By Miriam Raftery
September 4, 2022 (El Cajon) – The El Cajon nonprofit License to Freedom has been counseling nine children in a Syrian refugee family traumatized first by war in their homeland, and now by the death of their mother, who was found shot in the family’s home. In an interview with East County Magazine originally aired on KNSJ radio,
Dilkhwaz Ahmed, founder of License to Freedom, provides an update on the children’s situation, also sharing information on the stresses facing refugee families. The children’s father, Abdulhannan Abdurazaq Al Rawi, has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge.
“It’s so hard,” Ahmed says, when asked how the children, ages 2-17, are doing. “In a situation like that, the community gets together.” She says other Syrian refugees in the community worked to help the children, as did people in the Sudanese community, since the babysitter is from Sudan. “One of their close friends, a family from Syria, decided to take the kids, and they have seven kids,” Ahmed said. “The wife was best friends with the mom…it’s heartbreaking.”
Ahmed recalled getting a key to the house and taking the children back into their home to get their belongings, days after the death of their mother. “We opened the door for the first time. Oh my goodness, my heart,” she said. “The boy, he just runs to Mommy’s bedroom, he grabbed her robe.”
The children were asleep when the shooting occurred, she said, adding that nobody saw what happened. The court has denied visitation with their father, though they are allowed phone calls and email contact.
Friends of Al Rawi have voiced shock at his arrest, say he was a pillar of the community who often helped other refugees, and don’t believe he was capable of killing his wife.
Neither do the children. “They say, `Never. My mom and my dad, they were in love,” Ahmed recounts. “They keep showing me pictures, when Mom became a U.S. citizen, he gave her a gold necklace, and was kissing her.”
She asked the children about the hours before their mother was found shot. The children told her they were in the swimming pool. “Mom was making food, Dad was taking video. Everything was good.”
The children were “so disappointed” to learn that some neighbors told media outlets that they heard shouting. “The kids were so sad. They said `Of course we were swimming, we were yelling.’ That’s part of the culture. When we talk, we yell.”
The family has only been living at the home in EL Cajon for about a month, Ahmed said. She did not know the Al Wari family before the tragedy. They came from Syria to Florida six years ago, first to Florida, then moved to the San Diego area in 2019.
But Ahmed has met many other refugees who went through similar experiences.
“They flee war. They were able to survive death and war in Suria to make it safely to the U.S. and adopt a new culture, a new home. Not just a new country, a home.”
As for the Al Rawi family, she says she has learned, “They had big dreams. Mom wanted to go to school to learn English…Dad was working as a security guard, working nights, coming home at 5 a.m.”
Refugee family in our region face many pressures, most of all the high cost and lack of availability of housing. East County is home to many refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places.
“Most of the Afghan newcomers are still in motels because they have 7 or 9 kids..They brought their extended families. They brought their grandma, their mom, and they don’t like to be separated,” Ahmed says. “It’s so hard to find a four-bedroom apartment; in El Cajon, a two-bedroom apartment is $2,600 right now.”
Solutions are needed. But Ahmed says, “We don’t have anybody to lobby for refugees…We don’t have a voice on the city council of El cajon. Nobody lobbies for the refugee community for bringing affordable housing, for building apartments…in addition we don’t have rent control, so people can raise the rent as much as they want.”
Federal aid lasts only a few weeks, and is the same regardless of whether refugees are placed in a region with a low cost or living or a place like San Diego County, which has the highest housing costs in the nation in recent months. “If can provide them with one year, only one year until they settle, gain inner knowledge of how the system works,” Ahmed says, she believes refugees would be better able to survive with less stress. They would have time to learn English, get a driver’s license, a car, and a job.
Why do refugees want to be in places like El Cajon and San Diego? “Refugee people feel safer to be around their families and friends,” she says. “They can go to a place like Yuma and rent a house for $500, but they feel lonely. They don’t have their mosque, their family…Here they can practice their identity, feel proud of who they are – but there is a price to pay for everything.”
It is not yet clear whether the Al Rawi children’s mother died as a result of domestic violence that escalated, an accident, or some other cause. But Ahmed emphasized that domestic violence happens in every community, regardless of age, educational background or where people are from.
But she adds, “The refugee community doesn’t have the tools that the American community has. When they come here, they don’t know how our justice system works.” If domestic violence occurs, sometimes victims are afraid to report it, because they believe or may have been told that they could lose their immigration status or have their children taken away.
“We need prevention programs,” Ahmed says. That’s something her nonprofit has been working for years to provide, working with newcomers on how to navigate the system and what to do in the event of domestic violence or child abuse.
But COVID has changed all of that. “We used to get a lot of people in one place. We used to have a community gala for change,” she recalls. “Right now, we cannot even get 10 people together.” Some are afraid to come, or don’t want to wear masks. “Now we have to worry about the safety of people” from COVID.
Education is key – and not just once. She likens it to cleaning a house, which must be done repeatedly. “I say, let’s get there with prevention and intervention” before a tragedy occurs.
License to Freedom was founded to prevent “cycle incidents” and provide a safe space for refugees. Some may not be ready to address domestic violence at first, “but when they are ready, they will come,” she says. Her organization is unique in providing services that are respectful of different cultures, languages and backgrounds. “I came from that culture,” says Ahmed, who came to the U.S. as a Kurdish refugee from Iraq. “That could be my mother or my sister.”
How can people get help in a crisis? “You are not alone and it’s not your fault,” Ahmed says of people victimized by domestic violence or abuse. If you find yourself in a domestic violence situation, you don’t even have to give your name. You can call License to Freedom at 619 401 2800 or call their domestic violence advocates at 619 635 7332. Their website is https://licensetofreedom.org/.
“We offer crisis intervention and free legal services,” Ahmed says. The nonprofit has domestic violence advocates who speak several languages including Arabic, Farsi, Dhari and Russian. There are three attorneys who can help people file for restraining orders, divorce, child custody or child support.
The organization also has an entrepreneur program that helps refugee women start their own small businesses. Last year, 21 women graduated from the program and started businesses. The state has extended the program for another two years, so “we are going to help 20 Afghan and 20 Arab women to start their own small businesses,” Ahmed says.
License to Freedom also has youth programs to help young people achieve their goals, apply for college, and have a safe space to talk about struggles. In addition, the nonprofit helps distribute accurate information on COVID-19 and encouraging people to get vaccinated.
They also provide in-home mental health services. “We sent a team, for example, to this Syrian family in crisis.” The trained responders provide empathy, may take families on outings, and provide empathy. “Sympathy alone is not enough,” Ahmed asserts. What’s needed is “empathy – talking to people…to make sure we understand where they are coming from, the level of trauma. We need to understand that they survived war, they cannot trust anybody, so we create a space so that they can trust us.”
She says License to Freedom has received an outpouring of calls from people in the community offering to help the Al Wari children with clothes, new shoes, food, and gift cards. “People are so nice. This is San Diego,” says Ahmed, her voice breaking up as she recalls a family who helped her when she first arrived here as a refugee 23 years ago. “These people made me who I am,” she says. “They are wonderful.”
As for the Al Rawi children, what they need most now is “peace,” Ahmed says. The children want to return to school and not fear being bullied, and they want to be left alone by the media. “They don’t want anyone to ask about the incident or talk about dad,” she says, though neighbors bring soup and offering support would help. The children know that their father is “at the hand of justice” but say the they believe in his innocence, with “zero percent” doubt. “They still love Dad; they lost their Mom, and they don’t want to lose their Dad.”
How can you help refugees in our community?
Asked how people can best help new refugees in our region, Ahmed says, “The best way is to knock on their door…say how can I help?” She advises not to worry about language barriers, but to follow the language of the heart.
She told of a woman who was recently saved by a concerned neighbor reporting that she was weak and seemed to be almost dying. “She wasn’t crazy, she just had a baby. She was bleeding and had an infection,” Ahmed recalled, “but she didn’t talk to anybody.” She urges community members, “Listen to people, and say `How can I be of assistance?”
Transportation is needed most for many refugee families. “People can donate their time, once a week, for a couple of hours. Take someone to the beach, to the library, show them how beautiful San Diego is,” she asks. Volunteers can also take children to an after school program, or help a parent learn basic English.
“A little thing can make a lot of change,” she says. If people have seven kids, you can take two cars.” Going on an outing the beach or a park is therapy for traumatized people, she notes.
Ahmed voiced thanks to those who have come together to support the Al Rawi family including the Syrian community, the host family that decided to take in all nine children, to Child Protective Services, and to the school district that also stepped in to help.
The family that helped her when she was a newcomer here “sed to come take me to their home, because I was by myself,” she recalls. “It makes me cry. They’ve supported me all my life.” In time, she says, refugees’ memories of traumas will fade, but “they will remember someone who knocked on their door and helped them.”
Note: The video interview was done before Al Wari entered a not-guilty plea and before a judge authorized the children to have contact via phone and email. The audio and online versions of this story have been updated to reflect those facts.