Shared from the 3/28/2017 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition

Refugees welcomed

Municipal Court judge greeted dozens of arrivals from Syria.

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Ahmad Zia, 38, who came to the United States in October 2016 from Afghanistan, was one of the refugees invited to Councilman David Oh's hosted welcoming reception for newly arrived refugees. BRIANNA SPAUSE / Staff Photographer

This being Philadelphia, the first laugh shared between officials at City Hall and Syrian refugees being welcomed here, was about a city staple.

“Who’s had a cheesesteak yet?,” Municipal Court Judge Patrick Dugan asked the crowd of new arrivals. “I’d like to invite you to come to my house, I make the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia. I am serious.”

About 30 refugees listened as Dugan and other city officials-turned ambassadors greeted them in an ornate room on the second floor of City Hall Monday.

The gathering’s purpose was simple: a chance to say ‘welcome’ even as a presidential order to ban Syrian refugees sits in litigation.

Councilman David Oh, a Republican, held the event along with resettlement agencies HIAS Pennsylvania and the Nationalities Services Center.

“We want to ensure your transition is smooth,” Oh said. “We are not perfect and as others have said, there will be trying times, trying people, but I know in my heart you are in a good place here. You are most welcome.”

After about an hour of speeches, families received gift bags with passes to the Magic Garden, a recording of local performers and a guidebook to art in Philadelphia. Backpacks for the children held school supplies and toys. Ten families won a raffle for a $50 gift card and five tickets to the Philadelphia Zoo.

Osama Herkel, 38, greeted Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS, with a big smile.

“I am very happy today,” said Herkel, who came to the United States with his family a year ago. “We lost my country but I found country here. I lost my family and I have all the American people’s family. Because [of] this, I am happy.”

Herkel has two children, 9 and 8. His wife Falak is expecting a baby. He hopes to someday open a Syrian restaurant. He makes all kinds of dishes, though. He pulled up a photo on his phone to show a reporter a newer specialty: cheese-steaks.

“Very healthy,” Herkel said.

Some of the attendees had family back in Syria who they were worried would not make it to the United States given the order, which halves the number of refugees that can come to the country.

Since November 2015, re-settlement groups have helped at least 341 people relocate from Syria to Philadelphia.

Ahmad Zia, 38, a design architect who moved here with his wife and children in October said he hopes he’s not one of the last refugees from Syria to settle in Philadelphia.

“You have to consider that one bad person. That’s the job of the president but somehow I think instead of banning people, I’m supportive of good security measures, good background checks to not let bad people get in,” Zia said.

Ghufran Smakiaa shared tiny pieces of an enormous survival story with reporters, Monday following the event.

Her house in Aleppo was destroyed by shelling and the war made it too dangerous to transport her daughter back and forth to the hospital. The young girl died there.

Now Smakiaa lives with her husband and four children in Northeast Philadelphia, which she described in careful English as “really beautiful.” A daughter lives in Jordan.

“I feel safe and secure now,” she said through a translator. “I passed this period of time when I was living in war. I’m so happy I’m living between nice and welcoming people.” jterruso@phillynews.com

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