-month period in 2016, the U.S. accepted 790."

Buffalo has welcomed far more Syrian refugees than any other city in New York State. State Department data shows that 405  Syrians were resettled in Buffalo between Jan. 1, 2005, and the end of last year, with most of them – 298 – arriving in 2016. Another 79 Syrian refugees resettled in Buffalo last year, but none did so in the first quarter of 2018.

"I know President Trump says he is worried about safety, he says terrorists will come with the refugees," Ay Toghlo said. "But if you are a refugee, that talk makes you very sad."Ay Toghlo knows he is one of the fortunate ones. He works as a home care aide, and said he is improving his English language skills, and plans to attend classes at Erie County Community College next fall, hoping a college education will improve his job possibilities.

He said he and his parents were painfully aware of what can happen to those who remain in the violence-ravaged country.

In 2013, Ay Toghlo said, he was kidnapped by members of a Syrian gang who hold people in captivity until their families make ransom payments.

"I was on a bus, on my way to college for classes," he recalled. "The bus was stopped at a checkpoint. We all had to get out and all the young men on the bus were taken away. I was hit by four or five guys. They pulled my shirt up over my head and took me away in a car."

He said he was held alone for a month in a room where armed gang members regularly beat and threatened him. He said he was finally blindfolded and returned to his father, who ran a small store near Damascus. He said his father and other family members sold many of their possessions to raise about 1.2 million Syrian lira – worth about $11,000 in American money – to pay off the ransom.

The kidnapping was not the worst tragedy endured by his family.

Several months before the abduction, a sniper shot and killed Ay Toghlo's 26-year-old sister, Mona Ay Toghlo. According to the family, she was nine months pregnant and was on her way to a doctor's appointment when she was murdered.

Ay Toghlo said Syrians have become accustomed to such violence in their country, which has become lawless and brutal over the past eight years.

He said his brother was able to get out of Syria, to Lebanon, under a refugee program. He wants to join his family here, but is now stuck in Norway, Ay Toghlo said.

"When Donald Trump became president, the program my brother was in was shut off," Ay Toghlo said.

Ay Toghly and his father were gratified to learn that their loved ones were spared from the chemical attacks and were not in the vicinity of the missile strikes.

But every day brings more worries.

"I keep having the same bad dream – I am back in Syria, war is going on all around me, and I cannot travel anywhere," Ay Toghlo said. "In the dream, people all around me are hating me... It seems like nobody in the world really wants to help Syria. I'm very sad. Right now, I have no hope about what is going on back there."

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