Syrian refugees are New York tourists for the day

NEW YORK - After fleeing war in Syria and arriving in America with her family four months ago, for one day Mona Hafez is not a refugee.

She is a tourist seeing the sights of New York.

"Coming to the park was really fun. Riding the subway was awesome. I love all of New York City," says the 10-year-old, words tumbling out of her mouth in delight.

Hafez was one of 150 refugees last week treated to free tours of the US cultural capital, complete with a pizza lunch, in a charity drive organised by a New York guide desperate to make refugees feel welcome at a time when President Donald Trump wants them banned.

So ugly and so polarised is today's US debate around immigration that organizer Luke Miller received death threats on Facebook while raising money to cover the cost of the day-long tours.

"People wrote just really vitriolic, nasty, nasty things," said the 48-year-old, who owns family business Real New York Tours. "Overall the response has just been incredible."

For five days over spring break, he took mostly Syrians but also some Iraqis around the city, treating groups of children, teenagers and parents to stories about New York's history, fun facts and indelible memories.

For one day, the refugees could put aside worries about overcoming the language barrier and finding work, and just enjoy themselves after years of living in fear and uncertainty.

The tour took in Madison Square Garden, Times Square - where a spot on the Marriott Marquis billboard costs $2.5 million a month to rent, Miller tells the flabbergasted group - then Central Park to see the sea lions and ride the carousel, ironically operated by the Trump Organisation.


Then it's back on the subway to head downtown to Battery Park to see the Statue of Liberty across the harbour and eat pizza.

"You guys want to see something cool?" asks Miller, inviting the group to crane their necks up to the Empire State Building shrouded in cloud.

He whips out pictures of King Kong clambering up the side in the 1933 movie to laughs and tells stories of construction workers labouring at dizzying heights who died in days of relaxed safety standards.

Passers-by drop in to listen. Miller does magic tricks to put the children at ease.

Five Arabic translators make sure everyone understands. Another volunteer has a bag of snacks - fruit, nuts, cookies and chips - to keep the children energized.

Strolling through Central Park, past lush grass, tulips and blossoms, a busker played "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on the saxophone, and the children pose at the bronze Balto dog statue.

Their parents filmed or took pictures on their phones or selfie sticks. Teenagers were already chomping on gum, US-style.

"This has been the most wonderful day I've spent in America. It's been beautiful, it's been amazing," says Mona's mother Rawda, beaming under a white headscarf and dressed in a sweater to fend off the April chill.

The family lived through the first year of the war in Homs before fleeing to Damascus and onto Jordan where they lived for four years before their visas came through for the United States.

Trump carousel

In Syria her husband owned a shoe store. But like other refugees in the group they have yet to find jobs, first trying to learn English.

But the children are flourishing. Mona, a beautiful child with long brown hair tucked into a bun, loves math and science at school in New Jersey.

She wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

"Now that they're picking up more and more of the language, I get very happy when they're able to communicate," says her proud mother.

None of the refugees who spoke to AFP said they had experienced any prejudice in the United States.

They live in Elizabeth, a diverse New Jersey town in the shadow of Newark Liberty International Airport.

Miller calls it "divine justice" that Trump's company operates the carousel, saying he did not know that before drafting the itinerary.

Certainly the refugees don't care.

"My family's happy and my children are happy, so I'm very happy," says Ammar Ahmed, 45, a father of four and accountant who fled war in Iraq by going to Syria, only to move back to Iraq to escape war in Syria.

"It's my dream!" he said of living in America. Increasingly confident in English, his next task is to find a job.