A place to call home

A Jerusalemite living in a FEMA trailer is set to return to his New Orleans home

new orleans88 (photo credit: )
new orleans88
(photo credit: )
After a lot of hard work, Jerusalem-born baked goods distributor Ahmad Abuelhawa, his wife Melissa and their children Daniel and Ebrahem, are about to leave their 236 sq.-ft. FEMA trailer and return to their spacious bungalow in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, Louisiana, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina last August. Abuelhawa, 39, and his family have been refugees since the Category 5 hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast, flooding 80 percent of the Crescent City and many areas of neighboring parishes. Katrina is estimated to have caused $75 billion in damage. "Just to give you some insight, we have been living in a FEMA trailer since the hurricane. It has not been easy! We work on our home everyday. We are almost finished, Inshallah [God willing]!" says Melissa. "The damage that we endured was mostly flooding and roof damage. When I returned after Katrina, I had to gut my house completely. We did not even have ceilings. "We've been refugees since the day Katrina hit. It's been over seven months! I feel very fortunate that I still have my family and a trailer to sleep in. Some people do not even have that. Thank God, al-Hamdulelah," says Ahmad. His father, Haj Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa, 64, of A-Tur, concurs. "He's a strong boy. He's not giving up," says the resident of the Arab neighborhood on the Mount of Olives. Ahmad is the oldest male of his eight adult children. Since retiring from the Bezeq phone company, where el-Hawa worked for 27 years as a technician laying cables, the noted peace activist has been traveling the world promoting Jewish-Palestinian co-existence. How did his eldest son, a kid from A-Tur, end up in the Big Easy? The odyssey began on January 16, 1985, a date indelibly impressed on Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa's memory. A concerned father from a traditional Muslim society, he accompanied his two eldest children, Samira and Ahmad, on a trek from Jerusalem via Amsterdam and Atlanta to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Traveling on Israeli laissez-passer documents with US student visas, the stateless Palestinian siblings arrived in the historic town where Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first motorized flight on December 17, 1903. El-Hawa had arranged for Samira and Ahmad to study English there and board with Steve Parson's family. Ahmad remained in Kitty Hawk for three years, working with Parson, who was in the construction business. There he learned the construction trade, becoming a contractor - though today he works as a distributor for New Orleans' Flowers Baking Company, purchasing bread and baked goods from the bakery and selling them to supermarkets along a route he owns. In 1987 Ahmad returned to Israel, in order not to lose his residency permit as a Palestinian resident of east Jerusalem. (He has since forfeited that status, and now must visit his family and hometown as a tourist traveling on an American passport.) While working as a housekeeper at the city's Ramada Renaissance Hotel he met and fell in love with Shannon Sarley, a guest from New Orleans. The next year Haj Ibrahim secretly flew to Louisiana to check out the situation before giving his son his blessing. "I found the family very nice. I didn't care whether they're Christian, or Jewish, or Buddhist," he explains. "I loved the family. I invited them to see my home. But they didn't want to come. They were busy. But the grandfather agreed to come - on the same flight back with me. I sent him back [from Israel to the United States] on the same flight with my son. And I went with my wife for the wedding in June 1988." A year and half later the couple had a daughter, Bayleigh. "I flew a lot [in those days] because I wanted to hold my first grandchild," says el-Hawa, who today is the proud grandfather of 24. But the marriage failed, in part because of cultural differences, says el-Hawa, who is famous in Jerusalem for his hospitality. "Ahmad is a very friendly boy. He wanted to continue the crazy life of his father, an open home for visitors, without a key in the door." The couple divorced, and Bayleigh went to live with her mother in Missouri. Ahmad, now an American citizen, married again in a Louisiana mosque in October 2000. His wife Melissa, n e Fernandez, a divorcee with a son Daniel from a previous marriage, gave birth nine months later to their son Ebrahem, today four. "We had a traditional American wedding in June 2004," says Melissa. "I am very much like my mother-in-law Naima. Ahmad is always bringing guests over to eat and sleep. He just calls me up and asks me to start preparing food. I do practice a lot of the Arabic/ Muslim culture. Our son Ebrahem goes to the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans. He is learning to read and write Arabic and the Koran," she notes with pride. The family visited Jerusalem in July 2005. Melissa was greatly impressed, and says she would be keen to live here half the year - if politics and circumstances permitted it. "I love Jerusalem! I told Ahmad that I would love to live there six months and here six months. As much negative [publicity] as we hear on American news about the fighting there, when I was there all I felt and saw was peace. It is just an overwhelming feeling of peace and love. I wish that I was there now. Believe me, I feel like I left my heart in Jerusalem!" Returning to New Orleans shortly before disaster struck last August, the family hastily stuffed some possessions into their car, and drove off with the rain already pounding and people in panic. Initially they stayed with Samira in Winston Salem, North Carolina. "Then we met the Sudol family that heard of us and gave us a house to live in because Samira's house was getting crowded. When we evacuated, we had Ahmad, myself and kids, and my Mom and nephew," relates Melissa. "We stayed at the Sudols for one month and they were a blessing from God. We are firm believers that when you give to others, it comes back to you and that is what we got from the Sudols. We can't thank them enough." They also spent time with the Parsons in Kitty Hawk, with friends in Atlanta, Georgia, and Orlando, Florida. "Ahmad flew home from there and left us so he could gut the house. The house was full of mold and was dangerous for the kids," she recalls. After three months living as refugees, they were able to return to their severely damaged property in Metairie. FEMA, the much maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency, provided the tiny trailer which they parked on the lawn of their Wytchwood Drive house. Though carrying out most of the renovation work themselves, Ahmad and Melissa have had to contend with skyrocketing costs of labor, and shortages of construction material. "There is not enough product here to build," contends Melissa. "The first time that I bought sheetrock, it took me three hours in line. The only thing left that we have to do is to build a kitchen and a bathroom." But Ahmad considers himself lucky. The hurricane's confirmed death toll stands at 1,604, he notes. Moreover, unlike many people, he had property insurance. "My brother Alvin Fernandez is a New Orleans firefighter and also a single father," says Melissa. "We have taken my nephew in since the hurricane. Alvin's house was completely destroyed and he has no flood or homeowners insurance. Alvin had to rescue people who were stuck in their homes. He stayed working 24 hours a day for 30 days." An investment property the Abuelhawas own, also in Metairie, sustained heavy damage. So far they have left it abandoned to concentrate their efforts on rebuilding their own home. Thinking back to more care-free days at the now destroyed Six Flags amusement park, Ahmad reflects on kismet. Everything is ultimately from Allah, he insists. What of other Jerusalemites in New Orleans? Abuelhawa isn't aware of any. The Web site of NOLA Palestine Solidarity hasn't been updated since 2003, suggesting that the group was inactive even before Katrina made some Palestinians refugees twice over. Fewer than 200,000 of New Orleans' half million residents have returned since the huge storm. The Jewish community has fared marginally better: about two-thirds of the Big Easy's pre-hurricane Jewish population of 9,500 has returned, though Jewish communal life in New Orleans may never return to its pre-Katrina vibrancy.