In a two-bedroom apartment in a suburb of New Haven, about 20 volunteers are preparing an apartment for a Syrian family set to arrive in a few hours. They’re scrubbing kitchen grease off the stove top, putting up new blinds for privacy, and arranging furniture.
The volunteers are from The Spring Glen Alliance for Refugee Resettlement, a neighborhood group that decided last December to collaborate with a local church to co-sponsor a refugee family. One of the Alliance’s founders, Jess Van Denend, describes the effort as “both a practical way to help and as a deeply symbolic gesture,” specifically against President Trump’s stance on refugees.
Normally, IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services), the nonprofit overseeing the resettlement of this family, requires co-sponsor groups to have an apartment rented and ready to move into by the time refugees arrive in the United States.
This time the rules had to be broken.
After Trump announced the first travel ban on refugees from seven majority countries on January 27th, the Alliance put their preparations on hold. But when a federal judge in Washington blocked the ban, things changed rapidly and the family was cleared to travel.
With only 24 hours before the three generations of women were to arrive at JFK Airport, there hadn’t been time to rent apartment. So the family first went to temporary housing.
A New Home
Five days later, at 2:00 pm, with the apartment still mostly in disarray, a car pulls up outside and the family begins to unload their enormous suitcases into what would be their new permanent home. About 15 of the volunteers gather in a semicircle near the front door and, as the three women — a grandmother, mother and teenage daughter — walk into their new living room. Without an interpreter present, most of the communicating happens through vigorous nods, broad smiles, and simple phrases like “Welcome! Welcome!”
Mona, the mother, seemed overwhelmed and began to cry, one of the volunteers wrapped her arms around her, holding her close. Then the women got a tour of their new apartment. They said "thank you" 12 times in the three minutes it took to walk through (I counted).
Several days later, I went back to their apartment to learn about their story, this time with an interpreter.
No longer packed with volunteers and cleaning supplies, their apartment was a tidy and fully furnished home.
I asked Mona what was going through her mind when she walked into the apartment.
“I felt at home," she said. "They made me forget I was in a strange country, people were welcoming and warm. Even when the apartment was a little bit of a mess, it gave me a little bit of hope because everybody was motivated and everybody was active and it gave me a feeling like the future was also going to be dynamic just like these people were.”
Mona explained that she and her two daughters left Syria for Jordan in 2013 after she had been targeted by the Assad regime.
“I was exposed to imprisonment and to beating, and so I had to protect myself too, so we had to leave Syria,” she said.
The two women described America as beautiful, punctual, and organized. Since coming to the U.S., they’ve seen snow for the first time.
“But, to me, the most beautiful thing is that I feel I’m being treated like a human. Here, they make you feel your humanity [and] that you deserve respect,” said Mona.
Hopeful About the Unknown
In the short time since they’ve arrived, the women have been surrounded by friendly volunteers.
But not all Americans feel so welcoming toward Muslims. The most recent FBI data shows that hate crimes against Muslims rose 67 percent in 2015.
Still, with Mona’s daughter Dima starting high school soon, and regular English classes for the whole family, Mona and Didar are optimistic -- in part because of what they left behind.
“We never thought about leaving Syria. But after we left, we felt we could never go back because of what we’d seen,” said Didar.