JACKSON TWP.  Fares Abou-Zakhim hasn't seen his mother in three years.

When his father died, Abou-Zakhim was unable to attend the funeral. It was too dangerous.

Abou-Zakhim and his wife, Mary, left Damascus, Syria, after she and their son narrowly missed a bombing in 2011. They are not refugees but they have seen firsthand the suffering and chaos gripping the country they love.

"I lost cars, my home, money, my teaching license, and my dad," Fares Abou-Zakhim said.

On Wednesday, the couple and their son, Nick, a freshman at Central Catholic High School, lent their support to a prayer service and fundraiser for Syrian refugees. The effort, held at the St. Raphael Center at 4365 Fulton Drive NW, was sponsored by students of Holy Cross Catholic Schools and St. Thomas Aquinas and Central Catholic high schools.

The students raised nearly $3,500, which will be given to Catholic Relief Services, to aid children caught in the crossfire of Syria's five-year-old civil war, said Holy Cross President Jackie Zufall.

"All of our schools took this project to heart," she said. "In the last month, they've been talking about the Syrian refugee crisis. They've been running the fundraisers to support them."

During the prayer service, Bishop George V. Murry, head of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, reminded the audience that refugees would prefer to live in their own countries, leaving only when they have no choice.

"In order to find peace and security, refugees have to leave," he said.

Murry likened care and concern for refugees to the story of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Luke. Welcoming them, he said, is in keeping with the Christian faith.

"We can either be like the father in this story, who welcomes his son back without a moment's hesitation," he said. "Or we can be like the older son who was angry that the son, his brother, came back.

"Jesus asks of us to welcome those who are homeless, who are poor, who are the forgotten in our society. Especially today, we raise our hearts and minds in solidarity with refugees from Syria. Those who are forced to leave their country, those who have no home.... Jesus calls upon us to make a home for them."

No going back

The Rev. David Bergner, Diocesan Vicar of Social Affairs, said Matthew's Gospel specifically instructs how refugees are to be treated.

"Each of us, in a very special way, embodies Christ," he said. "We acknowledge that embodiment whenever we help our neighbor."

Bergner noted that 65 million people are currently displaced, the largest number in world history. Of that number, 20 million have been designated by the United Nations as refugees.

"Which means if they return to their families or their cities, or countries of origin, they risk their personal safety," he said. "In other words, there's no going back for that group of people." 

Bergner said half of Syria's population of 24 million has been displaced. Of that 12 million, 6 million are "internally displaced." The remainder live outside of Syria, including 4.5 million in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.

America's vetting process for refugees is a 12-step, two-year process, he said. Since 2015, the U.S. has taken the fewest refugees, at 13,200, he said. Canada has accepted 25,000, and Germany has taken in 1 million.

He said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities have resettled one-third of all refugees in the U.S. There are plans to collaborate with the Cleveland Diocese to resettle some refugees within the Youngstown Diocese.

The Abou-Zakhims were married in 2000 and lived in Damascus, where they were teachers at the International School. Fares Abou-Zakhim taught math, and Mary Abou-Zakhim, who was born in Canton, taught English as a second language.

"A beautiful life"

Mary Abou-Zakhim is a former Canton City Schools teacher; her parents emigrated from Syria to Canton 50 years ago.

"We lived a very safe, beautiful life in Damascus," she said. "Damascus is a beautiful city. Damascus remains untouched, even though there's a war there ... We still have our home there in Damascus, although all the windows are blown out. Some parts are safer than others."

The Abou-Zakhims lived in a predominately Christian neighborhood protected by government troops but considered their Muslim neighbors as friends.

"Before the war, there was no difference between a Christian person and a person who was Muslim or of a different faith," she said.

In March 2011, she and Nick were on their way to school when a bomb exploded behind them at a checkpoint.

"We missed it by three minutes," she recalled. "We had to stay at the school until 9 or 10 p.m. At that point, it became very difficult to go to school on a daily basis. You'd hear gunshots. It was basically taking a chance every day to send your son to school."

Water and electric service became sporadic. 

"It's a daily struggle," she said.

Because Mary Abou-Zakhim and Nick had American passports, they were able to leave in 2013. Her husband followed several months later but had emigrate through Beruit, Lebanon.

Mary Abou-Zakhim expressed gratitude toward Murry, and St. Michael and Central Catholic schools for accepting her son. In January, she was hired at St. Michael. 

"We're very grateful to be here," she said. "In Syria, we were afraid for our children, especially if you had a son. We Christians were very afraid for our children. Fares' sister has two children today living there and she hesitates on daily basis to send them to school or not."

Fares Abou-Zahkim said his father died a week after he left Syria "from stress." He calls his family every day.

"We live this story," he said.

"We still pray for peace, we still hope for peace," Mary Abou-Zakhim said.

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @cgoshayREP