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They escaped the war and now face the pandemic as refugees in Argentina


T he bombs fell close to home, people died on our street,” Zeban recalls. “Syria was no longer a place to live, we couldn’t take it anymore.”
Zeban Alothman, his wife Eman, and their two young daughters suffered the horrors of the war raging in their country and decided to flee. They reached relative safety in Lebanon. There the father of the family worked to cover basic needs and Eman managed as best he could to take care of his daughters and contribute to the household economy in a hostile environment. 

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians came to Lebanon escaping the war. Humanitarian agencies could not cope with protecting the population; however, evangelical churches in Beirut provided assistance. “They brought us mattresses,” say the Alothmans, “until then we slept on the floor.” 

“They were also very hard days there,” says Eman, “although there was no war in Lebanon, insecurity and xenophobic attitudes towards Syrians affected our integration.”

Eman attended a church where they were helped with food and it was there that he heard for the first time that there was a possibility of traveling to Argentina through the Syria Program

“I thought, well, Argentina is better than Syria, better than Lebanon! And I told Zeban about the possibility of acquiring a humanitarian visa,” he said. 

Zeban didn’t know much about Argentina, but they were hopeless and believed that it would be a better life opportunity. They enrolled in the program and after a year and eight months of waiting, they emigrated. “The wait was endless; every day we wanted to know news about the trip. We really longed to start a new life away from war and insecurity.”

In Argentina they were received by a group of sponsors from the Evangelical Church of Peniel, in the town of Tandil, who are part of the Syria Program; an initiative of the Argentine government supported by the UNHCR and IOM, created in 2014 to open doors to those who escaped the war in the Middle East.

The Alothmans could not believe they were in a safe place and had a house with separate rooms: “The people from the church and the community have always been very kind to us, they have always helped us.”

But then came the pandemic.

New crisis 

Although they no longer hear bombs, on coronavirus days they do feel the danger.

“This is now a more complicated war because it is against an invisible enemy,” Eman says. The couple is promote a gastronomic venture to obtain income.

Within this framework, and as an organization that works together with the  Red Argentina de Apoyo al Strocinio Comunitario, the Adventist agency (ADRA) continued its support to promote the economic autonomy of the family, its local integration, and its protection in the midst of a pandemic crisis.

How did you start the gastronomic venture?

Zeban says that he dedicated himself to haute couture for years: in Syria, they had three factories and he was recognized for his work. Upon arriving in Argentina, the Group of Sponsors He helped them to acquire sewing machines and thus develop their craft. However, due to the current health emergency, the family suffered a drastic decrease in income: “I knew that I would not be able to pay the bills or meet my basic needs without my job. He still had many clients who owed us money, so we went with great concern to the home of our friends and callers, Mr. Daniel and his wife, who tried to reassure us. But when the COVID alerts began, Zeban says, our sense of insecurity and fear grew. At times I thought we were at war with an invisible enemy. The streets are empty, sirens were sounding, people are scared.” All of this reminded them of the tough times that as a family they had to go through in Syria.

“We are not going to sit idly by, we are going to sell food,” Eman said. She loves to cook and Zeban says she does it very well, that her meals are delicious and the people of Tandil love them.

Then they began to think of a name that is easy to remember and began their gastronomic venture via social networks under the name Tandil Arabic food.

Eman says the Callers Group donated supplies to get started and that the first two weeks they had a lot of orders, they worked all day.

“Now I’m Eman’s delivery man,” Zeban says, laughing. “I help her with everything she needs to cook.” 

Zeban says that as a family they preserve the Syrian culture but that they have learned local ways of life and that some have adopted them as their own: “Before, Eman only worked in the kitchen. Now I assist her in what she needs.” The whole family is committed to preparing the dishes they offer. They say that they have regular customers, and that new ones are added every day.

However, as production increased, the family did not have the necessary facilities. The oven was not adequate, it was old and in poor condition. Although they tried to repair it, they could not keep up with the production demand.

From fear to hope

Zeban comments that his main source of income could not be sustained and that the first months after the start of the pandemic he could not sleep: “I could not be calm. The feeling of fear came back strong and I thought this would never end. I was thinking of Syria.” He was very worried and says he wanted to work “even if it was free, to help.”

So they started making facemasks and suits to donate to the hospital.

Although the state of alert worried them, the family takes all the necessary precautionary measures, and they are motivated by working in the gastronomic venture. They even want the initiative to grow and serve them to achieve their dreams here in the country.

Eman says that having started a new life in Argentina, they can think about the future and that she would like to have a house of their own, like the one they had in the Middle East. All four like Tandil, and say they don’t want to go back to Syria.

Our new home

The Alothmans speak of the importance of patience in coping with cultural differences. Eman says that Argentine people are very kind.

They are very grateful for the support of the community and ADRA, which supplied them with a semi-industrial oven that the family needed to make their products. For them, this suggests the possibility of giving their daughters a better future and above all, recovering the possibility of dreaming of a peaceful life.

Zeban uses an analogy typical of her profession: “I don’t want to go back one degree. Now we want to help people who have been left without work due to COVID. We want to help because they have helped us a lot since we arrived. Argentina has become our home.”

ADRA’s work 

Support for the Alothman family is part of the efforts that ADRA and UNHCR are making to support the economic recovery of refugee families who have suffered the most from the impact of the pandemic in the country. 

ADRA works together with the Argentine Network for Support to Community Sponsorship promoting and disseminating the Resettlement Program under the Humanitarian visa scheme granted by the Syria Program. In addition, it accompanies the Calling Groups and the beneficiaries who came to the country under this program.


This article was originally published on the South American Division’s Spanish site 




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