Daniel Rubin: Couple's generosity broadens horizons of ailing boy

Fawzi Nazzal kicks back with Jerry Roseman and Alia Banna at their home. The three of them went to the Jersey Shore recently and Fawzi saw his mother via Skype.
Fawzi Nazzal kicks back with Jerry Roseman and Alia Banna at their home. The three of them went to the Jersey Shore recently and Fawzi saw his mother via Skype. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 03, 2012

Fawzi went down the Shore the other day. This was big. He'd never seen the ocean before. Not even the sea, and he'd spent his whole life 20 minutes from the Mediterranean.

His hosts in this country - Jerry Roseman and Alia Banna - had planned to take him to Cape May. But Fawzi got restless in the car and the couple settled for Avalon.

Before he could sink his feet in the sand, Alia's iPhone rang. The boy's mother was calling from Qabatiya, a farming village in the West Bank.

She had never seen the sea before either, so Fawzi held the phone up like a periscope to his new world, and over Skype he and his mother shared the moment.

Quickly it became clear to Jerry that the teenager would need proper clothes - a bathing suit, not his sagging, sand-filled shorts, and sandals, not sneakers. The size 9s that Alia first bought didn't fit. Neither did the 11s, but Fawzi wore them anyway.

"He's got gigantic feet," Jerry observed.

So for three hours, Fawzi walked along the water's edge, in his new clothes, his Phillies hat, and the Carlos Ruiz jersey the couple bought him a few days earlier, when he watched his new team beat the Colorado Rockies.

For Fawzi Nazzal, it was a pretty strong week.

"Overwhelming," he says in Arabic, then switches to English, which he has been practicing since this past winter, when Jerry and Alia enrolled him at Meredith Elementary School.

"It's a new thing, a huge thing," he says. "To see the boats in the ocean . . ."

Fawzi arrived in this country in January, sweat-soaked, scared, and exhausted from nearly a day of traveling. He was born with a congenital defect called kyphosis, which causes the spine to curve forward.

The Palestinian Children's Relief Agency sponsored the boy and raised money for his trip to Philadelphia, where he was given free treatment at the Shriner's Hospital for Children.

The eight-hour procedure in April went well. The insertion of metal rods has gained him an inch in height and corrected his posture so his organs are no longer endangered. He can walk more easily, breathe better.

But to be separated from your family for six months in a foreign place must be disorienting. That's where Jerry Roseman and Alia Banna come in.

Since his arrival at the airport, they have served as his surrogate parents, taking care of him in their Queen Village home, making a place for him each morning at the Philadelphia Java Co., the cafe they own at Second and Christian, taking him to the symphony, indulging his taste for Nutella pizzas at Nomad's.

Who would open their lives so completely to a stranger? Unusual people.

Jerry is 58, an environmental scientist, born in Strawberry Mansion, raised in a secular Jewish family that moved to Oxford Circle. He's spent most of his life in Mount Airy.

Alia is 47, a Sunni Muslim who grew up in Kuwait, then moved to Jordan, then Philadelphia, where her family opened a Middle Eastern restaurant in Chestnut Hill called Al Dana in the late 1990s.

That's where Jerry met her. He was divorced and living half the time with his two children, not cooking much. He walked the mile and a half up Germantown Avenue one night for dinner, and was charmed by the food Fadwa Kashkash cooked. He was wowed by the dark-haired beauty who served it.

That was Alia.

Jerry says he spent a year eating at the restaurant, slowly eroding Alia's resistance.

She says there was little resistance. She had always been attracted to Jewish men, particularly since they were forbidden. Winning over her mother was trickier.

"One day I went down to the kitchen and said, 'I want you to meet someone,' " Alia recalls. " 'This is the guy.' "

Back in Amman in the 1980s, Fadwa had been an artist, and drew a picture of her daughter and a faceless, bearded groom. The man looked just like Jerry.

Alia and Jerry have been married since 2003 and have no children together. The first Palestinian they sponsored was Maysaa, a teen shot in Gaza while her father carried her on his back. Israeli troops fired the bullet that struck her, Jerry says. "The soldiers had ordered everyone to flee their homes."

The girl arrived in 2006, shrouded in black. She carried a sign that gave her name and said "Help me," Alia said. The girl left five months later, wearing a baseball cap and earbuds.

Fawzi says he misses home. His visa runs out this month, and if his knee, which keeps filling with fluid, gets better, he can fly back to Amman. Since surgery, he's been able to walk without pain.

His family members tend 40 sheep on their farm, and they grow tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, green beans, grapes, barley, and wheat.

"What I want to do," he said, "is just be able to go on walks in the fields."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com or on Twitter @danielrubin.

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