“When we came here, we found out that this state, and the people that are here, are better than in all of America.”
So says Fadi Al-Asmi, a Syrian refugee who moved to Connecticut in May with his wife and three young children. He is among about 400 Syrian refugees who have fled their war-ravaged homes and relocated to the Constitution State in the past year.
“I know you left family behind in Syria,” says Bianna Golodryga, Yahoo News and Finance anchor, speaking to Al-Asmi through a translator for the Yahoo News series American Goodness, “Do you ever envision a day where you reunite with them?”
“God willing,” he sighs. “The problem is that it might be a long time to wait.”
Fadi and his family left their home in Damascus in 2012, and after a harrowing journey through Jordan, were able to resettle in America, thanks to a nonprofit in Connecticut called IRIS: Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services.
“We’re one of 350 proud refugee resettlement nonprofits spread across the United States, welcoming refugees, persecuted people from all over the world who’ve been vetted by the Department of Homeland Security,” says Chris George, executive director of IRIS. “They’ve gone through the most rigorous vetting process ever. We welcome them to this country, and we help them get off to a new start.”
Connecticut, George explains, has a unique way of helping refugee families, like the Al-Asmis, begin their new lives. Instead of being handheld by government agencies upon arrival in the States, refugees moving to Connecticut are resettled by community volunteers — hundreds of strangers across the state who do everything from finding housing for the immigrants, to teaching them how to use money, to enrolling the kids in school, to helping them grocery shop.
“The traditional way of resettling refugees is that they’re welcomed and resettled by professional but nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies. The staff of the agencies do all the work,” says George. “But here in Connecticut, we’ve got close to 50 community groups who have stepped forward and said, ‘Train us how to resettle refugees, and we’ll welcome them into our neighborhoods. We want a Syrian Muslim refugee family living in our neighborhood.’”
Richard Groothuis, Dr. David Hager and Marsha Lewis, who were strangers to each other a year ago, lead a group of about 80 volunteers.
“They are a joy to work with,” says Lewis, of the al-Asmis. “I think with everything that’s going on in the world and the sense, ‘What can one person do, what can I do?’ This is one thing that people can do. So we can be there and we can help. And even though it’s one small thing, it’s huge.”
“Getting a driver’s license, getting a car, getting your English up to speed, earning enough money, getting the mother to be able to drive the young children, those are all challenges,” says Groothuis.
“But people that are involved get a lot out of it, they get a lot of satisfaction out of helping, and they get a lot of satisfaction out of meeting each other and working with each other,” he adds. “It’s like family. And that’s it. So it’s not just we’re helping them, we’re helping ourselves.”
As a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric is seen across the country, it only makes this group feel more protective of the family, and their mission to help.
“The preference is to be home. It’s not to be here, it’s to be home,” says Hager, emotionally. “And that’s not an option. By definition, they are refugees, going home is not an option.”
George says that last year, when then-candidate Donald Trump announced his plans for a “Muslim ban” if elected, he got an unexpected call from a counterpart in Indianapolis. There was a Syrian family, planning to move to Indiana, on a plane already midair to the States — and the agency planning on housing them had been told by Gov. Mike Pence that the state would no longer allow it.
“So she contacted us and said, Can you take the family?’ We said, ‘Of course. No problem,” says George, who found placement for the family in Connecticut within 24 hours.
“These are people who’ve lost their homes, their jobs and their country,” says Lewis. “And I would say that they have a lot to offer this country. And I think we need to keep that American dream going with people who need it.”
With the help of the group, Fadi, who worked as a baker in Damascus, is now working as a pastry chef at City Steam Brewery in Hartford. Barbara Howe, a retired culinary instructor, told Golodryga how meaningful it was for Al-Asmi to get a job within his field of expertise.
“Food does connect people, doesn’t it?” she said with a smile. “It’s a global language that we speak.”
“To watch him work in this kitchen is gratifying in itself. Just to watch him do his craft,” says Bob Bazyk, who took Al-Asmi on interviews and helped him find a home at City Steam. “The wonderful comments we’ve gotten from the people he’s worked for and demonstrated his skills to is very impressive.”
The community feels strongly that “Fadi wants to create a candy store, a Syrian candy store!” says Sami Aziz, the chaplain at Wesleyan University, who helped the Bloomfield volunteers prepare to take in the Muslim family. “I don’t know of one in the state of Connecticut. I’ve never been to one in my life. And I’m sure it’s going be a great contribution to American society. Just like when we got Chinese food here and Indian food here, and now Syrian food.”
“It’s going be amazing.”