Editor’s Note: Multiplatform journalism professor Thomas E. Franklin, who spent 30 years as a photo journalist, is documenting the refugee experience. A longer version of this story appeared on NJ Spotlight in June as part of the In the Shadow of Liberty - Immigration in New Jersey series, funded, in part, by Montclair State’s Center for Cooperative Media.
Mohammad Ali Zakkour says that his former life in Syria was very good.
He owned a clothing workshop where he made jean alterations for men and women, and he was able to comfortably support his wife and three children. Life in his third-floor flat in Homs was comfortable. And safe.
Then the war changed everything.
Inspired by the prodemocracy Arab Spring, the civil war began on March 15, 2011, now known as the “Day of Rage,” when peaceful demonstrations against the government forces of Bashar al-Assad were met by a harsh military crackdown. Aerial bombings and street fighting have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and left cities devastated.
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has been a key battleground in the uprising. Zakkour says that a tank blast blew through the apartment, breaching a wall. By September 2011, he realized it was no longer safe for his family.
A Long Road for the Zakkours
Like so many Syrians, the aerial bombings and street fighting forced the 36-year-old Zakkour and his family to leave everything behind and flee to Jordan, where he eked out a living for four years as a tailor. But the living conditions, including the hot, arid climate, were rough. “We struggled a lot there,” says Zakkour.
So when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offered them a chance at a new life elsewhere, they took it. The choice was between Spain and the United States, and he felt his children would have a better life in the United States. The Zakkours were resettled in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in July 2015.
“I don’t think of my future except through my children,” says Zakkour. “Because where I’m standing, there are millions who wish to be standing.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) resettled the first Syrian refugees from the civil war in 2013. From then until June, 158 Syrian refugees had resettled in New Jersey. The resettlement is handled by three different NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), the IRC, Catholic Charities in Camden and Church World Service.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Syrian crisis, a grim milestone in the bloody civil war that has left an estimated quarter million dead, millions injured and the mass exodus of nearly half the country’s population.
Many fleeing their homes risk their lives in perilous boat crossings to Europe in search of shelter and basic needs like food and health care. Millions have been forced to resettle outside the country and have come to depend completely on humanitarian aid.
New Jersey has seen a growing grassroots movement by religious groups and ad hoc volunteers to provide assistance and friendship to Syrian families trying to adapt to a new life in America. Some of that support has come from area churches and mosques, but some has come from more unusual sources, including two North Jersey Jewish synagogues.
“Members of the congregation were interested in getting involved with the refugee crisis,” says Katherine McCaffrey, a Montclair State anthropology professor who, along with her synagogue Bnai Keshet in Montclair, befriended and began assisting some of the refugees in December 2015. “We were concerned about the violence and the response of the United States.”
With a nod to the dominant Christian faith in New Jersey, Bnai Keshet invited 10 refugee families for a “traditional” Jewish Christmas dinner of Chinese takeout this past year with 150 people attending the event.
“We wanted to find a way to do something that was positive,” says Bnai Keshet’s Melina Macall. “[Christmas] is a time when Jews and Muslims are kind of left out in the cold.”
McCaffrey says that despite the differences in faith, this is not a new concept to the Jewish community. “Many members of our congregation were refugees themselves, or came from families that were refugees during World War II,” she says.
Mohammad Zakkour and his family were among the families there that night; his wife Samer then pregnant with their fourth child. At the dinner, Macall and McCaffrey learned Zakkour had been a tailor in Syria and was having trouble finding work, so they turned to their synagogue community to quickly raise the money needed to buy him a commercial sewing machine.
While Zakkour set up shop for alterations in the family apartment, he says it’s been a struggle drumming up business. Yet he seems happy to be in America. And he knows that learning the language is the key to finding work, so he attends tutoring sessions at the Elizabeth library once a week.
Help with Resettlement
Alison Millan, the resettlement director for IRC’s New Jersey office, says the IRC had resettled 110 refugees in New Jersey from 2013 through June 2016. In Elizabeth alone, they have resettled 101 individuals. Most don’t have any “U.S. tie support,” meaning friends or family to help provide for them. So settling them in Elizabeth makes the most sense because they are closer to the IRC resources and programs. The IRC picks them up at the airport, furnishes an apartment for them, orients them to the community and enrolls their children in school. They also help obtain Social Security cards, food stamps and health insurance. The IRC works with them to figure out their goals, but she says the adjustment is not easy.
“Many families have fled very traumatic experiences,” says Millan, whose office is next door to the apartment building in downtown Elizabeth where some of the Syrians live. “For any family we resettle, that first year is pretty difficult. The IRC is here to support them, but we see our role as helping them learn as much as they can, so they can be as self-sufficient as possible, as early as possible.”
Starting a new life and finding a job in an urban city like Elizabeth can be overwhelming. In addition, some of the volunteers are concerned that the Syrian children are falling far behind in school, not only because of the language barrier but also the lapse in learning from the time they left.
“These are children who have had trauma, dislocation and have not been in school for years,” says McCaffrey. “They really need extra attention.”
The IRC provides a pretty comprehensive package, but cannot supply intangibles like friendship, acceptance and dignity. That has been provided in part by a wide group of volunteers led by a Syrian-American who coordinates efforts and facilitates the “adoptions,” matching North Jersey churches and synagogues with individual families.
After receiving the sewing machine back in February, Mohammad Ali Zakkour has remained friendly with McCaffrey and Macall from Bnai Keshet, mostly through text messages translated by a Google app. But since then, another Jewish group, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, has “adopted” the Zakkours, meeting them weekly and helping them with English.
“It became clear we could do hands-on things the IRC can’t do,” says Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz. This included getting Samer Zakkour pregnancy care.
Dantowitz says the Zakkours are adjusting to life in America and appreciate the friendships they’ve formed. She says Mohammad even sent her a thoughtful text on Passover to wish her a happy holiday.
“There are many crises in the world, the Syrian crisis is just one,” she says. “This is about human beings in God’s image. It just happens to be Jews and Muslims.” Zakkour says he’s appreciative and he wants to teach his children that religion, race and gender should never get in the way. He’s very grateful that he found people who feel for him and his family.
“We are all brothers and sisters in humanity,” Zakkour says. “I want to teach that to my kids. I want to plant the seed.”
The Al Radi Family’s Experience
The Al Radi family, who are Muslim, were also among the families who were guests at the Christmas dinner at the Bnai Keshet synagogue. They have since become frequent guests, recently taking part in a Community Seder for Passover, sitting with McCaffrey’s family.
The Al Radis are from Daraa, one of the most heavily bombed cities in Syria. Fadel Al Radi says that snipers and bombings kept his family trapped in their home for over a year.
“When we were in the house there was no safety,” Al Radi explained in Arabic, communicating with the help of a translator.
In Syria, Al Radi had his own welding business, which was connected to his home. One night a bomb struck next-door, killing his neighbor. A wall between the houses fell, injuring his wife, Maryam, and damaging his shop.
Another time, while they were at a relative’s house, a bomb struck their home. “Our kitchen and half the living room were gone,” Al Radi says, dropping his arms like bombs falling from the sky. Around this time their son Mohammad, 7, became sick. That’s when they left for Jordan to get medical care. They never returned.
After three years in an enormous refugee camp in the desert two hours from the capital city of Amman, the IRC relocated them to Elizabeth. While they are happy to be here, they’ve struggled to adjust to American customs, and Fadel is frustrated that he cannot speak the language or find work.
“They had a pretty horrible experience in Jordan,” says McCaffrey. “Maryam said that they were treated very badly, less than human. They have been struggling to reestablish themselves.”
All resettlement agencies contracted with the U.S. Department of State are required to begin collecting on travel loans six months after a refugee’s arrival to the United States. The United States is one of the few countries that require refugees to pay back their travel costs after they resettle. The Al Radis, who have four children, received a notice from the IRC informing them that they had to start making monthly payments. Even though the repayment of their loan was explained in full before departing for the U.S., the Al Radis, who have no means of income, panicked. The Bnai Keshet congregation again stepped in to help. McCaffrey and Macall started a GoFundMe page, shooting a video and photos with the family to help pay off the nearly ,000 debt – and raised the entire amount in 72 hours.
“The response was remarkable,” says McCaffrey. “There are so many people that have come out from all different towns and congregations to support these families. I think that they feel that they have recovered some of their dignity, but still there are a lot of challenges.”
Recently, Heba Elhamasy, 22, a graduate student at Montclair State and founder of Ihsan Charity, Inc., a nonprofit “dedicated to the welfare of refugees” worldwide, took the Al Radi children and Maryam to Monster Golf in Paramus to play video games and ride motorcycle simulators, a rare occasion where they were able to forget their worries and relax. “It’s the small acts of kindness and friendship that make a difference,” says Elhamasy, who has taken the children to her Egyptian parents’ home in Jackson, New Jersey, for a sleepover. “My parents love them. We speak the same language [Arabic]. We feel a closeness. There’s a need [here].”
This summer, three interfaith groups – Bnai Keshet, Temple B’nai Abraham and the Al-Andalus Foundation – raised money to send 16 refugee children to day camp at the Elizabeth YMCA.
“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed by the scale of this catastrophe, but there are ways to help on a local level,” McCaffrey says. “They live in apartments with no yards. Camp gave them an opportunity to swim and play, and practice English – it helped restore the smallest piece of childhood to children who have already lost so much.”
Montclair State graduate student Salma Hassan contributed to this story. To read the full piece, please see njspotlight.com/refugees.