`A safe, good place'

Refugees: Fleeing death threats in his native Algeria, a man and his family find help in Baltimore.

January 27, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Kada el-Frih is a Muslim trade unionist who fled Algeria after receiving death threats, spent a decade in Germany and was in danger of being sent back to near-certain assassination in his home country.

He now finds himself living in Baltimore.

In a Catholic convent.

The parishioners of St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Northwood have opened their collective arms to embrace el-Frih, 50, his wife, Kheira, and seven of their nine children. Since the fall, they have provided the Muslim family with shelter in a temporarily empty convent, found jobs for the parents, shuttled the children around the city and generally helped the el-Frihs navigate life in their new home.

"When they first arrived, I came and told them, `Welcome, I'm glad you're here, this is a safe, good place,"' said the Rev. Joseph L. Muth Jr., pastor of St. Matthew. "And Kada told me, `I never thought help for our family would come from Christians.'"

The problem now is that the solution was only temporary.

Before the el-Frih family took up residence there, the convent had been rented to an international group of nuns that arrives in the middle of next month. So the parish is scrambling, trying to find a house in the area that the family can buy or rent.

"We've been looking for a house for them for several weeks, but we haven't found any luck," Muth said.

Members of the parish say they will find a way. That's how the el-Frih family ended up at St. Matthew's in the first place.

Before he fled Algeria, el-Frih, now 50, was an engineer at a petroleum plant in the coastal city of Oran, where he was an active union member. His union activities drew hostile attention in the North African country, which for about a decade has been embroiled in a violent conflict between the government and Islamic forces.

"We left Algeria because my father was targeted to be killed, from both sides - from the government and from the Islamic terrorists," said Ouarda-Ismahan el-Frih, 20, Kada el-Frih's daughter.

In September 1990, the family fled to Germany.

"Once we got into Germany, we started everything anew. We started school. We grew up," said Ouarda-Ismahan el-Frih, the family member most fluent in English, which she learned at a German business college.

El-Frih's eldest son remains behind in Algeria. The el-Frihs have not seen him since they left the country. Another son lives in Germany.

After a decade in Germany, the family's application for permanent residency was rejected, and they were ordered to return to Algeria - an order they believed to be a death sentence. Kada el-Frih had heard credible reports that dissidents who returned to Algeria were being seized at the airport, never to be heard from again.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees recommended the el-Frih family for a resettlement program to the United States that normally works with Bosnians. It was the luck of the draw that brought them to Baltimore in August, although the family calls it something else.

"We didn't choose Baltimore," said Ouarda-Ismahan el-Frih. "It was chosen for us. Our destiny brought us here. We trusted in Allah, and we trusted he would bring us to a place we would be happy, where we would all be together."

They stayed at first in Highlandtown, in temporary resettlement housing, and were soon looking for other lodgings.

About a month after the family arrived, a group of parishioners approached Muth after Mass. One of them had heard from a Muslim neighbor about a family, recently arrived, that desperately needed a place to stay. What could they do? they asked their pastor.

"I said, `Well, the convent's open for a couple of months. Why don't we put them in there?"' Muth recalled. In early October, the family moved in.

Owen Charles, the parishioner who had heard about the family from his neighbor, said the parish's action stems from an outreach commitment they made last year during the parish's 50th anniversary. "This is something we deal with - we assist those in need," said Charles.

The el-Frihs "seem to think it's been good for them, but I think it works both ways," Owen said. "We have to be thankful, because for most of us it has been a spiritual journey."

The parishioners are frequent visitors to the house, where there is always a plate of couscous and stewed meat and vegetables waiting.

The el-Frihs, in turn, invited Muth and some of the parishioners to their mosque in Silver Spring for "All Religions Day," where the Catholic cleric addressed the Muslim faithful, earning him the nickname "The Muslim Priest."

Muth says he has faith that the Almighty, by whatever name he is called, will help the el-Frih family find a permanent home in Baltimore: "I figure God and Allah - his name be praised - are working on this together somehow."

Anyone with information about a possible home for the el-Frih family is encouraged to call St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church at 410-433-2300.

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