Life as a Refugee: “There, No Family. Now I have Family.”
We lead fortunate lives here in Wilton. All around us we see the abundance of the season. We busy ourselves with the banal, running around to check off items on holiday shopping lists, attending school concerts, planning vacations. Sometimes, too, we get caught up in the minutæ of petty Fairfield County problems, perhaps engaging in silly fights with strangers on social media and racing to nowhere in order to impress and outshine our neighbors.
And every rare, once in a while we stumble on a reminder of the incredibly profound things in life outside the bubble. We glimpse something so unlike anything we’ve ever encountered before–and it forces us readjust how we measure what really matters in this world.
That’s what happens when you meet Manal,* a 33-year-old, widowed mother of five young children between the ages of 3- and 13-years-old. Manal and her children came to Wilton a short nine months ago as refugees who fled from their home in war-torn Syria, It was in Syria where Manal’s husband and the children’s father was killed. It was Syria where she gathered her children and a few belongings to walk for 13 days to cross the border into Jordan, carrying her youngest in her arms, and her second youngest strapped to her back. In Jordan, that’s where for 18 months they faced the cruelties of a refugee camp before being accepted into a program that fully vetted them through extensive U.S. government security clearance procedures, and eventually placed them here in Wilton.
Manal and her children are being sponsored here by Wi-ACT, the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee, which worked with a non-profit agency called Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) to coordinate the family’s arrival and transition. They’re being generously provided housing by Wilton’s School Sisters of Notre Dame; there are 35 Wi-ACT steering committee members and Refugee Resettlement Subcommittee Chairs who oversee everything from childcare, transportation and liaising with the schools to medical care, technology integration, English lessons, acculturation, sports and recreation, finance, employment and training, and so much, much more. In fact, there are more than 100 different people in Wilton volunteering to help give Manal and her family the best leg up possible.
Given what the family has been through, it’s the least Wilton can do.
The Eyes Tell a Story
One of the things about meeting a woman wearing a headscarf is that it draws such attention to her eyes. Looking in Manal’s eyes, you see much of her complex story written there. And to hear her tell it is even more moving.
Hers is a story of the drive for survival, the unceasing maternal instinct, and a fighter’s strength–these are all so clearly evident in Manal’s eyes. You see there’s also pain and loss there, and a weariness that comes with having to work harder than anyone can imagine. And there’s humility and gratitude for the community she has been welcomed into with open arms.
Her memories of the first morning in Wilton are vivid: “Everything outside is beautiful. I have the children before me and say, ‘Look at that.’ Because before in Jordan it was no good, in Syria it was no good. Here my children see that and now they are sleeping good. In Jordan and Syria, they were scared, very scared and they are not sleeping good. And here, they are not scared.”
Life in the camps as refugees was miserable. She scraped together money working as a cook or house cleaner where she could, trying to get her older children schooling and keep her kids healthy in very difficult conditions. They were frequently sick. “It was very bad for my children, every day they were sick,” she says, her voice growing faint. “Winter, and very little sleeping. I had no auntie, no father, no mother, to help. I had to keep working. I was auntie, father, mother.”
Before coming to the U.S., Manal didn’t speak any English at all and she didn’t have any kind of training or skill that she could use to find employment here. Part of Wi-ACT’s challenge was to help her find something that would help her get a foothold financially and to learn the basics–be able to communicate, be able to navigate and be able to become self-sufficient.
“Many teachers help me–sometime I go for English in class in Norwalk, sometime English for home. And to [learn how to] work for sewing,” she explains. Wi-ACT also helped secure a job for Manal with Dampits International, a Wilton-based company that manufactures devices that help keep wood and stringed instruments humidified. “And much help for me study for driving–I like that!” she laughs, almost surprised at how much she really likes to drive. “I like that, and I need that for my children–sometime to go to the school, to go to shopping.” Her spirit sparkles when she laughs and you can catch the excitement of promised independence in her voice. It’s lovely to see the effect freedom and safety seems to be having.
In fact, you can see Manal relax and start to feel more at ease, just chatting with another mom about how much driving it takes to get anywhere in Wilton for kids, for errands, for work. For a moment, the banalities and minutæ of Fairfield County life becomes something precious and good, and almost normal.
Life here is clearly different than it was in Syria or Jordan. The culture change was, of course, immense, and even on the day she arrived, not knowing where she and her children would wind up, where they would live, what was waiting for them when they landed at the airport, they faced so much that was unknown.
But all that she discovered when she got here, says Manal, wasn’t what was most surprising. What was the most overwhelming was how many people were here and willing to pitch in to help her and her children. She compares what she has here now to what it was like in Jordan.
“In coming here, in New York, the surprise to see so many in the group, what they give for me and the children. There, no family. Here, they are family. So many people here in Wilton help me and the children. Sometimes cards and messages come in the mail. Many people, I say to them thank you so much,” she says getting emotional.
Wilton has stepped up to help, and the family has been embraced since day one. In addition to the many people mobilized by Wi-ACT to help the family adjust, so many more have pitched in, from the first selectman to school officials to the Police and Fire Departments, on things many of us would take for granted. For example, for Manal’s children, who have seen real-life horrors we can only imagine, it made a world of difference to get a private home visit from Wilton police officers and firefighters so that they could meet friendly uniformed officers and explore a fire truck and police car. For children who have only seen the cruelty of people in uniform before, such a simple thing can show them that life here brings with it people who want to help, not hurt them.
So many others have pitched in to help, from Community Nursery School to Create Learning Center; countless medical professionals, the Wilton Family Y, Wilton Youth Soccer, Fresh Green Light driving school, and more. People have donated furnishings and clothing, and they’ve pitched in in other ways. And Manal is more than grateful.
She looks at the people who have become part of her family’s life, and she sees them as family. Steve Hudspeth, the Wi-ACT chair who accompanies Manal to the interview has become, she says, like her father and like a grandfather to her children. They laugh about how she’s has to remind him to pronounce her name with a softer sounding ‘eh’ sound than ‘ah,’ and he’s proud of how she watched the U.S. presidential campaign and election than even he did.
“So many people, at home, in school, to see the love for my children, the help for them, people give clothes, shoes, shopping, so many people in Wilton have given us that. Coming to Wilton, they teach me English, driving, everything. I’m happy,” she says. “Thank you so much–for me, this is friend, this is my family. It’s a big family now. I love that. Thank you Wilton. Me, now I’m happy. Now there’s family.”
Day to Day Life
Days for Manal are still long and filled with hard work. She starts her days at 6 a.m., rising to get her three eldest children up and off to school. Her 3- and 5-year-old children go to pre-school and then she spends much of the day either working at Dampits or working on English. She studies intensively, working with volunteer teachers two hours a day and doing homework for three more hours. In the afternoons and evenings, she sews, making pillows and curtains to make money.
She had to learn sewing here–it was the skill she and the Wi-ACT team settled on. She’s picked it up quickly, and has become very proficient. She makes pillows of all sizes and sorts, and has become the go-to “pillow artisan” for a decorator in Ridgefield, in addition to making things to order for private customers. She also makes hand-stitched, scented pillows, decorative pillows and recovered cushions as well as curtains. She enjoys the creativity, but also the fact that her children can see her work and that she is actively doing something to make a better life for all of them.
“I need that. I need that for my house, for my children to see in their mother working for them and going to class, as a student, I need that for them,” Manal says. She says knowing that they see her being strong and able is what is important right now.
It’s a lot of work, for sure. Most usually, she doesn’t go to sleep until 1 or 2 a.m. every morning, only to start again at 6 a.m. the next day.
Her children have become acclimated very quickly, learning English and quickly catching up to their peers in school. They’ve made many friends and they have many people working to help them be comfortable. Her oldest children are also playing soccer. They love all things American, decorating their books with American flag stickers, and asking Wilton Police commissioner Don Sauvigne if he could get them an American flag of their own–which he gladly did. This country is to them a safe haven and the future.
As for what she sees in the future, Manal says whatever the future holds for herself and her children, it will be positive.
“Everybody sees for me love, and I see love. I see work and [being able to] speak English, for my children to be healthy,” she says.
*Certain identifying details, like the family’s last name, are being withheld for their protection and for the safety of their family still in the Middle East.
Wi-ACT chair Steve Hudspeth was part of the interview GOOD Morning Wilton did with Manal last week. He felt it was very important to stress how many people have played a part in helping Manal and her children become part of the Wilton community. The Wi-ACT Refugee Resettlement Subcommittee chairs include Don Weber (finance, including family budgeting); Madeleine Wilken (interfacing with governmental agencies); Char Griffin (ESL “Team Manal”); Phyllis Boozer (education/interfacing with schools); Jane Alexander (transportation); Wilken and Joanna Schubkegel (health/medical, dental and other care); Paul Breitenbach (housing and employment); Heidi Hawk (acculturation, including interpreter recruitment and assignment); Schubkegel (childcare); Alexa Schlechter (technology, including computers, internet, cell phones, and wi-fi); and Donya and Hossein Kharazi (children’s tutoring).
Several area medical professionals have helped tremendously, including Dr. Paul Keating, who has handled the entire family’s dental needs (including emergency visits); Dr. Irene Rosenberg and her husband Joe, and Dr. Abby Quinn on eye care; Dr. Jennifer Henkind, pediatrics; and Dr. Hossein Sadeghi and Dr. Golnar Raissi, both members of the Wi-ACT Steering Committee and overall medical consultants and advisors from the family’s first night of arrival at JFK.
Hudspeth also mentioned Miss Sharon Cowley from Create Learning Center; Felicia Borglum-Lamont and the Wilton soccer programs; and many, many other people for their random acts of kindness.
For anyone interested in reaching out about purchasing pillows, contact Char Griffin via email.