- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - Just a few months ago, Ramez K. Aldarwish had never heard of Connecticut.

But since he arrived in New Haven in late July, the 38-year-old refugee from Syria has come to think of the state as “a beautiful paradise.”

“I’m very happy here,” Aldarwish said in Arabic, speaking through an interpreter. “At least I know I am safe.”

Aldarwish and his wife left Homs, Syria, in 2011, as a civil war was tearing the country apart. First they went to Jordan, but that was only a temporary stop before the couple and their two young children received permission to come to the U.S.

They are one of four Syrian families who have settled in New Haven with assistance from Integrated Refugee Immigrant Services, or IRIS, a city-based nonprofit that helps newcomers from all over the world rebuild their lives. A fifth family arrived in New Haven late last week. Overall, 1,500 Syrian refugees have resettled in the U.S. since the civil war began.

With heart-rending images of desperate migrants flooding into Europe, some have called on the U.S. to do more. President Obama recently issued an order allowing up to 10,000 refugees from Syria into the United States during the next fiscal year, but even that is not enough, said Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy.

“The soul of this country is rooted in bringing people who are fleeing persecution and violence to a safe, welcoming place,” Murphy said. “I’m not sure how we can continue to define ourselves in that way if we don’t offer more to the Syrians than a few of those slots.”

Connecticut has long been home to pockets of Syrian immigrants. Though the first significant numbers of the Syrian refugees probably won’t arrive in the U.S. for months, the state stands ready to accommodate a percentage of them, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said.

“The images we are seeing are tragic and the situation looks devastating. Our hearts go out to the people affected by this crisis,” Devon Puglia, speaking on behalf of the Democratic governor, said recently. “If the federal government and the president come up with a plan to take in these refugees, we would … welcome them in our state, in order to do our part to help ameliorate the crisis - it’s part of Connecticut’s values,”

Malloy’s critics note that governor’s welcoming stance contrasts with the position he took last year, during another crisis involving migrants. At that time Malloy declined a request by federal authorities to house unaccompanied child migrants from Central America at the Southbury Training School, citing the aging school’s deteriorating condition as well as legal and procedural issues.

Since he began speaking out on the refugee crisis, Murphy’s office has received calls from organizations and ordinary citizens eager to help. Connecticut has a long tradition of helping refugees. The state resettled about 180,000 Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam war, and in the 1990s provided help to about 170,000 people displaced by the war in the Balkans.

“We’re an empathetic state and I hope we’ll be part of the solution,” Murphy said.

In addition to the humanitarian obligations, he said there are practical reasons for helping the refugees. “We’re losing credibility (in the Middle East) if we sit on the sidelines,” said Murphy, a Democratic freshman who recently visited refugee camps in Jordan.

Several Republican presidential candidates, including Sens. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, are also pressing for an increase in the number of refugees allowed into the U.S., as long as they are thoroughly vetted to determine that they are not part of a terrorist group.

Murphy agreed, saying the U.S. should “spare no expense” in investigating the refugees to ensure they have no terrorist connections. But, he added, “just because a place like Syria is violent, that doesn’t mean everyone who lives there is violent. We have a very sophisticated process for vetting refugees.”

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat from the 5th District, last week signed onto a letter to President Obama urging additional aid for the refugees. She said she would welcome refugees that have been thoroughly vetted resettle in her district and her community.

“I do think the U.S. has a moral and political leadership role to play,” Esty said. That responsibility can be traced, in part, to the ugly legacy of World War II, when many countries closed their borders to those fleeing the Nazis, she said.

Aldarwish, like all refugees permitted into the U.S., underwent an extensive background check before coming to New Haven. Refugees, whether they’re from Syrian, Somalia or Burma, are interviewed and vetted by the U.S. government before they are allowed into the country. In most cases, they are asked if they have a friend or relative in the U.S., and if they do, they are sent to the community where their connection lives, said Chris George, executive director of IRIS.

“If they don’t, and most Syrians don’t because they’re fairly new to the resettlement game, they’re going to be arbitrarily assigned,” George said. Most refugees wind up in communities where resettlement organizations such as IRIS are located.

That’s how Aldarwish wound up in New Haven. Sitting in the busy IRIS office one day last week, he recounted his arrival in the U.S. An IRIS staffer was on hand to greet his family at the airport. Once in New Haven, they were taken to their apartment, which had been furnished by a group of volunteers from the Avon Congregational Church. They even provided food and toys for Aldarwish’s 18-month-old daughter and 21/2-year-old son.

Aldarwish will attend classes at IRIS on the social and cultural adjustments he will surely face, as well as practical matters, such as how to obtain health care, enroll children in school and find a job.

“The biggest thing is employment services,” said IRIS caseworker Andrew Salyer. “The goal for everything is . self-sufficiency by 90 days. It’s a lofty goal but we hit it more often than not.”

Aldarwish was a truck driver in Syria. Since arriving in New Haven on July 30, he has focused mainly on learning English.

He sometimes mourns the way of life he lost in Syria. “It was a beautiful life. … Syria’s a beautiful country. … Then the war came and now, the country is gone,” he said.

And he thinks often of his parents, who fled to Jordan, and his siblings. He has five brothers and seven sisters; four are in Jordan, two are in Lebanon and one is in Turkey. The rest remain in Syria.

One of his brothers was arrested after the war broke out and hasn’t been heard from since. “We don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” Aldarwish said.


Information from: Hartford Courant, https://www.courant.com

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