Congregations come together to house Syrian refugee family
WESTPORT — Half a million people have died since the conflict in Syria started five years ago and millions have been displaced in one of the worst refugee crises of our era. The refugee crisis is not just an issue in Syria, but across the globe. According to Secretary of State John Kerry in a speech at the United Nations Summit in New York on Monday, approximately 65 million people have been forced from their homes and upwards of 21 million people have fled internationally.
This past summer the Westport Interfaith Refugee Settlement teamed up to house a family of Syrian refugees in Norwalk. WIRS is an extension of the Westport/ Weston Interfaith Council, a group that previously collaborated to resettle a Bosnian family in the late 1990s.
Initiated in the fall of 2015 by Rev. Ed Horne from the United Methodist Church of Westport and Weston, over 130 volunteers spanning seven congregations have come together to support the Syrian family. United Methodist Church, Saint Luke Parish, Temple Israel, Saugatuck Congregational Church, Green’s Farms Church, Society of Friends along with a Muslim community of 15 families sponsored the refugees.
The family of four, which includes a husband, wife, and two elementary-age children, left Syria for Egypt five years ago, and were forced to live in 20 different housing arrangements since they left their native country. The family was not made available for an interview with the Westport News for stated saftey reasons.
WIRS is a co-sponsor of the family in concert with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in New Haven. Through this partnership, WIRS was tasked with securing affordable housing, collecting furniture and household items, facilitating refugees access to public benefits such as food stamps, enrolling children in school, helping the adults find jobs among a variety of other tasks.
“We have to do everything from picking them up at the airport to getting their housing for them, fixing up the housing, getting furniture, clothing. Literally, they came with the clothes off their backs,” said Dolores Paoli, who represents WIRS’s Muslim community.
After being stringently vetted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in a process that takes up to three years, this year the U.S. accepted 85,000 refugees from across the world into the country, according to IRIS.
Five hundred of those came to Connecticut’s three refugee organizations, one of which is IRIS. WIRS is expected to prepare the Syrian family to be financially independent by their ninth month in the area.
Rabbi Michael Friedman, of Temple Israel in Westport, said that instead of acknowledging the Syrian refugee crisis or donating money from a far, the interfaith council has gone a step further and chosen to bring a family into their community and help to improve the problem at home.
“But really the ultimate step is to say our role is actually helping to solve the problem right here at home. And to me that’s a very significant statement by all the congregations and the Muslim community that have gotten together to do this,” Friedman said.
The daily schedule for the Syrian family is quite rigorous in order to get them ready to become self-sustaining.
“They’ve been taking a lot of ESL (English as a Second Language Classes) every day,” said Horne. “Dad gets up at five o’clock in the morning. He’s a highly educated man. He’s a university educated man. They all have ESL classes later in the day.”
“We feel that as people of faith and people of goodwill, we want to come together to provide a welcoming space for a family that has been traumatized for five years, by having to flee their homes and live in a foreign land and make due.
“They are extremely excited about beings here. They want to be as American as they can as quickly as they can—they are really rearing to go,” Horne said.