Syrians Find Safe Haven In Elm City

By:  Markeisha Ricks
New Haven Independent

Forty-one year old Omaia said her family endured a year of bombings and killings in their home country of Syria before they decided to leave on foot for Jordan. Three days later their house was leveled by a bombing.

“They destroyed schools, hospitals…everything,” Omaia said through her friend Maissa, who translated her words into English, while they stood on the second floor landing of the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services headquarters in the East Rock neighborhood.

The women had just participated in a closed door meeting Monday with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy that was packed with fellow refugees from other countries. Murphy stopped by to pledge his support for expanding the number of refugees that the U.S. is willing to receive, particularly from Syria.

Omaia’s family left Syria in ones and twos—Omaia and her young daughter. Her husband and teenage son. Her oldest and second oldest son left separately.

The family lived in Jordan for three years where they were not allowed to work and her children were not allowed to attend the local schools. Some Syrians tried to work “under the table” to help make ends meet because things were expensive in Jordan, she said. “If they catch you working, they will capture you and put you in the prison camp,” Omaia said “If you refuse to work in the camp they will send you back to Syria.” Her second oldest son ended up in a camp in Jordan after he refused to join the Syrian military.

The rest of the family managed to avoid the camps in Jordan, she said, where life is very hard and there isn’t enough food to eat. They applied to the United Nations to get assistance to come to the United States, she said, and they were allowed, arriving in New Haven on July 28. Omaia’s family is one of four Syrian families that IRIS has resettled; a fifth family is on the way to the Elm City.

In that short amount of time Omaia has made friends with people like 48-year-old Maisaa, who came to the U.S. 18 years ago from Syria. The two women are close in age and their daughters are around the same age. Omaia and her family now have an apartment in Maisaa’s building.

“Anything she needs,” Maisaa said, “I’m here to help.”

The family hopes Murphy can help get their son out of that camp in Jordan. They told their story to one of Murphy’s staffers who took down all their information and promised to get back in touch with them.

Though President Obama announced that the United States would take at least 10,000 refugees from the Middle East, Murphy is advocating that the U.S. take in at least 50,000 refugees from the region, which is still small when compared to countries like Germany that have vowed to take 800,000 refugees. Chris George, executive director of IRIS, has advocated that the U.S. take more. (Read about that here.)

Murphy wants Congress to use the $500 million that has been allocated in the budget to fund a “train and equip” program for Syrian rebels that he said “hasn’t trained a single, effective fighter in Syria” and use it for refugee resettlement. The senator said using that money would ensure that the country had the proper resources to thoroughly vet any refugee coming from the region, but also to make sure it doesn’t take years to bring them here.

“My worry is that if the U.S. doesn’t bring refugees from the region here, right now when the danger is high, that it says something very dark about the U.S. and it endangers us in the region,” Murphy said. “We lose credibility as a leader in the Middle East if everyone else is bearing their share of the burden and the United States is refusing to bear ours.”

The senator’s words were encouraging to the ears of Suleiman Chater (pictured). He and his father emigrated from Syria 37 years ago. His uncle started a falafel restaurant that is familiar to many in the Elm City, Mamoun’s Falafel Restaurant. Chater, who is now one of the managers at Mamoun’s, provided food for Monday’s meeting with the senator, but he also came bearing information about apartments in Middletown and Meriden that are offering reduced rent for refugees and even people who are offering rooms in their homes.

“I want to help out in any way, shape or form,” Chater, who still has family in Syria, said. “You’ve got to help. It’s the right thing to do.” While there isn’t a huge Syrian population in New Haven, Chater said he’s seeing more people who speak Arabic than he’s seen in 30 years and given his own background he knows a little about the tough road before them.

“I feel for them,” he said. “They don’t know the language. I’m willing to help translate and just help out in any situation.”

Omaia said she’s grateful for the outpouring of help that she and her family has received since they made it to the United States.

“Thanks to the United States for having us here,” she said. “We feel safe here. Humans have more value in the U.S.”