Westport’s Syrian Saga

Last year, Indiana Governor Mike Pence ordered all state agencies to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy countered by inviting them here.

Since then, a number of other Syrian families have arrived in our state. They’ve been welcomed, even embraced. And the folks helping them say they’ve gained as much as they’ve given.

Very quietly — but energetically and lovingly — a large group of Westporters has helped provide a new home for one Syrian family. They’ve kept a low profile. But now that Mohamed, Nour, Hala and Yahya feel comfortable, safe and more assimilated, they’re okay that their tale can be told.

The story has its roots in 1993. A Muslim family from Bosnia came to Westport. The Methodist minister housed them, and helped the parents find jobs. An orthodontist fixed their teeth for free. When the mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, a Jewish surgeon operated on her. There was no bill for the operation, chemotherapy and radiation.

A similar effort has borne fruit in 2016. Initiated last fall by Rev. Ed Horne of the United Methodist Church as an offshoot of the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council, it includes St. Luke Parish, Temple Israel, Saugatuck and Greens Farms Congregational Churches, Society of Friends (Quakers) in Wilton, and 15 Muslim families in the Westport area.

Additional support comes from Assumption Church, Christ and Holy Trinity Church, the Center for Humanistic Judaism, Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Weston, and the Al-Madany Center in Norwalk. The coalition is led by John McGeehan of the Methodist Church, Lynn Jeffery of Temple Israel, and Sister Maureen of St. Luke.

United Methodist Church volunteers Ellyn Gelman, Janis Liu and Brenda Maggio help prepare an apartment for the Syrian family's arrival. (Photo/Eva Toft)

United Methodist Church volunteers Ellyn Gelman, Janis Liu and Brenda Maggio help prepare an apartment for the Syrian family’s arrival. (Photo/Eva Toft)

Scores of volunteers make the project work.

Among them: Samer Hiba — owner of the Mobil Self-Serve by Barnes & Noble — who arrived in the US 23 years ago, and is now an American citizen.

The family — including 2 young children — fled Syria 5 years ago. They spent much of that time in temporary housing across Egypt.

The family arrived in mid-July. They live in Norwalk, close to the children’s elementary school.

Finding a home was not easy. A couple of possibilities in Westport were rented to others during the long wait. The Norwalk rental is less expensive than here.

Plus, admitted Rev. Horne, “Norwalk is more multi-cultural. There’s a mosque there. It’s walkable, and public transportation is great.” Neighbors, teachers and many other Norwalkers have embraced the refugee family.

Westporters have flocked to help too. More than 100 help drive the family to medical and immigration appointments; assist with language training and shopping, and provide other types of support like employment, education and translation.

“The goal is self-sufficiency,” says Delores Paoli, a 25-year Westport resident active in the Muslim community. They’re getting there.

But it’s not easy. Mohamed – the father —  is a highly educated man. An Arab literature major in Syria, with experience in the import-export business, he has found work as a chef at Whole Foods in Westport.

The family attended the Interfaith Thanksgiving service, held this year at Temple Israel. Mohamed stood in front of the Torah ark, and in a beautiful voice recited a section of the Koran.

That moment was significant, says Temple Israel rabbi Michael Friedman. He’d been active in interfaith efforts at his previous synagogue, in New York. After talking with Rev. Horne about Westport’s Bosnian resettlement effort, the rabbi felt confident committing his congregation to the project.

The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast draws together many people, with a wide variety of religions.

The annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Feast draws together many people, with a wide variety of religions.

“There is such a strong interfaith sensibility in Westport,” Rabbi Friedman says. “Our work as clergy together, and our trust, allows our congregations to do this.”

He notes, “There are clear principled reasons in Jewish texts, and our history, to care for children, widows and strangers. Vast numbers of Jews have fled persecution and bad situations, and been taken in. Now we want to provide safe refuge for others.

“We see these terrible images of a humanitarian crisis halfway around the world. We feel helpless. This effort is a way to say that while we can’t solve the entire problem, we also can’t absent ourselves from it. We have to try.

“What we’re doing is empowering. We hope it changes some lives, now and for generations in the future.”

“We saw the refugee crisis, and thought about it,” Rev. Horne adds. “As Methodists we welcome all, without restrictions. This is a chance to put that value into practice, with people who are fleeing for their lives.”

After fleeing Syria, Mohamed and his family spent nearly 5 years in different parts of Egypt.

After fleeing Syria, Mohamed and his family spent nearly 5 years in different parts of Egypt.

Both Rabbi Friedman and Rev. Horne say they and their fellow clergy members have heard “nothing but positive things” from congregants.

“Our families who help may be getting more out of this than Mohamed’s family,” Dolores Paoli says. “As we all work together, we realize how much we can do.”

“Human contact is so important,” Rev. Horne concludes. “We see these beautiful children, and engage with the charismatic Mohamed and his lovely wife. It’s transformative. It breaks the Westport bubble. It gives us a new look at the world.”


8 responses to “Westport’s Syrian Saga

  1. Thanks for sharing- what a wonderful story.

  2. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    Thank you for sharing. It’s a wonderful uplifting story. I’m so proud of our state for being open to bring them here when they were turned away from another state and especially to our interfaith community leaders and our many volunteers. Embracing others who need help and reaching out to strangers gives me and many others hope that we may still be able to find a way to make America great again. Sorry didn’t mean to take a slogan away from the RNC. However, this story proves that as Americans when we band together we can change the lives, for the better, of many people, one small step at a time.

    I have seen it here with This story, as well as with the story about our neighbor’s just to the east in the Bridgeport schools. Now Reade School is also gaining the momentum that Cesar Batalia school has been getting thanks again to so many volunteers as soon as it was brought to the attention of the community that they were in such dire need.

    More volunteers are always needed and welcome and there are so many ways you can help. In this season they still need so many basic supplies and they are so gracious and grateful for anything and everything you can donate or help them with.

    I’m so glad this refugee family is doing well! I’m proud to be part of this Westport community that is so open and embraces helping others.

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  4. God Bless Mohamed, his family and the good people of Westport making the lives of this Syrian family happy and with great promise. We need to embrace a “contagion of love” for all the peoples of the world, reach out nationally and internationally to those in need–especially to the refugees from so many hostile places. A “contagions of love” starts in your heart; places yourself in the shoes of others, and results in Our collective God directing loving actions to embrace and support all in need. Don Sauvigne

  5. Wonderful story – and one that is being carried out by others in Westport through the International Institute of Connecticut (iiconn) located in Bridgeport. I’ve just started helping with setting up apartments in Bridgeport for families from the Congo, Afghanistan, Iran through a coalition of the Unitarian Church in Westport, Norfield Congregational, Christ and Holy Trinity (I may be missing someone, as I’m still new to this). It’s a satisfying antidote to the xenophobic messages from the Tower… contact David Vita at the Unitarian Church if you want to get involved 227-7205 ext. 14

  6. Thank you for sharing this story Dan. I think about these victims of war constantly, and can’t get the images of the children out of my head. Well done Rev. Ed Horne and all involved. It warms me to know there are people “doing something” positive for our fellow brothers and sisters.

  7. English classes are crucial. Canada has welcomed so many refugees but now needs more ESL teachers.

  8. You ought to send this story to Messers. Trump and Pence. Too bad the rest of the world — indeed the rest of the good old USA — isn’t like Westport.