Open Arms

Trinity community joins efforts to resettle Syrian families

Editor’s Note: Reporting on this story began in December 2016, well before U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order of January 27, 2017, that established an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. Court challenges to the administration’s order later lifted that ban and a second executive order’s ban, but as this issue went to press, developments were continuing to unfold. Therefore, the situation for Syrians seeking refuge in the United States may have changed significantly by the time you read this.

By Lori Ferguson
Photos by John Marinelli

On a chilly night early last December, members of a Syrian family from Damascus — a mother and her two sons, ages 19 and 10 — arrived in Hartford, at the end of one journey and the start of another.

Trinity College Chaplain Allison Read, Drew Smith ’65, and Maryam Bitar IDP’16 talk with the Syrian family that came to the United States under the co-sponsorship of the College and Hartford’s Trinity Episcopal Church communities.
Trinity College Chaplain Allison Read, Drew Smith ’65, and Maryam Bitar IDP’16 talk with the Syrian family that came to the United States under the co-sponsorship of the College and Hartford’s Trinity Episcopal Church communities.

Splintered by the violence in their homeland, the family had already endured much to get to this juncture. Of seven children, only these two remain with their mother. The other five have scattered to various parts of the world in seek of refuge; her husband remains in Syria. The mother and three of her children fled their homeland for Egypt 3½ years ago, when living conditions became too dangerous, but quickly realized that life in Egypt was untenable as well. One son fled for Germany with his own young family; the other two remained with their mother, and after registering with the United Nations, the three were offered the opportunity to migrate to a Western country. They jumped at the chance, confident that a life here was the best opportunity for them all.

Since landing on U.S. soil, they have wasted no time in beginning to acculturate; the entire family has been meeting with tutors twice a week to learn English, the younger son has dived enthusiastically into elementary school, and the elder son, who has culinary training, has been seeking employment and making plans to pursue his education.

As the family completed the U.S. government’s exhaustive vetting process and awaited permission to enter the country, their co-sponsors — members of the Trinity College and Hartford’s Trinity Episcopal Church communities — feverishly prepared as well. The powerful partnership that has been forged between these co-sponsors — made possible through New Haven, Connecticut-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) — began to coalesce at the College in December 2015, says Trinity College Chaplain Allison Read. “The Syrian refugee crisis is the leading humanitarian crisis on the globe right now, and many individuals throughout our community are, and have been, highly motivated to help in resolving the issue by whatever means possible.”

groupRead realized that Trinity’s annual Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols offered the perfect opportunity to unite desire and resources. “Every year, an offering is taken up and given to an organization in need,” she explains, “and in 2015, it was clear to everyone involved that refugee resettlement was the cause we should support with our donations.”

Read believed that a partnership with IRIS — an organization that is highly respected throughout the state — was key, so she broached the subject with friend and IRIS board member Drew Smith ’65, a retired Episcopal bishop with decades of experience in resettlement activities. Smith encouraged Read to reach out to IRIS Executive Director Chris George.

IRIS is an advocate of the community co-sponsorship model of refugee resettlement, Read explains, and George is a passionate champion of the approach. Once the groundwork for the partnership was laid, Read and Smith polled members of the Trinity and church communities in search of volunteers. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Dozens of Trinity students, faculty, staff, and alumni, as well as members of the parish, eagerly expressed their desire to sponsor a family. A number of off-campus partners, including professors from Tunxis Community College and Goodwin College and a retired New York City teacher, also generously volunteered their time and expertise.

Over the next several months, members of the partnership completed IRIS’s rigorous application process, undergoing a feasibility study and training from the agency’s staff to ensure that they were prepared to handle the family members’ various needs. The U.S. government requires that a family be fully self-sufficient in six months, “a very ambitious timeline by any measure,” notes Read, so everyone in the partnership had to be ready to hit the ground running as soon as the family arrived.

Director of Human Resources Beth Iacampo, Juliana Perez '17, and Jane Bisson ’18
Director of Human Resources Beth Iacampo, Juliana Perez ’17, and Jane Bisson ’18

“Sponsoring a refugee family is a tremendous undertaking,” says Smith, “so a strong partnership, with individuals who are fully committed to the process, is essential.” Members of the sponsorship team are responsible for virtually everything the refugee family may need, he notes. “We assist with everything that someone has to do to make a life when nothing is in place.” Community partners’ responsibilities run the gamut, from finding, renting, and furnishing the family’s apartment to setting up utilities, providing English tutoring, accompanying family members to the IRIS offices for acculturation meetings, and offering instruction in everything from using mass transit to shopping for groceries. “Essentially we teach them everything from scratch, and it has been a joy,” Smith enthuses.

Beth Iacampo, Trinity’s director of human resources, says it felt “good to be doing something to help people.” She collected names of individuals interested in helping with the initiative and assisted in furnishing the family’s apartment. “Seeing the smiles on their faces and witnessing how hard they’re working to learn English and acclimate to their new home is incredibly inspiring,” Iacampo says. “It’s also gratifying to see so many people from throughout the community invest their time, resources, and energy into making a new home for people we don’t even know.”

For Abigail Fisher Williamson, assistant professor of political science and public policy and law at Trinity, participation in a refugee resettlement initiative has offered a valuable opportunity to see academic theories put into practice. Williamson, whose research focuses on immigrant incorporation into the United States, in particular how local governments and societies respond to immigrants and how immigrants adjust to their new home, has been working with another Syrian refugee family that arrived in the Hartford area in August 2016 under the sponsorship of St. James’s and St. John’s Episcopal Churches in West Hartford. “It’s been an incredible experience to work with the family; their attitude is tremendous,” says Williamson. “They arrived, a family of five with just four bags, having left many loved ones behind and having been in transition for an extended period of time. It has to be terribly difficult, but they are determined and so eager to learn English as quickly as possible and begin a new life here.

Members of the Trinity College community work in fall 2016 to ready the family’s new apartment. Posse Scholar Juliana Perez ’17
Members of the Trinity College community work in fall 2016 to ready the family’s new apartment. Posse Scholar Juliana Perez ’17

“My experience in field research with other immigrant communities offered me an idea of what to expect when interacting with the refugees, but the firsthand encounters I’ve had have been unbelievably gratifying,” Williamson continues. “As a scholar, I study and write about immigrant issues, but working directly with refugees has an immediate impact, whereas producing scholarship and changing policies happen on a much slower timeline. Now I’m eager to carry what I’ve learned back into the classroom.”

Associate Professor of International Studies Janet Bauer is similarly enthusiastic about Trinity’s co-sponsorship initiative. An active participant in immigrant and refugee affairs since the late 1990s, Bauer now serves on the City of Hartford’s newly formed Commission for Refugee and Immigrant Affairs and knows how critical nongovernmental support can be to refugees. “Nonprofits and faith-based groups play a vital role in filling the gap between what refugees need to successfully resettle and what government programs provide.” Sponsoring a family and helping members manage the many adjustments to their new home is a far-ranging, long-term commitment, Bauer observes, and the response from members of the College community and the church has been great. “This is Trinity’s first time acting as a co-sponsor, but I’m hoping it will become a tradition. Having Trinity students involved gives youth in a refugee family an important connection to peers, something that older immigrant children often lose out on if they are too old to enroll in high school when they arrive here. These interactions also open up a whole new world to our students, allowing them to understand the real-world struggles that those displaced by persecution and war must confront in reestablishing their lives in the USA.”

Kraus ’74 Presidential Scholar Max Furigay ’19 and Elm Fox ’17, building furniture.
Kraus ’74 Presidential Scholar Max Furigay ’19 and Elm Fox ’17, building furniture.

Trinity alumna Maryam Bitar IDP’16, a native of Damascus, Syria, understands how difficult the transition to a new home can be and has worked tirelessly to help Trinity’s sponsor family find peace and comfort in their adopted land. Bitar assumed responsibility for organizing the volunteers who provide translation assistance to the family and is thrilled with the opportunity. “I volunteer with refugees all around Hartford, but when I heard that Trinity was going to sponsor a Syrian family, I was over the moon,” says Bitar. Trinity students, including a number of first-years, have given generously of their time, she says, and the experience has been incredibly heartwarming. “It’s gratifying to be able to help people and to have them let me help. I feel like I can give back — to Trinity and to the community — and that is very rewarding.”

Bitar’s response is reflective of an openhearted attitude that is pervasive throughout the Greater Hartford community, says Smith. “Everyone we have encountered in the process of getting the family settled has been welcoming, from those in federal and state agencies who have greeted family members with a warm ‘Welcome to the U.S. — we’re glad you’re here!’ to members of Hartford’s Muslim community who have sought to introduce the family to existing resources and support systems.”

Smith is also incredibly proud of the welcome his alma mater has extended. “The College community has been tremendous; faculty, staff, and students have acted of their own volition, working side by side with other members of the community to help our sponsor family build a new life here. The generosity of spirit has been overwhelming.”

To learn about a course that pairs Trinity students with refugee and immigrant families, please read Lab connects Trinity students with refugees, immigrants

Student Voices

The Trinity Reporter asked several students why they wanted to become involved in helping to resettle a Syrian refugee family and why they felt such work was important. Read on for their responses.

Jane Bisson ’18
“My involvement with The Charleston House of Interfaith Cooperation opened the door for me to assist our community in welcoming a Syrian refugee family. My education at Trinity, in many different ways, has taught me that I am truly a global citizen, and I was excited by this opportunity to help, in any small way I could, in a situation that often feels very distant and foreign.”

Ahmed “Deemo” Eldmerdash ’20, Andrew Forrester ’61 Entrepreneurial Scholar
“We all live in this world together; we should not say I am Egyptian, I am Syrian, or I am American because we all should stand for each other when someone is in need. If we are Muslims, Christians, or whatever, we are all still humans, and that’s what really matters.”

Susan Garvey IDP’17
“Before my Trinity years, I helped both a mother with three daughters from Sierra Leone get adjusted to life in Hartford and a grandmother from Liberia who settled in my town of Vernon, so I am aware of how hard the adjustment process can be. Yet this time it seems especially important to help out because of the degree of Islamophobia toward Muslims in general and Syrian refugees in particular. … I am so proud of Trinity for standing up for Syrian refugees and immigrants in general by choosing to sponsor this family. … I was proud to have a skill that came in handy. As an IDP student without a car, I commute daily to campus using CTtransit. With the Arabic translation help of an IDP student who graduated last year, Maryam Bitar, I was able to show the family how to navigate the buses to medical appointments, for shopping, and for other appointments.”

Mohammed Albehadli ’20
“When I heard there was a family who speaks Arabic coming over to resettle here, I started remembering how hard it was for me to adjust to life in this country. I started reflecting on where I was when I first arrived. How did I feel? What challenges did I face? How did I overcome those challenges, and how did I adjust to life here? All of this made me realize that I have so much in common with this family to share, and I felt that if there is one person who must be there for them, it must be me! This is my way of paying it forward.”

Meghan Johansen ’17
“During my sophomore year, I had an opportunity through my “Immigrants and Refugees” class to participate in outreach in Hartford. I co-organized a Thanksgiving dinner to welcome a newly settled family to the community. I was overwhelmed and overjoyed by how many Trinity students participated and saw how touched the family was to be included. I have always sought opportunities to serve the community, and seeing the profound effect my work had on the community encouraged me to continue.”

Kirsten Mayer ’17, Summit Scholar
“Although I am a single person, one drop has the power to cause ripples. The Trinity community has enough drops to make a significant contribution to impact a family, and I could not be happier to be a part of such a great community.”