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An Odd Group Of 5: Roommates Welcome Syrian Refugee Into Toledo, Ohio, Home


Now we have an odd-couple story. Actually, it's an odd group of five. They're all in their 20s living in one house in Toledo, Ohio.

For a place that five guys live, this is kind of shockingly clean.

DOUG WALTON: Yeah, we're told that often, especially the fact that we have, like, art hanging on the walls...


WALTON: ...And our rug looks like it's been vacuumed within the last year.

SHAPIRO: The house is near the University of Toledo. Doug Walton is sort of the unofficial ringleader of this group.

WALTON: I'm 25 and I work in an on-campus church at UT.

SHAPIRO: And you live here with four roommates, one of whom is not like the others.

WALTON: Yeah. Four of us are American, in college or recently graduated, and the fifth guy is a refugee from Syria.

MOHAMMED REFAI: My name is Mohammed.

SHAPIRO: Mohammed Refai (ph) has big, dark eyes, black hair and a shy smile.

Are these the only people who call you Mo (ph)?

REFAI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHAPIRO: "Nobody else calls me that," he says.


SHAPIRO: I asked Doug, why did you decide to take in a refugee as a roommate?

What was the motivation there?

WALTON: My immediate answer just sounds so cliche, but I think the motive is love. I was told he's coming and that I have an opportunity to help him out. And I was like, yeah, why wouldn't I do that? I just love Mohammed, and I just want to help him out.

SHAPIRO: When Mohammed arrived here in May, he spoke almost no English.

WALTON: He could say hello and he could count to 10.

SHAPIRO: Mohammed's experience is different from most Syrian refugees. While he was given a visa, his sisters and his parents are still at a refugee camp in Jordan. Families are usually kept intact. We asked the State Department about the Refai family. They told us they don't comment on specific cases. When the new roommate showed up, Doug took Mohammed to a Middle Eastern supermarket in town.

WALTON: And he just runs up to the counter and starts speaking in Arabic. And the guy's talking back to him in Arabic. And he just - you could just see him just, like, drop - it's just, like, his whole countenance just changed. He's like, oh, my gosh, what a relief.

SHAPIRO: The man behind the butcher counter was Hussain Mroueh (ph). When Mohammed explained his story, Mroueh started to cry.

HUSSAIN MROUEH: It kind of broke my heart.

SHAPIRO: Mroueh has a 21-year-old son. Mohammed is 22.

MROUEH: It's hard, you know.

SHAPIRO: You see your son in him. Your son is 21, he's...

MROUEH: I see that and I see the feeling, you know, toward his family and how he left his family behind. He left them with nothing. So whatever I had in my pocket that day, I did give it. Plus, you know, the second day, I gave him more.

SHAPIRO: Plus you gave him a job.

MROUEH: Plus I gave him a job (laughter). And I'll do it again, over and over and over.

SHAPIRO: Everyone else who works at this market is fluent in English and Arabic. They made an exception for Mohammed. He wears a white apron, and after a few months here, he has mastered the words he needs to man the meat counter.

REFAI: Chicken legs, chicken breast, goat, steak, lamb, beef, turkey.

SHAPIRO: Does this feel like the butcher shop that you worked in Syria?


MROUEH: No, it's not the same.

SHAPIRO: He says over there, they don't have refrigeration. They sell the meat in the same spot where they kill the animals.

Does the meat here taste the same or does it taste different?

REFAI: (Speaking Arabic).

MROUEH: No, the taste of meat, it's better over there.

SHAPIRO: Doug orders some chickens cut up, skin on. Mohammed rings up the order. And then they invite us over for dinner.

Oh, my God, it smells so good in here.

Doug rubs the chicken with herbs and makes rice full of saffron and cardamom. It's a Middle Eastern dish called kebsa.

WALTON: God, thanks for bringing all these interesting people together from all parts of the world and all parts of the country.


WALTON: In Jesus' name, amen (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: Everyone sits on the floor and eats the kebsa with their hands off giant platters. Afterwards, there's baklava and tea. The roommates arm wrestle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Keep it steady, keep it steady.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Don't hit him in the face when you take your hands off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One, two, three, go.

SHAPIRO: On the back of his hand, Doug has a temporary henna tattoo that he got at a campus Middle Eastern festival. The tattoo is the Arabic word the roommates use with each other, habibi, my beloved friend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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