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NEWBURYPORT — More than 5,000 miles from her homeland, in a state whose governor expressed caution about admitting refugees, a Syrian woman named Amira Elamri stood Sunday in the pulpit of a 19th-century parish hall and advocated for her people.

"We never thought about living anywhere else but Syria," Elamri said, as she addressed an attentive congregation at the First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist Church. "But we are one of the lucky ones to be here in Massachusetts."

Elamri, her husband, Bassel Aldehneh, and their two children, ages 9 and 6, escaped the Syrian civil war with their lives, but also with heavy loss. Neighbors who lived in their apartment complex in Damascus were killed, extended family members had to be left behind, and the two children, Danny and Tia, were at times forced to hide under beds as bombs went off.


Niki Rosen talked Sunday after hearing Amira Elamri’s speech.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

"I felt that it was the end," Elamri said. "Streets started to be risky, and we were staying home for days. People in our building were killed one by one."

In 2013, after about nine moves within Syria, and then Lebanon, fleeing violence, Elamri said, the family secured a tourist visa to travel to the United States. Now, after settling in Watertown, Amira and her husband, a travel agent, have been authorized to work in the country while they wait to hear about their application for permanent residence.

In November, Elamri, a Muslim preschool teacher, spoke about her experience as a war refugee at the annual Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition's luncheon at the State House and has since addressed crowds at Newton City Hall and Sunday at the First Religious Society church.

Her message is simple: Refugees are humans, too.

"None of us ever wished to leave, but the safety of our children was a priority," Elamri said. "All [Syrians] want is shelter and a place to call home. They are war refugees."


Elamri was the keynote speaker at the church's monthly, child-friendly service, which featured interfaith passages from the Bible, Koran, and parables from Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism. The church choir followed her speech with a hymn, "Love is a Bridge."

The Rev. Harold Babcock, the church's presiding minister, hoped Elamri's words could push his congregants toward social action.

Babcock and other church leaders encouraged members to tell friends, family, and elected officials about the Elamri's story and consider sponsoring a Syrian family.

"There are people who are making assumptions about refugees, especially Syrian refugees," Babcock said before the service. "We thought it could be important for people to see that this is someone just like us."

When the service concluded, Babcock stood in a receiving line with Elamri's family, as church members shook hands with them.

"The idea of not allowing refugees into our country is ludicrous," said Niki Rosen after she met the family.

Rosen, a 50-year member of the church, was wearing a button that read "Islam is not the enemy" and expressed disappointment in Governor Charlie Baker's statement in November, in which the governor said he would be skeptical of accepting refugees to the Commonwealth, though state officials have little legal jurisdiction over immigration matters.

"I think at this point in time, we would have to be very cautious about accepting folks without knowing a lot more about what the federal government's plan looks like," Baker said at the time.


On Sunday, in response, Rosen invoked the words on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Earlier in the day, a church member named Nina Tannis sat on the edge of her balcony pew as Elamri spoke to the congregation. Tannis, who lives in Newbury, said she was impressed with the bravery of the Syrian mother.

"You can tell how much she loved her home," Tannis said. "It takes something to step into the unknown, and we're lucky to have her in Massachusetts."

Marjorie Peterson, a congregant from West Newbury, said she believed ignorance was driving the "fear of refugees" and "people may not realize that their lives are a lot like our lives."

Danny Aldehneh, Amira's son, called his mother's speech "very brave." Danny attends fourth-grade and enjoys Boy Scouts, his mother said. In the receiving line, he bonded with a 6-year-old boy from the church over their shared love of Minecraft, a computer strategy game. Danny's sister, Tia, is in kindergarten and does baton twirling with the local Blue Bells brigade.

Both children, now safe from conflict, said they never want to move again.

"This is their home," their mother said.

Syrian Amira Elamri (center), her son, Danny Aldehneh, 9, and daughter Tia Aldehneh, 6, greeted congregants Marjorie Peterson (left) and Niki Rosen after services at the First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist Church in Newburyport.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.