The Islamic Relief volunteer smiled as he bent down to speak softly in Arabic to a little 4-year-old girl standing outside her school in one of numerous tents in the Syrian refugee camp she called home.
“My name is Imad Enchassi, and I am an imam from the United States. I brought you some food,” he told the girl.
The child’s answer — and her serious demeanor — took Enchassi by surprise.
“Silly! I have food! Look at my feet. I need shoes!” she said indignantly.
The Oklahoma City Muslim leader said he and his wife, Judith, quickly changed their plans for the day, and by nightfall, they had returned to present the little girl with two pairs of shoes.
“She was ecstatic! She called me ‘Papa Noel,’ ” Enchassi said, recalling the happy moment.
‘A refugee myself’
The summer memory recently rose to the surface as he read and watched news accounts of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing their makeshift camps along the border of their war-torn country.
Enchassi, 50, said that through TV and newspaper images, people around the world are viewing the heartbreaking plight of these refugees — many, perhaps, for the first time.
He said many of them are calling the Syrian refugees’ flight to European countries and America a global crisis, but it always has been a heart-wrenching crisis to him, because he has seen it firsthand.
And he has been in their shoes.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Syrian mother and Palestinian father, Enchassi said he spent his teens living in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. He said he was there in September 1982 when a group called the Lebanese Christian militiamen attacked the camp and killed hundreds of refugees.
Enchassi said he emigrated to the U.S. in 1983.
For many summers, he has returned to the Middle East as a volunteer for the humanitarian aid organization Islamic Relief.
When he visits the Syrian refugee camps and looks into the eyes of the children like the little girl with no shoes, he sees their innocence.
He sees that they smile in spite of their living conditions.
He sees himself, and he cannot turn his back on them, cannot help but offer them aid.
Enchassi said he’s hoping that others in the U.S. feel the same way.
“I still have a refugee card from the United Nations saying that I am categorized as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon,” he said.
“There’s always that soft spot for refugees because I was a refugee myself.”
Joy in the summer
Enchassi is well-known in the metro area as the founder of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City and as a professor of Islamic studies at Oklahoma City University. As such, he’s probably one of the more prominent Muslims in the metro area.
Within the Muslim faith community, his summer volunteer stints with Islamic Relief USA, an affiliate of Islamic Relief Worldwide, are just as widely known.
Enchassi said he and his family have traveled to offer aid to the Syrian refugees for three-week to monthlong stints each summer for the past four years. He said they last visited refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey along the Syrian border from mid-May to mid-June.
Before that, they traveled to help Palestinian refugees, Iraqi refugees and Bosnian refugees.
Enchassi said aiding the refugees brings him great joy.
He said many of the Syrian refugees thought they would be able to go home by now, “but these people have been camping for four years” in a camp setting that isn’t anything like what Americans would envision a “camp” to be.
“There’s no lake, no barbecue, no bathrooms. Basic hygiene is not there, and when it rains, it literally pours into their tents,” he said.
Enchassi said through Islamic Relief, he has helped install water purification systems, and packaged and distributed food. He said he and volunteers from places like Switzerland, Italy and England visited schoolchildren and took them shopping for clothes and to play in a safe playground area.
Enchassi said he identifies with the Syrian refugees’ desire to relocate to Europe and America.
He said the people who live in the countries where the Syrians have set up camp are often welcoming and warm to the fleeing families, but this is not enough to override the refugees’ feelings of being displaced.
“From the psychology of a person who was a refugee at one time, you still feel you are a refugee, that you are second-class citizen, and you want to make a better life for yourself,” he said.
Enchassi said he is excited that in answer to the refugee crisis, several American organizations are asking the U.S. State Department to allow more Syrian refugees to come to America than they previously had planned. According to some news reports, President Barack Obama has asked that 10,000 more Syrian refugees be allowed to emigrate to the U.S. than the government previously had alloted.
Enchassi said he is pleased that government leaders are discussing ways to help the refugees, but he is hoping that they increase the number of additional refugees who will be allowed to emigrate to the country.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the numbers that the State Department has declared. To us, 10,000 is nothing. Like I told my congregation, it’s like you being a multi-billionaire and trying to give a penny to charity,” he said.
Enchassi said the Islamic Society is part of a coalition of metro-area groups, including several different faiths, that have joined together to assist the Syrian refugees that eventually will come to Oklahoma.
He said Americans need only reflect on the history of the U.S. to realize that welcoming the Syrian refugees is in keeping with American ideals.
“We are a nation of immigrants. Our forefathers came here fleeing religious persecution,” the imam said.
And he said he expects Oklahomans, many with deep faith roots, will want to help. Some already have reached out to offer donations and other support for refugees expected to make their way to the Sooner State.
“First and foremost, this is not a Muslim crisis. It’s not a Christian crisis. It’s not a Jewish crisis. This is a human crisis,” he said.
“We are people who love God, and we are acting according to our faith.”