When the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Leena Alzehri was in Aleppo. She had four children, the oldest only 12. And she had to flee.

“They had no choice, only to run,” said a translator with the American Muslim Women’s Association, interpreting her story. “And whatever money they had, they had to give it to some people to get them papers to smuggle them.”

Alzehri and her family went hariba, the Arabic word for fugitive, alongside many other travelers as they made their way to refugee camps in Jordan. The path is a multiple-day trek, with no food for up to six days.

“Nothing, just walking, night and day,” the translator said. “Some of them heard shooting. Sometimes they walk and see people die, and they just have to keep running. And that’s how they get inside the Jordan camps.”

But after reaching Jordan, Alzehri and her family were granted visas to the U.S. and, one year ago, flew to Arizona.

On Sunday, she sold hand-sewn tote bags and laptop sleeves during a Syrian Sweets Exchange bake sale in Phoenix.

The bake sale was hosted by the Paradise Valley United Methodist Church and volunteer group Syrian Sweets Phoenix. It gives refugees who face challenges getting a job because of their language skills a way to earn extra income, event coordinator Nancy Speidel said.

“But they have fabulous cooking skills. … This is a way we came up with to help give them some supplementary income that they desperately need,” she said.

The event also connects refugees with the Valley community, Speidel said.

“The second reason is to introduce them to the greater community and provide an opportunity for the community to meet them up close and personal,” Speidel said. “And when they do, they absolutely fall in love with them.”

Tahmina Vesmel, a Pakistani refugee, has lived in Arizona for about three years. Like Alzehri, she was selling bags and accessories with the American Muslim Women’s Association.

AMWA is a non-profit aimed at promoting financial independence for women of various ethnic and religious backgrounds and promoting a positive image of Islam.

“AMWA has been like a dream come true for me because I had my dream as a child to be a really good (seamstress),” Vesmel said. “So I got a chance to do my dream.”

The organization provides opportunities to acclimate to the different culture and language, she said.

“They have a lot of activities; they have English classes, too,” said Vesmel.

Paradise Valley United Methodist Church has also been active in supporting refugees in the Valley.

Teams sponsor refugees and start supporting them as soon as they arrive at the airport, said Tina Olson, the chairwoman of the church’s Desert Southwest United Methodist Church Refugee Ministry.

“And then for a year, they help them — with doctors’ appointments, they furnish their apartments, they teach them how to use the pharmacy and bus and, most importantly, how to find jobs.”

Out of the approximately 4,000 refugees currently living in Maricopa County, Olson estimates about 10 percent have sponsors.

Refugees, they’ve come here, they’ve endured so much hardship,” she said. “They come here with nothing. And Americans we have so much … And I think we just want to help them get started.”

As for Alzehri, she said she believes the worst is behind her family.

“The first couple of months, the transition was hard,” she said in Arabic. “But it was not harder than the first transition from Syria to Jordan. That was the worst one. For the children it was very hard, taking them to school in English. But they’re managing. English is a very easy language compared to Arabic.”

Her translator finished the thought for her.

“She’s happy,” the translator said. “They’re happy here.”


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