Syrian Family Finds Freedom In Elm City

Aliyya Swaby PhotoFour months into resettlement in New Haven, Noor is finding her new country friendlier and less violent than she expected—after first learning about the culture by watching Hollywood action movies back in Syria.

After a yearlong process of interviews with U.S. Department of State representatives, answering questions about their political affiliations and education, Noor, her husband and two children are among 10 Syrian families to be resettled in New Haven since the country’s civil war began four years ago.

Local resettlement agency Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS)—which gained national attention last month for settling another Syrian family, whom the Indiana governor refused to accept—found them an apartment and is helping to get them jobs.

In Syria, Noor’s husband drove a mini-bus. She taught English classes for young children. Fearing the Syrian government was going to arrest her husband, because of random mass arrests taking place, Noor, who is 30, felt pressure to leave Homs, heading to Jordan in December 2012.

“Over here is better. The houses are better. The furniture is better. The people are better. The view is better,” she said, through a translator, in an interview this week at IRIS’s Nicoll Street offices. At a time when elected officials have sought to brand Syrian refugees security threats and keep them out of the U.S. in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, Noor’s family has found freedom in New Haven—and a home.

Finding Freedom

Noor and Ramez spent three years in Irbid, Jordan, before being routed to New Haven. Ramez opened his own grocery store there. Noor tutored students in English from their home.

Coming to New Haven feels like “freedom” in comparison, Noor said. She wore a hijab wrapped tightly around her head and a long overgarment, bundled up in the cold New England weather. (Noor declined to be photographed or have her last name published because of fears for her personal security.) She and her family live on the second floor of a two-story house in East Rock.

In Jordan, Noor said, people blamed Syrian refugees for increasing the cost of living and competing for jobs and housing. A few men burst into her husband’s store one day pretending to be police and demanded their money and goods, claiming they were counterfeit. The intruders also took her husband’s money from his wallet.

They told Noor and Ramez they could pick up the money at the police station the next day, once it was confirmed to be legitimate. The next day, they went to the station; officers said they hadn’t sent anyone over. Noor and her husband never got their money back.

Noor was not allowed to travel anywhere in Jordan without her husband, “even to visit family.” In New Haven, she can take the kids “to go to do grocery shopping, to buy clothing” whenever she wants.

When she arrived here four months ago, she received instructions from IRIS on how to keep safe from crime or scams. “Don’t go out during the night for unnecessary things. Don’t hold money in your pocket. Don’t give your social security number to anyone,” she said. “We know how to protect ourselves.”

In Jordan, women do not generally go out alone. Her husband used to be more jealous—but not anymore.

“My husband changed,” Noor said, with a laugh. “He became an American now.”

Noor became more serious when talking about recent rhetoric in the U.S. by politicians who argue that accepting Syrian refugees poses a security risk for American citizens, despite evidence to the contrary. When the governor of Indiana refused to accept a family of three Syrian refugees, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and IRIS director Chris George said yes to helping them settle in New Haven.

“We were very sad to hear about those things,” Noor said. “People are suffering over there. They would like to come to save their lives.”

But the anti-refugee rhetoric hasn’t affected their daily lives, she said. “The opposite. People are very nice” in New Haven.

Building Support

George (pictured) said IRIS has received “an amazing number of heartwarming and inspiring messages of support” from people around the country, many detailing their families’ experiences as immigrants. And the organization has received many more donations because of the recent spike in media attention.

“I have received only one negative email and one negative phone call,” George said, “from people questioning the wisdom of welcoming refugees from the Middle East.”

A couple of weeks ago, he held a meeting with refugees to “bring them up to date on what’s going on this country.” He told them to give his business card to anyone who made “unpleasant” comments about refugees.

People reported that they have had uncomfortable conversations with friends and co-workers, “having to explain that not every Muslim is radical or violent,” George said. But no one reported more serious problems.

Lucy Gellman PhotoThe hardest part of getting acclimated in New Haven for Syrian refugees is finding a community that will understand their struggles, said Mohamad Hafez (pictured) of the New Haven Islamic Center. The center has been organizing social events to bring Syrian refugees into the local Muslim community, he said.

“We’re interested in the social aspect to their lives here,” said Hafez, who came to the U.S. from Syria on a student visa 13 years ago. “They can easily go into homesickness if no one welcomes them properly from the community.”

Many of the refugees’ daily struggles go away if they have “a close friend that speaks the language, understands the culture, understands the history of the conflict and can appreciate what these families have gone through,” he said.

Like George, Hafez has seen an outpouring of support from other communities, “to say, ‘We don’t agree with all the rhetoric happening right now.’”

He said Noor and Ramez are the kind of people whom the U.S. needs and who are “going to break the stereotypes” of Muslim refugees prominent in some media.

In a few years, Noor wants a house, a car, and a job for her husband. “InshaAllah,” she said. “If God wills it.” She studied law at a university for two years before dropping out, because it was too far from her home city. Her husband Ramez finished high school. Now, he is taking English classes through IRIS. He knows simple phrases, Noor said, like “Hi, how are you?” She has more English but it’s still basic.

In Jordan, Noor and Ramez had two children, a now 2-year-old girl named Sham and 3-year-old boy named Fadi.

Dressed in matching red sweaters, Sham and Fadi squealed and ran around IRIS’ donation area last Wednesday as their mother spoke. They babbled to each other in Arabic.

Noor said she is glad to get the chance to “build a good future” for the kids. “They will get U.S. citizenship and have rights,” she said.

She is not worried that they will forget Syria. “They will keep our culture and they will learn the new culture,” she said.

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posted by: theNEWnewhaven on December 4, 2015  10:11am

I can hear it now - “why are we giving away East Rock units to REFUGEES when we have HOMELESSNESS and crumbling housing projects across this city!”

As a New Haven resident, I welcome you Noor! I hope you grow to love this city as much as I do! Make sure to take in the view from the top from your neighborhood East Rock Park!

posted by: Bradley on December 4, 2015  1:21pm

I volunteer at IRIS and had the pleasure of meeting Noor and her family shortly after they arrived. The kids are really cute!

At Thanksgiving, I was talking about IRIS with my wife’s niece. Although she is a very decent woman, her first response was “shouldn’t we be taking care of homeless veterans?” Homelessness among veterans and other Americans is a real problem. But the U.S is a rich enough country that we can address more than one problem at a time.

posted by: beaverhill on December 4, 2015  4:31pm

As a transplant to New Haven (I have lived here for 8 years now), I can find many things to complain about. However, I am very proud to tell people about our city’s diversity and willingness to help others in need. I am proud of our new residents and the agency that helps to bring this about.

posted by: jerdp01 on December 4, 2015  5:09pm

Why doesn’t Malloy settle these refugees in Stamford??? How did we get so lucky?

posted by: Bradley on December 5, 2015  8:21am

Malloy has nothing to do with where in.the state the refugees are settled. IRIS and the other refugee settllement agencies do (they are located in Hartford and Bridgeport). The federal government provides funding to help cover the refugees’ rent for the first couple of months they are here. After that, the refugees have to (and do) get jobs to pay their rent. While historically, most of the IRIS clients settled in New Haven (notably East Rock, where IRIS is located), a growing number are settling in the suburbs.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 5, 2015  2:06pm

posted by: theNEWnewhaven on December 4, 2015 9:11am

I can hear it now - “why are we giving away East Rock units to REFUGEES when we have HOMELESSNESS and crumbling housing projects across this city!”

That is a good question.

posted by: Bradley on December 5, 2015  7:10pm

TNNH was being facetious, but no one is giving away apartments. The federal funding covers the rent for a short time, typically three months. After that, the refugee (who has signed a lease) is responsible for the entire rent. In contrast, Section 8 and the public housing subsidy do not have time limits. I’m not arguing that they should, but there are substantive differences between the type of assistance offered to refugees and the housing assistance that thousands of New Haven residents rely on.

posted by: Sagimore on December 7, 2015  10:10am

This really shouldn’t be a polarizing topic, we are America FFS. We take people who want to come here. And i’m not afraid of being killed in a terrorist attack. Much different situation here than in Europe where they are crossing the border with no vetting.