Posted by InMaricopa on May 13, 2014 in News Clips

It was late last fall when Nazem Mahayni and his wife Kenan Al Khatib Mahayni decided they had to leave. They locked the doors to their elegant home — leaving untouched the finely decorated living space as if they were only taking a short vacation. They disconnected the batteries from their cars, gathered some clothing and packed up a few suitcases.

Then, they walked away from all of it.

Mahayni and Al Khatib Mahayni, along with two other family members, fled their homes near Damascus, in early November.

The civil war in Syria, which began with protests against the country’s President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in March 2011, has grown into a violent civil war that has taken the lives of more than 100,000 and forced millions to flee. 

With the help of a friend in Chandler, who Al Khatib Mahayni met online, the family of four came to Arizona last fall. And in March, they purchased a home in Maricopa.

“We still don’t know whether we made the right decision or not…but it’s a nice community here and we enjoy it,” said Mahayni.

Mahayni, a youthful-looking 74-year-old semi-retired land developer, is a U.S. citizen, who earned an undergraduate degree in business from Oregon State University and his MBA from University of Oregon. He then worked in real estate and insurance in the United States before returning to Syria because he missed home.

Mahayni met and married his wife Kenan Al Khatib in 1994 while the pair worked together for Occidental Petroleum.

Al Khatib Mahayni, a well-dressed 53-year-old with sparkling eyes and an energetic personality, said she has always wanted to move to the

United States. However, her mother was very ill and Al Katib Mahayni stayed in Syria to care for her until her passing.

“When she passed away, I said, ‘We have to leave,’” Al Khatib Mahayni said. “The majority of our friends had left, and for three years we were just staying at home, and if we were invited to leave, we were really hesitant.”

Al Khatib Mahayni said she has always had an interest in moving away, partly because she feels different from the other women in Syria, many of whom do not have careers and stay home to raise children.

Having no children, Al Khatib Mahayni has worked in a variety of jobs with International companies and high profile organizations, including the United Nations Development Programme and the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance.

“For me, I was suffering from the mentality in Syria,” Al Khatib Mahayni said. “In Syria, you need two things — money and power. You need both … for me that kind of mentality, I used to really hate.”

She added, “I like freedom and I like the rules to be applied to everyone.”

Both Al Khatib Mahayni and her husband are critical of the Syrian government and the way of life that has evolved under more than 40 years of dictatorship. They recall the risk of imprisonment that came with speaking out against the government, the bribery required to do business and the way in which they navigated a system tarnished with corruption

“The only advantage of a dictatorship was safety and security, but they were not doing it for you,” Mahayni said.

“I don’t mind if you take my money, but at least give me my rights,” Al Khatib Mahayni said. “They were stealing the country … if you opened your mouth, you would be in prison.”

When the protests began and the civil war grew, Mahayni said many of his friends thought the conflict would end quickly.

“Lots of people were enthusiastic … at the start of the revolution, everybody was giving his estimate how long the regime would survive,” Mahayni said. “I said it would survive a long time.”

He added, “I could see (what the dictators) had 40 years to build, and you’re not going to bring it down in a few months. It became a police state to the point that two brothers could not even speak to each other without being careful.”

Still, the family has some nostalgia about Syria — especially Mahayni, who has a large family back home.

“There, we had an easy life, you might say … we had all the comforts you can think of, so why change?” Mahayni said.

Mahayni’s niece Lama Abdin, 28, who lives with the family in Maricopa, along with her mother Benan Al Khatib, said the past few years had been difficult back home.

After graduating from Damascus University with a degree in French Literature and earning a separate diploma in business administration from a European Union-founded program, Abdin was able to work as an administrative assistant for a brief time before the civil war erupted and jobs dried up.

“My dream here is to have a job and then to support my family,” Abdin said.

However, for both Abdin and Al Khatib Mahayni finding work has not been easy, because they are not eligible to work under their current visas. The family has been working with an immigration attorney since they arrived in the U.S., but the future remains uncertain.

Chandler resident Tim Jones, who is originally from England, helped the family find their attorney and get settled. After visiting Syria on vacation in late 2010, Jones fell in love with the country and became involved in the Syrian American Council. Through the organization, he met Al Khatib Mahayni online and developed a friendship with her, as well as her family.

“I began to make contact with them on a regular basis, in terms of asking them how they were … and they were interested in coming to the United States because the situation was getting worse and worse,” Jones said.

The family was initially considering moving to San Diego, but Jones recommended they instead move to Arizona since housing is less expensive and he knew he could help them.

When the family finally fled Damascus, the international airport in Syria was not operating, so the group traveled by car to Lebanon and flew from Beirut to Qatar to Chicago before arriving in Phoenix. Mahayni arrived two days after the rest of the family. 

“I met them at the airport and made arrangements for transportation to a hotel here in Chandler,” Jones said.

He later helped the family move into a furnished home in Peoria and then connected them with a realtor, who worked with them to purchase their home in Maricopa.  The family looked at a number of cities, before deciding on Maricopa, because of the good home values and well-planned communities.

“They are very friendly people and are open-minded,” Jones said. “I really have sympathy for their situation.”

“He is my best friend, and he calls every week to check on us,” Al Khatib Mahayni said of Jones.

Acclimating to life in the U.S. and in Maricopa has been an adjustment. For Al Khatib Mahayni, the toughest part has been navigating the rules, such as the need to carry identification everywhere and living in a community with a Homeowners Association.  For Abdin, she has had a more difficult time communicating solely in English, but enjoys the friendly people she encounters while out and about.

The family has begun to connect with the Phoenix-area Syrian community and recently attended an event at a mosque in Scottsdale. Mahayni even discovered two distant relatives in Arizona.

According to the Arab American Institute Foundation, the 2010 Census showed roughly 38 percent of Arab Americans in Arizona have Lebanese or Syrian roots. The total number of people with Syrian roots in Arizona was just 714.

“For Kenan and Lama, they are still in the first stage of leaving and are able to say ‘I don’t care,’ and they are still in shock over what happened in Syria, and are ready to give it up,” Mahayni said. “But you don’t give it up.”

Mahayni said his family is focused on decorating their home and getting settled.  Everyone watches the Arabic channels on Dish Network, Skypes with family and follows news from home through the Internet and television.

Mahayni has had two distant family members killed since the start of the civil war, so there are always lingering worries.

“I worry about my family, and I also worry about the property we have,” Mahayni said.

The family could not sell their property because the country’s economy has declined so sharply that they would only receive a small fraction of what they once invested in developing their land.

“I have good memories of Syria and some people we will never forget,” said Al Khatib Mahayni. “Thank God we didn’t lose any of our (immediate) family.”

Mahayni added, “Call it nostalgia, call it homesickness … Syria is where my roots are, therefore you are always tied to your roots.”

Carrying decades of good memories in their hearts, the family has resolved to embrace their new life in the United States and is grateful for the everyday freedoms, fairness and equality, which Americans enjoy.

“I am never dreaming of ever going back,” said Al Khatib Mahayni.

“Future generations may see Syria coming back, but at my age, I don’t see it,” Mahayni added. “You just run for your life.”

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