This piece originally appeared in American Muslim Magazine.
Mazen and Rawan Solome from Homs, Syria welcome me into their West Haven, CT home early one Saturday morning in February. The ground is covered in snow from a recent New England snowstorm that accumulated almost two feet. Rawan brings out a tray of strong shots of Syrian coffee and homemade baklava as I sit down with her, Mazen, and their 9-year-old daughter, Jena.
“There is nothing quite like Syrian coffee,” says Rawan in Arabic. I ask her how she made the baklava and she replies, “I made the walnuts and spices from scratch and bought the phyllo dough from Walmart.”
The baklava melts in your mouth with just the right amount of spices and honey. I thought I was back in Turkey trying new kinds of baklava and reporting on Syrian families living in cities like Istanbul and Gaziantep. To my surprise, I went half way around the world and back, and found that my small state of Connecticut has become a welcoming sanctuary for Syrian refugees changing the hearts and minds of those around them.
In December 2015 the Solome family was resettled in West Haven from Jordan with the help of the non-profit organization, Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services [IRIS], based in New Haven, CT.
“The first week was the worst,” says Mazen in Arabic sitting with his daughter on their living room couch. “We were in a new country, a new home, and Jena missed our country.”
But with the help of roughly 100 volunteers from IRIS, the family managed to set up a home, put Jena in a local public school, and get help grocery shopping.
“Thanks be to God,” said Mazen. “IRIS helped us with all our needs.”
Mazen and his family are just one of 87 Syrian families that have resettled in Connecticut since 2015.
“IRIS responded to the refugee crisis in the Middle East by asking Washington to send us double the number of refugees we normally would take,” said Chris George, executive director of IRIS, in a phone interview.
IRIS takes a two-pronged approach to welcoming refugees to Connecticut: One, volunteers from IRIS help resettle refugees directly. Or, two, community church, synagogue, or mosque groups volunteer to take in a family and help them resettle in their town. George says as many has 70 community groups have been involved in resettling refugees from all over Connecticut from Ridgefield to Hartford to New London.
“I have to say Connecticut may be more compassionate,” said George referring to the increased influx in refugees to the state. “I think the difference is that people here are better informed about the refugee crisis and resettlement process and the overseas vetting process.”
George says that over the years he has learned that the more people are educated about the plight of refugees, the more they will be open to accepting them into their communities.
That is how volunteer and stay-at-home mom, Jennifer Caron, from Ridgefield, CT came to work as an education and interfaith liaison for Syrian families resettling in her community.
“I had seen the news, read all the things about Syria, saw all the pictures, and I wanted to get involved,” said Caron, a mother of two, in a phone interview. “Sort of came out of nowhere.”
According to the 2015 U.S. Census, Fairfield County where Caron’s town is located is approximately 80 percent white.
“It is refreshing to see something different. We hear about this stuff in the news and we are so insolated here,” said Caron. “And I think people wanted a way to reach out and help, but didn’t have a way to do it, until now.”
Caron says she is happy that the small town is becoming more aware of their diversity and welcoming to others.
“I can’t imagine having to leave my home and my country,” said Caron. “It is amazing to me how much [refugee families] get the idea of the essence of America and they try to be positive about everything. It is really inspiring.”
Caron and her church group took their cues from Pope Francis when it came to reaching out to refugees.
“The Pope is supportive of bringing in refugee families and welcoming them,” said Caron. “And I think that is exactly what people are doing, especially in the wake of what was going on with Trump.”
Upon hearing the news about President Trump’s executive orders this month, the Solome family was immediately considered the future for their other family members still in Syria.
“We want our other children in Syria to still be able to come here,” says Mazen. “And we don’t want to return to Syria.”
Chris George said that like the Solome family, many refugee families shared their concerns with his group about their status in the U.S. and their family members trying to come into the country.
“We had to do a lot of calming people’s fears,” said George via phone. “We have to remember a lot of these families come from places where their governments are responsible for human rights abuses. They don’t have the confidence that the president is not above the law.”
George said that for new Americans seeing the courts strike down Trump’s executive order was a great example of the rule of law and understanding the balance of powers. To help further, IRIS offered two town hall meetings for their clients which George said were 90 percent a civics lesson on how executive orders and the judiciary work. But, George is still concerned about the role Congress will play in one particular part of the executive order.
“The part of the executive order that has not gotten attention and the circuit court has not ruled on is reducing the intake of refugees from 110,000 to 50,000,” said George. “Which means that 15,000 families will be deprived of the opportunity to come to the U.S.”
On this part of the executive order Congress can play a role in challenging it as the courts do not have jurisdiction.
Back at the Solome’s residence they said regardless of what happens they now know the rule of law will stand. And they intend to stay in West Haven for Jena to finish school. They have no intention of returning to Syria.
My time with the Solome family is almost over as Mazen has to go to work at a pizza place on Chapel Street in New Haven.
“New Haven pizza is a little different from Syrian and Middle Eastern pizza, they are a little more particular here what classifies as pizza, but we love the pizza,” says Mazen.
What can be more Connecticut Yankee than New Haven-style pizza?