Building new lives: Syrian refugees find support, friendship from churches

In April, 130 people gathered in St. John’s United Church of Christ’s fellowship hall to taste traditional Syrian cooking – tabouleh, stuffed grape leaves, beef croquettes called kibbeh — made by Syrian refugee Madiha Algothany.

So many people clamored for the $25 tickets that members of the Catonsville church said they had to turn some away.

Leah Hayes, a member who drove Algothany to shop for supplies, was daunted by the size of the task. Nervous as the number of guests kept growing, Hayes asked Algothany, who appeared calm, if she needed help.

“She looked at me in the sweetest way, and she said to me, 'You drive. I cook,’ ” Hayes recalled. "It was like [she was saying] 'I’ve got this, I’ve got this.’ ”

The civil war in Syria sparked a global refugee crisis, with more than 5 million refugees displaced from Syria alone since fighting began in 2011.

The International Rescue Committee, one of nine organizations that helps to place refugees in the United States, said they help resettle around 1,100 refugees a year in the Baltimore area.

As debate around the issue of refugees has become polarized, members of area churches, including St. John’s UCC and Catonsville Presbyterian Church, have reached out to refugee families, holding fundraisers and offering donations, tutoring, child care and even jobs.

Advocates for refugees, however, said that often the most important things the Catonsville-area groups are offering Syrian families are a local support system and friendship.

"Agencies have put them in clusters, so they do not mix with the American population,” said Najla Drooby, an Arabic-speaking refugee advocate who translated for the Algothanys. “It’s important for me that they do."

Starting anew

Madiha Algothany, 33, her husband Mahmoud Al-Rifai, 45, and their four sons arrived in Baltimore in June 2016.

The family is from Daraa, a city often called the “cradle of the revolution” after protests in the city sparked the 2011 uprising. They fled the war in 2012, living in Jordan for four years before a United Nations program offered them resettlement in the U.S.

The IRC defines refugees as people who have been forced out of their country due to violence and persecution — as opposed to economic migrants, who choose to travel to a new country.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which resettles refugees globally, said they only refer the most vulnerable cases for resettlement and that refugees cannot choose what country they go to.

In Syria, the family was well off and owned two houses, both of which Algothany said are now destroyed. She said she misses her homeland — Hayes said when Algothany talks about Syria, “her eyes light up."

The IRC placed the family in a townhouse rental in southwest Baltimore, a few hundred feet from the Baltimore County line. They stepped off the plane with barely a word of English between them.

The family was registered for Medicare and food stamps, and received enough money to pay the first month’s rent, Drooby said. Their new home was stocked with plates, bowls and knives, and furnished with enough couches to seat all six of them. They started learning English.

But Algothany said life has gotten more difficult the longer they have been in the U.S. Some of the programs the resettlement agency offered have ended, Drooby said, leaving the family struggling to navigate basic necessities in an unfamiliar country.

The International Rescue Committee did not respond to requests for comments.

Drooby tried to help — but the retired information-technology professional works with at least 80 refugee families and lives an hour’s drive away in McLean, Va. So when Drooby met Hayes last fall while speaking about the needs of refugees at St. John’s in Catonsville, she offered to introduce her to Algothany.

Hayes said she immediately felt a connection with Algothany, in part because the women each have four sons.

She began helping Algothany through “trial and error,” Hayes said, saying “When Madiha needed something, she would call me.”

The family did not have a car, and now has one, so Hayes drove Algothany to medical appointments or the grocery store. Hayes said she also helps the family with paperwork, phone calls and other administrative tasks that are difficult with limited English.

When Ayman, 4, broke his arm in the summer and needed surgery, Hayes said she drove Algothany and her family to the hospital, spending all night helping them communicate with doctors and nurses and filling out forms.

During a recent interview, the family received a call about a possible job for Al-Rifai and Hayes sprang into action, huddled around the cellphone in a circle with Algothany, Drooby, who translated the details into rapid Arabic, and Deborah Elkington, another woman from Virginia who also visits and helps the family.

Sometimes, however, Hayes said her time with Algothany is as simple as having a conversation, giving her time to practice her English.

“My role has really been, first and foremost, a friendship,” Hayes said.

“Help us with the language."

Communicating with Algothany, Hayes said, is sometimes difficult, but has grown easier with familiarity. The two speak in a mixture of English, using Google Translate and charades, she said.

Sometimes Algothany’s eldest son, Mohammad Al-Rifai, 15, helps translate — Drooby said the teenager participated in a summer English program. For more complex issues, Hayes said, she often calls Drooby and asks her to help translate.

The family has hit roadblocks in their quest to learn English. The boys are studying it in school, and Ayman spouts English numbers he learned in preschool.

For their father, Al-Rifai, however, the language is coming more slowly, making job opportunities hard to come by. A construction supervisor in his home country, Al-Rifai said he works part-time at a pizzeria. He is seeking full-time work and participates in a job seeking program for refugees, Drooby said, but does not know enough English to understand job listings or apply.

The Rev. Kenneth Kovacs, of Catonsville Presbyterian, which has helped another Syrian family, which did not agree to be named in this story, said that the family is having similar challenges. To help, the church has set up a tutoring program for the family’s children and offered the father a temporary job.

Algothany said she worked hard to pass a beginning English class held near where she worked — but the next level of classes are only held downtown, an $8 round-trip by bus that Algothany said she cannot afford.

Hayes and Elkington said they work on English skills with the family. Elkington, a preschool teacher, said she taught the boys the alphabet before they started school.

Drooby said the family often receives donations — clothes, toys, furniture. But Algothany said through Drooby’s translation that only two things would truly help the family.

“Help us with the language and help us find work,” Algothany said.

“Trying to get the best for their children.”

When Mohammad, 15, was asked what he likes about America, his answer was: “Everything.” To the same question, his brother Mohanned, 11, said: “Nothing.”

The boys have struggled to adjust to their new lives, some more than others. Ayman, 4, is thriving in preschool, Hayes said. Mohammad said he loves his school, Patterson High, where he travels by bus an hour and a half each day.

“They have funny programs,” Mohammad said of his school. The family’s American advocates looked blankly at the teenager for a moment, before Elkington said “Oh! You mean fun.”

But Mohanned and Ahmed, 9, have faced challenges, Algothany said.

Their school has a large Syrian refugee population — the International Rescue Committee places many Syrian refugees in the same neighborhood. That, Drooby said, has made it more difficult for them to learn English and befriend Americans. It also makes for a tense environment, she said, because many of those children, traumatized by war and used to a chaotic, unstructured life, act out.

Kovacs said his church helped the refugee family they work with move out of Algothany’s city neighborhood to Catonsville after one of the daughters was physically assaulted by another student and had serious injuries.

The church also opened their childcare center to the children, who said their old neighborhood was unsafe for outside play. Kovacs said one of the children once said their new country was “tough and mean,” but said of the childcare center: “This is my America.” More than a dozen church members now work with the family on a regular basis, Kovacs said.

Drooby, who also works with that family, said she has seen significant improvement in the children’s English since the move — she said it was likely because the school does not have a large Syrian population, so the children made friends with American children.

Algothany said she dreams of moving the family across the county line and into Catonsville schools. Until Al-Rifai finds full time work, however, she said they cannot afford the higher rent in the county — and she worries about moving the two sons who are thriving.

“They’re just two parents, trying to get the best for their children,” Hayes said.

“Do we eat people?”

At an event hosted by a Baltimore church, Algothany said, a woman introduced another to her, saying the second woman wanted to meet her but was afraid.

“Why?” Algothany asked her. “Do we eat people?”

The woman came to Algothany’s home and they got to know each other — Algothany said the woman sat on the edge of the couch, as far away as possible, but slowly grew more comfortable.

“She clearly had the wrong idea of who we were, because we are Muslim,” Algothany said. “She thinks we are people of violence.”

Algothany said she and her family have gotten strange looks from people on the street, but that no one has ever been unkind. “I hope they won’t,” she said, looking at her children.

“At the end of the day, when people are afraid of her because she’s Muslim, I’d say, have you ever met her?” Hayes said.

Kovacs, of Catonsville Presbyterian, said that rising fear of refugees in the U.S., and the push to curb their numbers, go against what his church and faith stand for.

"Within the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a mandate to care for the refugee, the alien and the sojourner, because you were once an alien, a refugee and a sojourner,” Kovacs said. “There is an expectation that you care for refugees in your midst."

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