This small town, devastated by floods, welcomed Syrian immigrants. They’re now paying it back.

This small town, devastated by floods, welcomed Syrian immigrants. They’re now paying it back.


Originally published by The Washington Post

The first time Majd AlGhatrif saw this historic mill town of colonial buildings at the confluence of the Patapsco and Tiber rivers, he thought of Syria.

The structures, built of gray stone, and the history they evoked, reminded him of the timelessness and architecture of his hometown, Sweida, in southern Syria. He soon bought a house here, in 2013, then opened Syriana Cafe & Gallery, in 2016, and came to view everything about Ellicott City’s people — their kindness and decency — as an antidote to the fear others were expressing over Syrian immigrants like him.

So when floods again ripped through here in May, killing a Maryland National Guardsman, closing businesses up and down its historic district and producing images of destruction recalling the floods of 2016, he vowed to do anything he could to help a community that had become his own.

The result of that vow came to fruition Saturday at Syriana, where he presented the city with a check for $10,000, which he had raised from Syrian Americans from all over the country who had seen the destruction and wanted to show their gratitude not just to Ellicott, but also to the United States for accepting them.

“We wanted this to be a payback from Syrian Americans to a generous America,” said AlGhatrif, a physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, handing an oversize check to community leaders.

The check was a rare bit of good news in a city that has survived 246 years but is now reckoning with its own mortality — one more town grappling with existential questions, as the globe warms and natural disasters increase in frequency and ferocity.

“Ellicott City: Must we destroy this village in order to save it?” the Baltimore Sun’s editorial board asked last month, and that question has been at the heart of the discussions here since the last flood.

The community is considering a sweeping $50 million plan to mollify future damage from flooding, but it would require the demolishment of as many as 19 buildings, cleaving out a piece of history in a city whose livelihood to a large degree depends on that very history.

“What we have to realize is that if we don’t do something, the town will die,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) who is proposing the alteration to a city listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After the last flood, he said, “the calculus changed.”

AlGhatrif witnessed that firsthand.

“When the first flood happened, there was a lot of stamina, but after the second one, there was,” he said, trailing off. “It was really difficult.”

He knew that the community meant a lot not just to him, but also to other Syrian immigrants and refugees. His cafe employed several who, after years of fear during the Syrian war, had come to feel safe in Ellicott City.

One was Safa Alfares, 17. She was born in Aleppo, whose scenes of war and bodies still dominate her thoughts.

“If we stay here, they will kill us,” she recalled the conversations of that time, so they fled to Turkey and then, through a refu­gee agency, came to Maryland. She had heard of President Trump’s call as a candidate to ban Muslims from entering the country and had arrived expecting to face Islamaphobia.

“I was afraid,” she said. “We thought Americans would be very different and there wouldn’t be any Muslims like us. We thought we wouldn’t have a chance.”

But as she learned English, in which she became fluent in less than two years, and after she found a job at Syriana, her sense of foreboding gave way to something she had not experienced since the beginning of the war: calm.

Then it was late May, and she was working another shift at Syriana, and outside the rains wouldn’t stop.

“I was here during the flood,” she said. “I was very, very scared. We are here. We are safe from Syria. But when I saw the flood, I remembered Syria.”

Syriana was spared the worst of the damage, but AlGhatrif watched as his neighbors struggled, facing devastation anew. He thought of all of the times when they had helped local Syrian refugees, driving them to work or assisting them with their mail, for no reason other than it had seemed like the right thing to do.

So within days, he got on Facebook and typed out a plea.

“Syriana’s losses this time are dwarfed by the devastation to our community,” he wrote. “We see this as a responsibility to pay back those who embraced us and help them rise up again.”

The response was immediate. Within 24 hours, people from 17 states, many of whom had never been to Ellicott City, had donated $10,000.

“I actually was not that surprised,” AlGhatrif said. “I had a good sense of what our people believe in, and though it was a disaster, it was an opportunity to have positive feelings at all levels. We don’t take this for granted.”

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