- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

TOLLAND, Conn. (AP) - On a recent wintry Sunday, Maher Al Kalaf, as usual, was in high spirits.

As several dozen people packed into the basement of St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church after Mass, cookies and sweets in tow, Maher beamed, moving from group to group, seeking out familiar faces and clapping his arm around friends.

The event was billed as a “meet and greet,” a chance to welcome a Syrian refugee family who only five months ago arrived in America.

In truth however, many of the attendees have been with the Al Kalafs since their first days in the U.S. and the gathering took on the feeling of a large post-holiday reunion. As visitors formed a greeting line, Maher eschewed handshakes for hugs and inside jokes.

Later, he gathered his family, including his wife, Najah, and their children, Muhammad, 12, Feryal, 11, Abdul, 9, Rasha, 6, Quablan, 4, Zaher, 2, and Saher- only a few months old -at the front of the hall.

Prepared to translate for his father, Muhammad stepped up to a microphone.

“My dad says, ‘Thank you for everything,’” Muhammad said. “And, ‘We are very happy.’”

Watching the scene unfold, Deacon Ron Freedman of St. Matthew smiled.

“It takes a village to put something like this together,” Freedman said.

That isn’t far from the truth.

The Al Kalafs came to America with the sponsorship of the Tolland Area Refugee Resettlement Mission, a coalition supported by United Congregational Church, St. Bernard Church, St. Matthew, the regional Muslim community, and local residents. The sprawling network of volunteers, who assist the family with everything from childcare to housing, now function similarly to an extended family themselves, stepping in when needed.

“Everyone pitches in and does what they can, bringing their gifts to bear,” the Rev. Sandra Benjamin of United Congregational said. “We’re constantly meeting and getting to known new people.”

“I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s working so well,” said Susan Gilbertie of St. Matthew and St. Bernard. “It’s working because it’s such a large, interfaith group.”

It has been almost a year since the core members decided to partner with Integrated Refugee Immigrant Services, a local resettlement agency, to take in a refugee family. Since then, the mission has expanded to over 60 members.

“This is a group that probably never would have gotten together for anything else,” said Midge Hurtuk, also of the Congregational church. “Everyone has fallen in love with this family.”

Against the backdrop of a devastating civil war in their home country, the story of the Al Kalaf family offers a rare counterpoint of hope.

Benjamin said the family originally is from the city of Daraa, which became an early focal point of the mass uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after young students were arrested and tortured for scrawling anti-government graffiti across schoolhouse walls. In March 2011, angry crowds torched the local headquarters of the ruling Ba’ath Party and lifted placards bearing a message of defiance: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

The military responded by mobilizing tanks and soldiers, turning the city into a war zone. The Al Kalaf family fled soon after the fighting began and crossed the nearby border into Jordan, where they lived in a refugee camp administered by the United Nations and applied for asylum in the U.S.

“The way it was explained to me was, every so often, they were huddled into a tent and interrogated,” Benjamin said. “It was the U.N., the State Department, and the Jordanian government, and they’d always ask the same questions. That was a three-year process.”

Once their application was granted, the family was matched with the Tolland group.

Volunteers learned the size of the family only two weeks before they arrived in the U.S., setting off a mad dash to find suitable housing. The group found a house and, with the help of volunteers from the University of Connecticut, renovated it in a matter of days.

Last August, the family left the camp in Jordan and flew straight to New Haven, where volunteers were waiting with drinks and snacks.

Volunteer Linda Suess, one of the first to meet the family, recalled loading their belongings into the back of a van.

“Two suitcases and a duffel bag,” she said. “That was their life.”

And the work didn’t end once the Al Kalafs were in the country, either. The family needed immunizations, registrations for school, doctors’ visits, work permits, and documentation formalizing their refugee status.

Motioning around the Congregational church’s offices, Gilbertie marvels at the amount of paperwork involved in the process.

“We could wallpaper this building with all the forms we’ve filled out,” she said.

Despite their training, the resettlement group has always been a collection of well-meaning volunteers, not experts. Many found themselves navigating labyrinthine federal bureaucracies, refugee and immigration law, and other complex fields for the first time.

“You need a high tolerance for confusion and you need to forgive yourself for messing up,” Benjamin said.

And that’s to say nothing of the language barrier.

While members of the Syrian community and refugee issues groups have stepped in as translators throughout the Al Kalafs’ transition, most of the day-to-day volunteers can’t speak Arabic.

“Charades goes a long way,” Suess said.

Compared to some of the obstacles the family has faced in getting to America, the problems stateside can seem almost pedestrian. Still, something as simple as a driver’s license can present a major hurdle. Maher worked as a bus and taxi driver back in Syria, but his prior qualifications won’t allow him to jump the line in Connecticut.

“The problem is, the manual comes in Arabic, but the driving test is in English,” health care volunteer Bailey Brenn said.

“The DMV has been a challenge,” Benjamin said. “But this is new territory for everybody.”

Despite the challenges, the Al Kalafs have embraced their new lives with an enthusiasm that awes the volunteers. Many of the children have made substantial progress with English and are taking well to the local schools. Feryal was recently named a student of the month and has become a go-to translator for many group members. And Muhammad has joined his school’s robotics club.

Mary Gray, who baby-sits for the family, said Quablan still rises early to stand by a window facing the street, eagerly watching for the school bus.

“They’re brave kids,” Gray said. “It’s nothing compared to what they’ve seen, but still. They’re very brave.”

Many of the volunteers, especially those charged with looking after the children, spend so much time with the Al Kalafs that the line between the helpers and those being helped feels almost irrelevant.

Volunteer coordinator Chelsea Krieger said that, under the logistics of helping run the household, a simpler mission has emerged.

“It’s turned into more of a friendship,” Krieger said.

Within TARRM, the Al Kalafs’ reputation for hospitality is legendary, and every volunteer who has visited the home tells a similar story.

“Whenever I go there, they force me to eat and they force me to drink tea,” volunteer Saadat Syed said, laughing. “They are a very friendly family.”

Brenn echoed that sentiment.

“You can’t visit without getting fed at least once,” he said.

Not that anyone is complaining- the family’s cooking has become a hot commodity among the volunteers.

“There’s a level of hospitality that is amazing,” Benjamin said. “Americans should learn it.”

And, much like a group of caring aunts, uncles, and grandparents, the group members have born witness to the family’s milestones.

Suess was there in November for the birth of Saher, the only child born in the United States and, consequently, the only citizen among the family.

“Even the staff were saying, ‘Welcome to America. In 35 years, you can be president,’” Suess said.

Over time, even the sharp differences between Arabic and English seem to matter less and less.

“You don’t need an interpreter to understand what’s going on,” Benjamin said. “You josh the way you would josh with a sibling. They have a fabulous sense of humor, so we all end up laughing a lot. We have a lot of fun.”

Benjamin and Gilbertie said both Maher and Najah lost family members to regime bombing raids and miss their extended families greatly. Still, the volunteers have never seen a moment of regret.

“They are so eager to be Americans,” Gilbertie said. “They are so grateful for everything.”

At the meet and greet, a sense of giddy relief is still detectable. When asked if it is acceptable to publish his children’s names, Maher nods enthusiastically.

“Names are fine,” he said. “This is America, so names are fine.”

Later, speaking about the volunteers who have helped his family adjust to life in America, he pauses, considers his words, and then spells them out carefully for Muhammad to translate.

“I found my family here,” he said.

When asked if TARRM will sponsor another refugee family in the future, Benjamin and Gilbertie say it would be a waste of everything they’ve learned if they didn’t volunteer again.

That said, the Al Kalafs are not completely resettled. The family is still working toward total independence. Maher has a landscaping job lined up, but his options will increase markedly once he learns more English and has the family back on a solid financial footing.

While the family may have a ways to go, the volunteers who have grown so close to the Al Kalafs over the past few months say they’ll be there every step of the way.

“As they would say in Arabic, ‘Shway shway,’” Benjamin said, laughing. “Little by little.”

___

Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com

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