For Family That Fled War

by Kari Haskell, The New York Times, November 29, 2003


For Family That Fled War, Safety, and Some Help, Too

Zeenathul and Mohamed Zawril, back row, with their son, Ifraz, and daughters, Sahla, left, front row, and Sara. Mr. Zawril feared for the safety of his family because of war in their native Sri Lanka.

There is no place like America,” Mohamed Zawril says. “People here are helpful; we are lucky.”

But in Sri Lanka, Mr. Zawril and his family found that luck was something few people possessed. And if you had some, it was bound to run out.

Mr. Zawril and his wife, Zeenathul, have a son, Ifraz, 18; and two daughters, Sara, 13, and Sahla, 11. They arrived in Astoria, Queens, from Sri Lanka in April 2001, fleeing the civil war that has raged for 20 years between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists.

In the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, the war once consumed their lives. News about a friend who had lost a family member in the violence or come close to being killed were common topics of discussion around the Zawrils’ dinner table.

And sometimes, the war came even closer.

Mr. Zawril, a sapphire dealer, recalled one occasion in which he had just finished meeting with a business client at the Intercontinental Hotel in Colombo and was on his way out.

“I was in the elevator when I felt the blast,” he said. The elevator doors opened and he saw bloodied people, in pain and shock.

The elevator’s thick encasement had protected him and the other riders from the explosion. Mr. Zawril navigated through the chaos and directed bewildered hotel guests down a stairwell. As they emerged from the building, all they could see through the clouds of smoke were large pieces of rubble. Chunks from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka blanketed the street. The explosion had also ripped through the right side of the hotel.

The news of the bombing spread quickly.

“I knew my husband was in the hotel,” said Ms. Zawril, a shy Muslim woman wearing a black scarf over her head. She began fearing the worst, as hours ticked by and she heard nothing from him. When he finally called on a cellphone, she wept and thanked God.

In a land of bad news and close calls, Mr. Zawril figured that it was only a matter of time before death found its way into his home. But he agonized over uprooting his family, of giving up the support of relatives and what was a privileged lifestyle.

Mr. Zawril had done well as an entrepreneur. Investments in shrimp farms and fine Ceylon sapphires helped pay for cars and a spacious house. His businesses brought him to places far east and west, including New York City.

Of course, even that could sometimes put him in harm’s way. On a business trip to the United States in 2000, he was robbed after showing a client his merchandise. The loss — more than $150,000 in sapphires that were not insured — nearly wiped him out. He returned to Sri Lanka and, with the support of family and friends, rebounded from the loss.

That experience made him more resilient, he said. It made the thought of starting over in another country less frightening — and certainly not as frightening as standing one’s ground in the midst of a senseless war.

After selling his family’s possessions and squaring his debts, Mr. Zawril had enough money to move to New York City. It seemed like a logical destination because his children spoke English and he had business contacts in the diamond district in Midtown Manhattan.

When the Zawrils arrived at Kennedy International Airport, they had little more than their luggage. They applied for political asylum.

For a home, they found a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Astoria.

The family was granted asylum, and Mrs. Zawril won the green-card lottery in the spring of 2002. Their luck was at last turning, and just in time, because the family was running out of money.

After gaining asylum, the family obtained a list of agencies that specialize in refugee services. Among them was Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

The Zawrils were enrolled in the Match Grant Program, a federally funded, need-based refugee resettlement program administered by Catholic Charities. They received $930 per month during the summer of 2002 for rent and other expenses. They also qualified for Medicaid, and Mr. Zawril began attending job readiness classes.

Meanwhile, winning the lottery meant an opportunity to get their green cards sooner than through asylum. But first, they had to wade through a five-inch-thick dossier of forms. The Zawrils struggled with all the jargon.

Norma Rios, a caseworker at Catholic Charities, helped them get through the process.

Now, Mr. Zawril is working to re-establish his sapphire business. And he is optimistic that his family will be safe. “I know because we are here, we will make it.”

The New York Times, November29, 2003

The Neediest Cases Fund

Previously recorded


Recorded Tuesday




Last year to date


How to Help

Checks payable to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund should be sent to 4 Chase Metrotech Center, 7th Floor East, Lockbox 5193, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11245, or any of these organizations:

285 Schermerhorn Street
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217

1011 First Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10022

191 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201

105 East 22nd Street
New York, N.Y. 10010

105 East 22nd Street
New York, N.Y. 10010

281 Park Avenue South
New York, N.Y. 10010

Church Street Station
P.O. Box 4100
New York, N.Y. 10261-4100

Comments are disabled on this page.