WOODBURY — At a time of bitter divide over the treatment of migrants seeking asylum at the southern border, one little-known federal regulation quietly ensures that on behalf of the nation, resettlement agencies offer a warm and gracious welcome to refugees by providing a culturally appropriate hot meal on the night of their arrival. Earlier this summer, a young family from Afghanistan received that and so much more, thanks to New Start Ministry, an interfaith consortium working with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven to co-sponsor refugees in this area.
The federally required culturally appropriate hot meal, in this case a savory eggplant stew, was researched and prepared by Reem Alhaji, a young Syrian woman who arrived in Waterbury in 2017 and was also co-sponsored by New Start Ministry.
“Reem paid it forward,” said Woodbury resident Susan Suhr, who is co-leader of the group with Kate Clarke of Southbury.
New Start was founded in early 2016 and about one year later, they co-sponsored Reem, her husband, Khaled, and their two-year-old daughter, Elin.
The group found an apartment and filled it with food, clothing and furniture. They helped the young family navigate the Social Security office, the DMV and other bureaucracies, secured medical and dental treatments, helped them learn English and found them jobs.
Team members visited the family almost daily, coaching them on how to buy groceries, how to pay bills, how to use public transportation.
“Our Syrian family arrived January 3, 2017, and within six months, they were financially self-sufficient,” said Susan. “Today Khaled is a driver for FedEx. Reem is a cashier at Brooklyn Bakery. Two weeks ago she gave birth to their second child.
“They have their green cards now,” she said. “We’re very, very proud of them.”
The work was difficult, but also rewarding, so much so that many on New Start’s leadership team signed up to do it all over again. On July 24, members welcomed an Afghan family of four who arrived by way of Turkey, where they had been living for several years.
“It was a 14-hour bus ride from where they lived in Turkey to the airport in Istanbul, then an eight-hour flight to New York,” said Susan. “Now they have a two-bedroom apartment in a very safe neighborhood. They’re very happy here.”
Javid Hommadi, now in his mid-20s, was born in Vakhshi, a small village in northeastern Afghanistan. He arrived with his wife, who is a bit older, and their two young sons.
(For security reasons, the names and other details about Javid’s wife and children will not be shared in this story.)
“They came for personal safety concerns,” said Susan.
“They had a long and arduous journey from Afghanistan, then exile to other countries before arriving here. Everyone is fleeing something.”
The young couple spoke through an interpreter when Town Times visited with them in their Waterbury apartment.
Javid told of leaving his village at age 18, first on foot, then by taxi, bus and a series of human traffickers, traveling through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran before eventually seeking refuge in Turkey.
He spent three months in Tehran, hiding from the authorities while working to earn money to fund his escape. Along the way he and a man he was traveling with were robbed by Iranian police, then kidnapped, beaten and held in a dark basement for four days by criminals who tried to extort money and then threatened to sell them for their organs.
Released when their captor had a dream that their mothers came begging for their lives, Javid and the other man reconnected with a trafficker who drove them high into the mountains and dropped them off near the Iran-Turkey border. After walking for two days and three nights, they arrived in the Turkish city of Van.
The trafficker picked the men up and drove them to Istanbul, where they found jobs in a carpet company. But after a year and a half, Javid realized he was not safe in Turkey and applied for asylum with the U.N.’s refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Three-and-a-half years later, he and his family were granted permission to enter the U.S. as refugees.
Javid and his wife, also an Afghan native, met in Turkey when he applied for a job where she was employed. Since Javid and the manager had no common language, the young woman was called into the office to translate from Farsi to Turkmen.
While in Turkey, both Javid and his wife worked.
“We had enough money for food and the children’s school clothes, but we weren’t happy,” he said. “We were scared. We were always concerned that something bad would happen to us.”
In Turkey, he explained, refugees are protected by the government, but are not welcomed by the Turkish people.
“They were so awful to me,” he said. “They said you’re taking our jobs, you’re eating our food. I worked for some companies that didn’t even pay me.”
“Here, we feel better,” said his wife.
“Both have had some serious concerns about personal safety,” Susan explained. “Two people who were fearful their lives would be taken, now have smiles on their faces. They’re so relaxed to be here where they’re safe. It’s wonderful.”
When Javid and his wife first applied for refugee status, they had no idea where they would eventually live. When they learned they would travel to the U.S., they were unsure of what lay ahead.
“We had been told that in the United States, there were no rights for Muslims,” said Javid. “But when we got here, everyone was so nice, so kind to us,” he said. “I’m so happy to be here.”
The family was surprised to find a nice apartment waiting for them, fully furnished.
“We were refugees in Iran and Turkey, too, but never had anything this nice,” said the wife. “We couldn’t believe it. We thought, maybe it’s temporary?
“We feel very welcome here,” she said. “Especially in the airport when we saw the welcome banner. I couldn’t stop crying!”
“Susan and her group have been so nice,” said Javid. “I’m really grateful to have met them.”
“Now we wish we could find a good job and be just like American citizens,” said his wife. “We want to work, but we can’t speak English. I wish we could find a job with English not a requirement for now. We speak Turkmen, Farsi, Turkish and Uzbek but no English! English is hard to learn, but we’re trying.”
Javid is an experienced carpenter and cabinetmaker, but right now, he said, he’s looking for any job he can get. He shared photos of large cabinets he built and he appears to be quite skilled.
“I am doing this work for three years,” he said. “For two years I was an apprentice, training with a master. For one year I was on my own.”
According to Susan, the State Department has a strong expectation that refugees will become self-sufficient within six months of arrival.
“To do that, Javid will need solid, full-time employment with benefits,” she said, noting that his English skills are “limited, but improving.
“Transportation is also an issue,” she said. “At this point, we need a job he can access by the bus system or someone willing to give him a ride.”
Javid’s wife would like to find work as a seamstress.
“I had this job for my whole life so far,” she said. “I did cutting of fabric and working on sewing machines, several different kinds.”
She is adept at alterations and would like to find work doing that.
The couple’s young children are enrolled in a nearby elementary school. On the day Town Times visited, they had been in school for five days. At mid-afternoon, they came through the apartment door wearing their new prescription eyeglasses, big smiles on their faces.
“The first day was the worst,” their mother said. “They have no English.”
According to Susan, New Start Ministry’s leadership team is comprised of about 24 volunteers, “some Jews, some Christians, one Muslim and a couple of agnostics,” most of whom are affiliated with various congregations in Woodbury, Southbury, Middlebury, Oxford, Naugatuck, Waterbury, Bristol, Thomaston and Bethlehem.
At this time the group is in need of funds to pay for professional translators.
Those wishing to help may send tax-deductible contributions to Susan Suhr in care of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 294 Main St. South, Woodbury 06798 with New Start Ministry in the memo line.
Gift cards to ShopRite, Stop and Shop, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and Walmart would also be helpful for the family.
But mostly, Javid and his wife seek patience and understanding as they adjust to their new surroundings.
“When you see somebody who seems a little awkward with the language, someone who dresses differently, give them a smile,” said Susan. “Help that person, who is so brave, who just wants to adjust and assimilate. Help them to feel welcome.
“Every one of us has some issue, something going on inside,” she said. “They may look different, they may sound different. They want to belong. A smile can make such a difference for people who are trying so hard to fit in.”
Those seeking additional information may find New Start Ministry CT on Facebook or email to Susan.E.Suhr@gmail.com.