Amid the serious business, men cracked jokes and took jabs at one another. Some seemed eager to have a guys’ night out, while others, in their silence, were harder to gauge. Saddoon and Arafeh sat side by side, chatting and laughing.
The friendship is part of a new chapter for Saddoon, who has experienced a lifetime of persecution at the hands of Muslims. In the United States, the two men have come to rely on one another for advice as they navigate the challenges of resettlement. Saddoon now counts several Muslims among his closest confidantes.
“Muslims here are different than in the Middle East,” Saddoon said. “I have so many Muslim friends in Toledo—from Syria, Sudan, Jordan. Relations among us are different here.”
For Saddoon and his friends, life in America is changing the way Arab Muslims and Christians treat one another. In the Middle East, faith is often a matter of life and death, as the violence of ISIS has proven across Syria and Iraq. In Toledo, faith remains a matter of survival for Christian and Muslim refugees—but in positive ways. Away from the pressures of civil war and strife, refugees in these two religious groups are building communities that support one another as they draw from their respective traditions.
In many ways, Toledo is a typical Rust Belt story. The city’s population has declined by an astounding 27 percent since the 1970s, as factories closed and the post-World War II economic opportunities dried up. But the number of Arab immigrants has increased. They began arriving in the 1880s and kept coming throughout the 20th century, seeking economic opportunity or freedom from strife and political oppression. Today, the Arab footprint in local commerce, government, and civic life is unmistakable.
Arab newcomers escaping the terrors of ISIS and civil war find comfort in such familiarity, but old suspicions persist. “Sometimes people question your loyalty, and wonder if someone is a member of the Mokhabarat,” Saddoon said, referring to the notorious domestic spy agencies in Arab countries. Other times, they whisper about who among them opposes the Iraqi and Syrian regimes.
Still, Saddoon appreciates the benefits of mixing with other refugees. “Here all kinds of Arabs can interact more openly,” he said. “My friendships with Muslims in Toledo would be impossible in Iraq.”
Originally from Mosul, Saddoon said he was accustomed to suffering at the hands of his Muslim neighbors. When he was seven years old, Muslim boys showed up on his doorstep, threw a fishing net over him, dragged him outside, and hit him while demanding that he convert to Islam. Christian-Muslim relations in Saddoon’s community worsened after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Saddoon’s neighbors suspected him of supporting the occupation because he, like the Americans, was Christian. The Muslim owners of his local bakery refused to sell him bread.