Two Refugee Families Celebrate Their First Ramadan In Texas

By Hannah McBride

The Al Rubaye family eating Iftar in June, counter-clockwise from lower right: Mohammed with his wife Alice, son Mustafa, 10, and daughter Janna, 8. Their 14-month-old daughter Lia was asleep. (Photo credit: Sam Mohney)

Texas has resettled the most refugees nationwide this year — 3,852 people in the eight months up until the end of May 2016. But not all have been welcomed by locals. Last December, the state sued the federal government to block Syrian refugees from coming to Texas. Fortunately, this month a federal judge dismissed the suit, ruling that the state had no grounds for claims that the federal government hadn’t properly notified them about Syrian refugees who were assigned to be resettled in Texas. But the discrimination didn’t end there. After the suit was thrown out, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was “disappointed with the court’s determination that Texas cannot hold the federal government accountable to consult with us before resettling refugees here.”

Then, a poll released Tuesday said half of voters in Texas support banning Muslims who are not U.S. citizens, without regard to refugee status, from entering the country. In this way, much of the state’s anti-refugee rhetoric centers on “protecting” Texas from Syrians, and from Muslims, and, as the line of reasoning goes, from terrorism.

Yet most of the Middle Eastern refugees in Texas don’t even come from Syria — they come from Iraq. Texas leads the country in resettling Iraqis, hosting more than a thousand Iraqi refugees since October, including issuing 329 special immigrant visas for those who helped the U.S. government during the Iraq war.

One of them was Mohammed Al Rubaye, who moved with his family of five to Austin in December. They invited me into their home for Iftar — the meal at sunset that breaks the day of fasting during the month of Ramadan.

After dinner, 14-month-old Lia wakes up and wants a snack. I’m instantly drawn to her. She’s a funny baby. Sitting in a high chair while her older siblings try to coax a “Hi!” from her, she looks around with her big brown eyes, from brother to sister, to mom and dad, before settling her toothy smile on me, the new face at the dinner table.

Lia plays shy until her mom Alice says, “High five?” and Lia touches a tiny palm to hers, laughing. In between spoonfuls of rice that her dad and mom take turns in artfully slipping into her mouth, the toddler doles out high fives to everyone, content to be the center of attention.

Gathered around heaping plates of Iraqi bread, salad, kebabs, and roasted vegetables, the Al Rubaye family are celebrating their first Ramadan in America.

Americans have been part of the family’s lives for over a decade, but not like this. From 2003 to 2005, Lia’s dad, Mohammed Al Rubaye, worked with a subcontractor to provide the internet to the U.S. military and press corps in Baghdad. In July 2005, he said he received death threats via text message and a letter sent to him threatening his and a coworker’s lives. That same day, he told his boss about the messages and fled the city, staying with his wife’s family in a more rural part of Iraq for a few months. Soon, the family relocated to Bahrain, where they stayed for a decade; his wife and children visited Iraq on occasion, when things were quiet. But he wasn’t able to go back because he worried about retaliation for his former job working with Americans.

Although he liked Bahrain and his job, Al Rubaye had always wanted to live in America. He decided they needed to make a final move, so he started the paperwork for what became a 15-month process to get here.

“When you go to a new country, you need to start from the beginning, from scratch as they said,” Al Rubaye, now 36, says. “In 2013, I decided to change my life. Because actually, this is my dream — to come here . . . to give a peaceful life and freedom to my family.”

When they finally touched down in the Austin airport, nearly a dozen people greeted his family, including an old friend from Iraq who lives in Texas now. Al Rubaye’s family got help resettling from the Refugee Services of Texas, which helped the family put up a deposit on their tidy apartment in north Austin. Their welcome wagon has now become a circle of friends; Al Rubaye has invited people from the group to his kids’ birthdays and other parties.

They’ve only been in Austin about six months, and they’ve already settled into a routine. Al Rubaye walks the two blocks to Walgreens, where he works five nights a week in the photo department and gets pharmacy training during his breaks. His wife Alice takes care of baby Lia and practices driving the family car to prepare for her driving test next month. Soon after the kids started school earlier this year, Mustafa, a smiley, round-faced 10-year-old, became a kind of ambassador for the Arabic-speaking kids at school, helping to resolve problems among students who aren’t fluent in English. Janna, a shy 8-year-old, loves riding her bike.

“The most important thing I told them is the smiling face,” Al Rubaye says. “Always smiling, I love that, because I love to smile to anyone.”

Like any kid, Mustafa and Janna, who both were named student of the week at school this spring, obsess over playing iPhone games and like reading books about animals. Waiting for school to be out, they looked forward to summer to ride bikes, play soccer with their friends, and go to the pool. When Ramadan started on June 5, only a few days after the school year ended, they put their summer dreams on hold for a few more weeks.

Most children don’t start fasting until they’re teenagers, but Al Rubaye’s two oldest decided to fast along with their parents, because they’re not in school so they can stay inside and rest during the day. It can get boring to stay inside during Ramadan, Mustafa says, but if they play outside too much they get thirsty and water isn’t allowed during the day. They can’t wait until Eid, the end of fasting, so they can go swimming at the local pool.

Al Rubaye says he’s heard stories about Americans being hostile toward Muslims, but in the six months he’s been here, he hasn’t experienced anything like that. Instead, he tells me has a lot of friends from different Muslim backgrounds, even some Christian friends.

In his job here, he works with a lot of people who aren’t from Austin. “Most of the people, you don’t know from where they are,” he says. “They are just American. This is a good thing we need to teach our children.”

They have refugee paperwork now and can apply for a green card after their first year in the States. Al Rubaye’s dream is to become a citizen, a process that takes five years. “They say the road that is hard starts with one step,” he says. “Now we have six months’ steps.”

In part because Al Rubaye works the closing shift at Walgreens, he and his family pray at home and they break fast with other Muslim families in their apartment complex. He also volunteers with the Refugee Services of Texas to welcome other refugees to Austin.

“When you’re helping people, to start their life maybe, you will see God there,” he says. “He’s not only in the mosque, he’s not only in the church.”

For other Muslim refugees, becoming a part of the community provided by a mosque helps them feel more at home.

On a warm June night, children play catch and kick around a soccer ball in the front yard of the Islamic Center of Greater Austin. Iftar has finished and their parents are inside praying. Three rambunctious boys take turns twisting each other up in a volleyball net, nearly pulling its posts down before an older sibling yells at them to cut it out.

Once prayers are over, men and women stream out of the prayer rooms, sitting down to chat at folding tables set up in front of the mosque. The Shamoosi family, all eight of them, convene in a meeting room in from of the mosque.

Mohammed Shamoosi, 29, has been in the U.S. for about a year and a half, but this is the first Ramadan here with his family intact. They were living together in Turkey before he moved here with this wife and two daughters. Then came the long wait to bring over his two younger brothers, sister, and mother — a process that took another year. Celebrating Ramadan together makes everything go more smoothly, especially because he has two daughters, ages 2 and 3.

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The Shamoosi family (from left to right): Mohammed and his wife with their two daughters; his youngest brother Sajjad, 12; his mother Hadiya; and his younger brother Omar, 16; at the Islamic Center of Greater Austin in June. (Photo credit: Sam Mohney)

“This year it makes it easier because they are just one call away,” Shamoosi says. His mother Hadiya, 55, says Ramadan feels more like an actual holiday here because Austin is much safer than Baghdad, where they’re from.

“It didn’t really feel like a holiday because we didn’t know what was going to happen . . . You never really know if there will be a bomb that goes off,” she says, with the help of a translator. “Here we have the opportunity to feel safe.”

Shamoosi works as a barber now, but wants to become a nurse. He and his siblings here, who range in age from 12 to 27, are excited about going back to school to study different medical professions: optometry, anesthesiology, pharmacy. One day, Shamoosi jokes, they’ll open a family hospital. The adjustment’s been easy, but the biggest surprise to their family, Shamoosi says, was Wal-Mart. “We can find anything we want here,” he says, “in only one store.”

They come to the mosque nightly for Iftar and prayers. The family has begun to feel comfortable here — Shamoosi’s mother, who was a teacher back in Baghdad, is taking English classes and his brothers are looking forward to school starting up again in the fall. Now that everyone is here together, the only reason that Shamoosi says he would go back to Iraq is for the food.

Soon, Ramadan draws to a close and Eid — the day of celebration to mark the end of fasting — approaches. Amid the visible anti-Muslim sentiment on the national stage and vocal Islamophobia in Texas, it can seem difficult to imagine celebrating anything. But the Muslim refugee families I met who’ve settled here in Austin have found America a safe haven, complete with warm welcomes from new neighbors and friends. And along with it, a profound sense of relief that comes from finally settling down after years of fleeing.

Breaking bread with the Al Rubayes and spending time with Shamoosi family reminded me of the commonality between us — family, celebration, and food. It’s one I wish more Texans would see, rather than give in to distrust and discrimination.

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