Philadelphia Arabs isn’t just a Facebook page, it’s a community of support for immigrants

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On a typical day on the Philadelphia Arabs Facebook page, Mohammad Abuhillo posts a bit of everything: traffic news, live videos from the Schuykill River Trail, football nights and Middle Eastern restaurant openings.

But one day in February, Abuhillo received a message on his page: A man was shot in the head while delivering pizza in North Philadelphia, and the victim was believed to be Arab. A few hours later, he received a call from a nurse practitioner at Temple University Hospital who was familiar with the Facebook page.

“She said, ‘I think he might be Algerian, and as far as we know he has no family. I don’t know what to do, but I know you always step in when someone is Arab,” Abuhillo said.

Abuhillo devoted his time over the following months to helping shooting victim Amin Benziane and his family, whether it was helping with an expedited visa, getting quick access to the police report, or simply act as a friendly face.

And it wasn’t just Abuhillo – much of Philadelphia’s Arab community lent a helping hand to Benziane when they discovered the tragedy on the Facebook page, showing how immigrants come together to rebuild the supportive communities that they left behind.

Abuhillo knows firsthand the need for a support system when in a new country.

He immigrated to the United States from Palestine in 1981 – a time when there were no WhatsApp, Facebook or FaceTime to help new immigrants connect with their homeland and build a new community here.

“Back then, if you needed the simplest thing, you had to ask everyone you knew – and if your network was 10 people and those people didn’t know the answer, you didn’t have bad luck,” Abuhillo said.

But the advent of the internet and social media has changed what might otherwise be a lonely immigration experience, making it easier for new American residents to find and build a larger community and support system. In Benziane’s case, the Philadelphia Arabs page and its nearly 40,000 followers were a lifeline.

It wasn’t the first time that Benziane had a dangerous encounter while delivering pizza.

A man once held a gun to his head and demanded money, Benziane said. The 41-year-old gave him his money, and even offered his car. But on February 7, the attacker didn’t even speak to Benziane – they just opened fire while he was driving, causing him to crash into a house after the bullet hit his head.

Benziane’s first thought when he woke up from a coma in Temple University Hospital was of his two children, now aged 9 and 6, who are in Algeria. He came to the United States from Algeria in 2019 to visit his friends, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Benziane was stuck.

“There were no flights to Algeria, so he stayed here and worked,” Benziane’s brother Shirif said in Arabic and French from the New York home where he and his brother are staying . “When he spoke to his friends, he saw there was an opportunity to improve his situation in Algeria.”

Benziane started working as a delivery driver in New York, then came to Philadelphia. He had a plan to save money to bring home his wife and children.

Then he got shot.

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Thousands of miles away in Algeria, Shirif received a call from a friend. He did not say that Benziane had been shot, only that there had been a “shooting accident” and that Benziane was alive and in hospital. But Benziane’s family had no way of finding out more – due to the investigation into Amin’s shooting, no one was allowed to visit Benziane in hospital unless they were not family members.

That’s when Abuhillo stepped in.

The nurse practitioner told Abuhillo that Benziane was in critical condition and hospital policies allow people to “talk to God” if they are at risk of dying. So Abuhillo called a local imam he knew, Mohammed Shehadeh from the Islamic Society of Al-Aqsa, and together they went to see Benziane two days after the shooting. Benziane was still in a coma, but Abuhillo and Shehadeh contacted his family from the hospital room, and the doctor came on call to explain Benziane’s condition.

“When the accident happened, we had no information because no one was allowed to enter Amin’s room,” Shirif said. “Before [Abuhillo] entered the picture, there were several versions. Each person would say something different. So praise God first, but then [Abuhillo] — we were able to know what the situation was, we were able to see [Benziane].”

Shirif desperately wanted to go to the United States and take care of his brother. But all the friends he consulted told him the same thing: it would be too difficult for him to get a visa so quickly.

Abuhillo therefore phoned the Algerian consulate in New York to explain the situation. The consulate called the US Embassy in Algeria and the next day Abuhillo received a reminder: “Tell Shirif to go to the US Embassy and get his visa tomorrow at 3pm.”

“When I came to America, the first person I saw was [Abuhillo]”, Shirif said. “It would have been more difficult if we [hadn’t] meet him. The things we needed to do would have taken us 20 days without him – with him they only took a day.

After Shirif arrived in the United States, Abuhillo kept in touch and drove Shirif to the hospital when they found that Benziane had woken up from her coma three weeks after the shooting. He posted about Benziane’s situation on the Philadelphia Arabs Facebook page, garnering financial and emotional support from his followers. A community member created a GoFundMe page, raising nearly $6,000 for Benziane.

When Benziane needed a new US visa, Abuhillo put him in touch with legal organizations that are working to get him a U visa, which is a visa for victims of crime. And when he needed the police report of his incident for his visa application, Abuhillo called an Arab officer who wrote up the report for them in five minutes.

“There were people we didn’t know who helped out,” Shirif said. “They did everything they could – some were able to help with a kind word, calling and inquiring about [Benziane’s] situation. He found a lot of support from the Arab community.

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This is exactly why Abuhillo wanted to start his Facebook page in 2017 – to uplift the Arab community and culture and provide resources to the community, but also to bond the community.

“It doesn’t matter if you are Algerian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Lebanese – we are one community,” Abuhillo said. “And when you build a community that ties hands and says, ‘We’re going to support each other in any way we can’, the resources become literally limitless.”

When one person is in need, he says, everyone pulls together. They may miss their family, but they have a new one here.

Acknowledgement

Work produced by The Inquirer’s Communities and Engagement office is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of project donors.

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