A New Jersey professor helps a Syrian family move to the state after governor decided not to join resettlement program
The family lives in a nice 2-bedroom apartment but the parents have been unable to find work
Maryam, her husband, Fadel, and their four young sons arrived in the United States on a rainy night in September 2015, and having finally escaped the death and destruction of their war torn home in Syria, they began their journey to resettlement in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The family was immediately met by Kate McCaffrey, an anthropology professor at Montclair State University, who recalled a sense of chaos on that first night, juxtaposed with the family’s feeling of relief.
Sitting down with CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, McCaffrey said the first phrase Maryam and Fadel communicated to her was, “I am in the haven of peace and tranquility.”
After New Jersey’s decision to no longer participate in the federal refugee resettlement program, McCaffrey and former Rutgers professor Melina Macall heard there were refugees being settled near them in New Jersey and were spurred into action.
“We are facing a global refugee crisis and we felt that very little was happening,” McCaffrey said. “We turned to our synagogue to forge an alternate path.”
Escaping the war
Before coming to the United States, Maryam and her family escaped Syria for a refugee camp in Jordan where they lived for three years, but she said in some ways that situation was worse for her and her children.
“My kids were beaten many times in Jordan,” Maryam said. “My son Ibrahim has scars on both arms and on his leg.”
But when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees selected Maryam and Fadel family for relocation to the United States, they were initially unsure if they could afford to follow through with the plan.
Fadel said they asked themselves if coming to the United States would be bad, even turning down the initial offer for relocation out of fear of what their lives would be like here.
He said they asked, would we have enough money? How would we mbe treated?
Combating the stereotypes
Refugees chosen for resettlement in the United States go through a vetting process that can take up to two years, involving agencies from Homeland Security to the State Department.
Ten-thousand Syrian refugees have been relocated to the United States in the last year, igniting a vigorous debate about security among Americans, particularly around the presidential campaign.
A few weeks ago, Donald Trump Jr. related refugees to a bowl of Skittles, arguing that three lethal ones might be hiding in a handful of harmless ones.
Macall said she wanted to lend a hand to these incoming refugees, to show them that those viewpoints did not represent all Americans.
“Just try to imagine your day-to-day life and suddenly everything you know being torn away from you,” Macall said. “And then you finally find refuge somewhere and you’re treated like a pariah.”
But despite the ongoing debate surrounding the refugee crisis, in just one year of living in the United States, Fadel said that thanks to friends like McCaffrey and Macall, his family is happy to be here.
“What we came to realize is that the American people are among the best people in the world,” he said.
Transitioning to a life of resettlement
McCaffrey and Macall are Jewish, and though she’s grateful, Maryam said their friendship came as a surprise to her.
“In Syria, I lived surrounded by my family and in-laws, who share the same faith,” she said. “I never thought I’d have Jewish friends.”
McCaffrey said there is like-mindedness between the Jewish community and the Muslim community, because both have congregants who have sought refuge from war, and both live out the tenants of their faith.
“Part of religion is to welcome the stranger,” she said. “We felt that would be a good ground for starting something.”
In November 2015, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declared that not even refugee “orphans under 5” should be admitted, and said New Jersey’s would refuse to take part in the federal refugee resettlement program. But nonprofit organizations can still join forces with the International Rescue Committee to help refugees resettle in New Jersey, McCaffrey said.
“Obviously we’re disappointed that this is the leadership we’re having from our governor, but the state is not that involved,” she said. “Although New Jersey has stepped down from its role in the administration process of resettlement, the International Rescue Committee has stepped up to fill that role. And we’re doing whatever we can to support the International Rescue Committee.”
Maryam and her family were embraced by new friends once they arrived, but their relocation did not come without cost, beginning with the obligation to reimburse the cost of travel, as required of all refugees. For Maryam and her family, that was $7,000.
“They were faced with this onerous monthly payment for the transportation loan, so we decided to turn around and we launched a campaign to raise $7,000 in seven days,” McCaffrey said. “We were thrilled to be able to do that in less than 72 hours.”
Priorities once refugees settle in are assisting families in finding steady employment and housing. But like Maryam’s, many families relocating to the United States from Syria are large, which makes finding affordable yet adequate housing a significant obstacle, McCaffrey said.
“They’re a family of six,” she said. “They have four small children and they’re in a two-bedroom apartment that was imagined to serve commuters to New York City. But it’s a nice apartment.”
Fadel is a welder by trade but he has not been able to find work in the United States. They rely on government assistance to pay for their food and rent. Along with Fadel, Maryam said she’s ready and able to work.
“We need a steady job. It’s true we don’t speak the language, but our English will get better as we keep working,” she said. “But the most important thing is to stand by my kids so they can continue going to school.”
As Maryam and her family try to rebuild a life in the United States, she’s grateful for McCaffrey and Macall’s friendship and the community her family has found in Elizabeth.
“We thank the Arabs and people of other nationalities who smiled in our faces and made us feel welcome,” she said.
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