Tag Archives: Dolores Paoli

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.”

 

Islam In Westport

Thirty-five years ago, Wafaa Naggar’s husband was transferred to Stamford. As the couple searched for a home in Fairfield County, she got the impression that realtors in towns like Darien were taking them to less-desirable areas.

Their Westport real estate agent, by contrast, was “amazing.” She showed them great houses. Neighbors seemed very welcoming. The beach and shops were appealing. They bought here, and have never regretted it.

In many ways, the Naggars are typical Westporters. Their 3 children had great experiences; all graduated from Staples. Wafaa got involved in the community. Today she is director of finance and HR administration for the Westport Library.

In other ways, the Naggars are not at all typical. They’re part of Westport’s small — and often invisible — Muslim community.

Wafaa Naggar, at work in the Westport Library.

Wafaa Naggar, at work in the Westport Library.

Events in distant places — Paris, San Bernardino — have shined a light on Muslims living where other religions dominate.

That’s never been an issue here, Wafaa says. “We’ve always enjoyed Westport. Our kids were welcomed. We have good friends, and always felt supported. We’ve had zero issues.”

During Ramadan — when the Naggars fast — friends save food for later. If people feel uncomfortable eating around her, Wafaa puts them at ease. If they have questions about any aspect of her religion, they ask. And she answers.

Wafaa pauses. Once, it turns out, Staples friends called her son Taher’s car “The Camel.” She notes, “Everyone has nicknames and fun. It was not anything bad at all.”

The Naggars worship at mosques in Stamford. They choose which one depending upon who is conducting prayers or speaking that day. There are mosques in Bridgeport and Orange too. A Norwalk group has just purchased property, following lengthy negotiations and controversy.

Wafaa says the Stamford mosques draw Muslims from many different backgrounds. She adds that it’s hard to characterize the Muslims in Westport because there is no central meeting place in town. However, she believes that most are from non-Arab countries. (The Naggars are Egyptian.)

I told Wafaa that an “06880” reader had emailed me, wondering if there was a mosque in town. The woman said her fitness trainer — who works on Sylvan Road South — told her that a small group gathers for prayers every morning at 5, at a suite in the same office complex.

A personal trainer says this Westport office suite is the site of morning prayers. Muslims in Westport have never heard of it.

A personal trainer says this Westport office suite is the site of morning prayers. Muslims in Westport have never heard of it.

Wafaa has never heard of that. Neither has Dolores Paoli, Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City, she married a Pakistani man and “accepted Islam.”

She’s lived in Westport for 24 years. In the last couple of years, she says, several more Muslims have moved in — some from Iran. She estimates the town’s Muslim population at 25 families or more.

Most Westport Muslims are affluent, she says — and “pretty secular.” Worship is done primarily in the home.

The Muslims who move here come for “the same reason everyone else does: good schools, a nice environment, the beach,” Dolores says. She has not heard of any overt prejudice.

“You see Muslims every day,” she notes. “A few businesses here are Muslim-owned, and there are Muslims who work in town. If they wear hijab they stand out. But if they don’t, you wouldn’t know.”

Dolores adds that not wearing head covering does not make anyone “less Muslim. It’s like a yarmulke — not wearing one doesn’t make you less Jewish.”

Like many Muslims in America, she says, those in Westport are “cautious and careful. We just want to live our lives. Like African American parents, we tell our kids to be careful.”

TEAM-Westport-logo2Dolores is a member of TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural organization. (Wafaa Naggar is a former member.)

 

“We work at getting different groups together,” Dolores says. “It’s challenging. We do live in a bubble.” At a recent interfaith Thanksgiving service, 2 Muslim families gave readings. She says the town’s interfaith clergy organization is looking into sponsoring a Syrian family.

Dolores is not worried about Donald Trump — the loudest voice in the current wave of Islam-bashing. “America will come around and do the right thing,” she insists. “It’s important to have these conversations.”

Though Dolores’ background is different from Wafaa’s, she has a similar conclusion about her life in Westport, and other Muslims’ lives: “We’re here. But we’re just like everyone else.”