For Syrian Refugees In Connecticut, A Helping Hand From Private Volunteers : Parallels Refugees are adjusting to life in Connecticut, where a program pairs them with private citizens who provide support for their resettlement. "I have a chance as much as anybody else," says one refugee.
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For Syrian Refugees In Connecticut, A Helping Hand From Private Volunteers

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For Syrian Refugees In Connecticut, A Helping Hand From Private Volunteers

For Syrian Refugees In Connecticut, A Helping Hand From Private Volunteers

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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As people fleeing war make their way to this country, they're finding a welcome home in Connecticut. About 85,000 refugees came to the U.S. in the last year. Private citizens in Connecticut have come together to raise money and support the newcomers. NPR's Deborah Amos met two such groups and the Syrians they're helping.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm about to dig into a cake at the City Steam Brewery Cafe in downtown Hartford. I came to meet the pastry chef, Fadi Al Asmi. He's a Syrian refugee, a pastry chef from Damascus, who fled the war with his family. He got this job two months ago after he arrived in May. With the help of the people sampling his latest confection, he's learning about American tastes.

FADI AL ASMI: America chocolate.


AMOS: And that's not all he's learned about America. There's a beautiful system here compared to Syria, he explains through an interpreter with the group.

AL ASMI: (Through interpreter) I felt over there that the big guys eat the little guys. And over here, I feel that the little guys have a chance to rise up and become a big guy without eating the little guy.

AMOS: In America, he says, I have the same chance as everyone else.

AL ASMI: (Through interpreter) That's the thing that surprised me most. The things that we heard about America did not include this idea.

AMOS: Al Asmi has come a long way quickly, and that's mostly because of the people at the table - private citizens who co-sponsor his resettlement with a local refugee agency. We'll get to that part in a moment. But first, meet the team leaders.

MARSHA LEWIS: I'm Marsha Lewis.

RICHARD GROOTHUIS: Richard Groothuis.

BARBARA HOWE: Barbara Howe.

DAVID HAGER: David Hager.

AMOS: What professions are you from?

HAGER: I'm a retired cardiologist.

HOWE: Retired culinary instructor.

GROOTHUIS: Retired attorney.

LEWIS: Semi-retired educator.

AMOS: They organized a year ago. They shared a religious belief in charity. They were spurred by the state of Indiana's opposition to resettlement, which caused a Syrian family to be rerouted to Connecticut.

HAGER: The officials in Indianapolis said, no, you will not come here. I think that probably did more for the refugee resettlement program in Connecticut than anything the people - the official people in Indiana can imagine.

AMOS: That's David Hager. He signed up to help refugees soon after. The group raised donations, researched schools and bus routes, found translators and English teachers, says Barbara Howe.

HOWE: You need to have people in housing. You need to have people in finance. You need to have a meal when they get there. You have to have these very specific things.

AMOS: Before you started working on this project, none of you knew each other.

HAGER: Correct for me.

AMOS: Now, he says, the group is close-knit and has grown close to refugee Fadi Al Asmi, the pastry chef, and his family.

HAGER: Fadi said the other day, why am I doing this, essentially? And his answer is we did it for the kids. That's what he really said - it's for the kids. And the kids are seven months, two years and eight years.

AMOS: These Connecticut groups have resettled 28 Syrian families and a few from other countries over the past year. Chris George launched the program. He heads IRIS, Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services, a local nonprofit that works with the State Department.

CHRIS GEORGE: The controversy around Syrian refugees has stimulated interest on the part of these community groups to step forward and say we want a Syrian refugee family living in our neighborhood.

AMOS: Churches, even a car dealership signed on. The State Department says it's cutting-edge and plans to launch a national pilot program next year. It's a tough program, says George, a lot of work. Groups must raise around $10,000 per family, attend intense training sessions. They learn how to help refugees adapt to American culture quickly.

GEORGE: For example, understanding that women have equal rights in this country. I mean, that's a big one. And is the checking account going to be just in the man's name? No.

AMOS: And they ask questions about new and, for them, strange American customs.

GEORGE: And why do so many Americans run all the time? Why are all these people running down the street? I mean, they come from places where if someone is running, they're running from danger.

AMOS: We're driving out to Old Lyme, Conn. to meet another Syrian refugee family resettled by a trained church group. We're introduced at an upscale waterfront restaurant because this is where refugee Hani Hamou has an entry-level job.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, everyone.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

AMOS: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Unintelligible).

AMOS: Hamou, a middle-class professional, was a maitre d' at an upscale restaurant in Aleppo, Syria. He lost everything in the war, including his country, he says through an interpreter.

HANI HAMOU: (Through interpreter) My home country is being destroyed. There is nothing to say.

AMOS: He got a job with the help of a team headed by Kaye Stephanson and Pastor Steven Jungkeit of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. They met the family in May in a parking lot when a van dropped off the Hamous after a 36-hour journey to the U.S.

KAYE STEPHANSON: This family of five jumped out saying, we're here. And Hani looked us in the eye and he said, I want to work to support my own family. Those were...

AMOS: That was the first thing he said?

STEPHANSON: ...His first words.

STEVEN JUNGKEIT: Yeah, that's what Hani said.

AMOS: Twelve-year-old Mohamad Hamou recalls his surprise at that moment as he tries out the English he's already learned in school.

MOHAMAD HAMOU: You go to USA and someone come to pick your family up. I - surprise for me. That was surprise.

AMOS: Surprise has become friendship over shared meals as the Syrians teach the Americans traditional songs and dances. But those resettled in America don't have it easy. Learning English is tough, navigating a new and confusing culture, and there's still a political backlash. Pastor Jungkeit has even heard objections in his own church.

What do you say to them?

JUNGKEIT: I wish that they could sit down and have a meal with the Hamous. I say to them, I wish that they could come and have the Hamous teach them dance steps. And I'm confident that after an evening like that they would say, there's less to fear than I thought.

AMOS: Back in the kitchen, Syrian refugee Hani Hamou fears starting from scratch. Can he move from washing pots to something more? His co-sponsors reassure him that's how it works in America. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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