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N.J. Church Group To Resettle Syrian Refugee Family With Special Needs


Over the last year, the U.S. has taken in about 11,000 Syrians. It's a small number compared to the 5 million who have fled Syria's long civil war. Today, we start a journey with one Syrian family and the New Jersey church group that's committed to helping them forge a new life in America. NPR's Deborah Amos has been following the family and the church members. We'll hear the first of three reports in just a couple of minutes. But first, Deb joins us to tell us more about her reporting. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: And, Deb, of course, this resettlement of Syrians here in America is a very sensitive political issue at this point in time, isn't it?

AMOS: It is. Many Americans and U.S. politicians oppose resettlement of Syrians because they say some could be a security risk. The administration and their allies in Congress say the security vetting is rigorous for refugees, enhanced for Syrians. And Canada referred to U.S. security files to resettle 25,000 Syrians this year. So they trust there's a lot of information in those files.

MONTAGNE: And what do we know about the Syrians who have come here so far?

AMOS: About 78 percent of them are women and children, and they've been resettled in 38 states.

MONTAGNE: And how did this particular family, the one you're going to tell us about, how did they get here, and how were they connected to this church in Princeton, N.J.?

AMOS: Renee, it's important to know that religious groups in the country have always played a large role in refugee resettlement. The nine official resettlement agencies, most have connections to religious communities, including Catholics, Jews, evangelicals and Mormons. I've been following Nassau Presbyterian Church. They've been resettling refugees for 50 years.

This is their 10th family. And when the surge of Syrians arrived, an official resettlement agency asked them if they could take this particular case. The father is blind, wounded in the war. Most refugees have to work within months of arriving in America. It's unlikely that he can. The refugee agency said, if you can't take him, he can't come to America with his family. So they agreed to do it. We start the story when the family is introduced to the congregation.


AMOS: On May 29, a bright Sunday morning, a Syrian Muslim family sits in the front pews of Nassau Presbyterian Church and hears something unusual for a refugee - words of welcome.

TOM CHARLES: Good morning, everyone. Most of you are aware the Nassau church has a long tradition of sponsoring refugees.

AMOS: That's Tom Charles, part of the church's official resettlement team. This is the start of a huge commitment for these ordinary Americans. Nassau Church is sponsoring this one Syrian refugee family for at least a year. It's kind of like an adoption, really, to help integrate the outsiders. It's a high-pressure good deed at a time when polls show a majority of the country doesn't want to let Syrians in.

CHARLES: The father, Osama, a calm and resilient man, is blind, injured by a mortar attack while visiting his uncle's home back in 2012. The mother, Ghada, is a gracious hostess, preparing Turkish coffee for all visitors.

AMOS: Ghada weeps as she listens to words she barely understands. It's been a long journey for the family - three years as refugees in Jordan. It's the first time in a church for the four young children. For the Nassau Church team, they've been preparing for this moment for months.


AMOS: That's when I started following them to tell this story, as they worked out a sponsorship that includes financial and practical support - help with housing, school enrollment, language classes and finding work.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How can I help you?

AMOS: Do you know where Tom might be?

The core group is huddled around a desk in the church's back office.

CHARLES: Tom Charles - I'm a bank consultant.

SUE JENNINGS: Sue Jennings - I'm retired, so I'm a mother and a grandma (laughter).

LAUREN VALVANIS: Lauren Valvanis - I'm a stay-at-home mom with two young kids.

AMOS: The church has secured a donated house rent-free for a year. An army of volunteers stocked it with donated furniture, food and clothing. Still, the team is anxious, having sleepless nights, says Lauren Valvanis.

VALVANIS: So last night I had a dream that the family arrived, and the mother of the group spoke English. And she went into the house and was disapproving of everything. Oh, this isn't well done. And this is not - there's not enough of this, and why don't I have any of this?

AMOS: The anxiety because much of this planning is guesswork. The Syrian family has been through multiple security checks. The State Department approved the resettlement. An official refugee agency arranged the flight. But the church group only gets the basics - four children, two adults, father blind, no English. Tom Charles is frustrated.

CHARLES: What we know is what's on the profile. There's a bit of a narrative about his vision issue, but that's about it.

AMOS: So they don't know anything about you either.

CHARLES: They know nothing about us - nothing at all. So they're arriving at an airport. They've only been told that someone will greet you.

JENNINGS: It really makes you respect their courage because trusting myself to other people's good graces - I just can't imagine it.

AMOS: Good graces is what this church is all about - 50 years of resettling Cubans, Vietnamese, Bosnians and Iraqis. It's an expression of faith, the teachings in the Gospels, says Senior Pastor Dave Davies. When dire headlines described the Syrian refugee crisis as a human catastrophe, the church stepped up again. But then came terrorist attacks in Paris and Orlando. Some in the community here outside the church asked, is doing good a bad thing?

DAVID DAVIS: It feels different to know that there are those in the community who think we're doing the wrong thing. Yeah, that feels different.

AMOS: And in a way, it's a challenge to a majority of state governors who want to block all Syrians because they say some could be dangerous.

DAVIS: To think that one Muslim Syrian family could be a threat is just irrational to me, given that the vetting process that actually is in place that folks say is not, but the security clearances are significant. I do think that if we had somehow been asked to support a Syrian Christian family, of which there are so few actually coming as refugees, that the response would have been qualitatively different.

AMOS: With the arrival days away, I meet Sue Jennings at the donated house. The one thing she knows about the Syrian family - the father was blinded in the war.

JENNINGS: Hi. I remembered my key.

AMOS: So she's recruited Sue Tillett - blind since birth - to check out the house.

JENNINGS: Oh, there's a rail here.

SUE TILLETT: Oh, OK. So what the hell's with this?

JENNINGS: You could fall off there.

TILLETT: That's a bad idea for him. You're talking about somebody without any blind skills.

AMOS: Jennings has been through other versions of this story. She's still close to refugee families resettled here decades ago. This time, it will be different. Syrians will be closely watched in this political climate. The team has to make sure the family adjusts, isn't a burden, doesn't get into trouble. For now, Jennings focuses on what she knows - the problems all refugees face.

JENNINGS: You know, they all fall into the same categories. They're lonely. Language is a problem. The kids may get - have influences that the parents aren't happy about in this culture. So we'll see.

AMOS: On arrival day, Jennings and Tom Charles are finally able to match faces to the official forms. Still, they find the family hard to read, exhausted by the long flight. But it's clear from what they brought with them they had no idea that they would get any help at all.

CHARLES: It just has to be overwhelming.

JENNINGS: Yeah. The one surprise was we had assumed they'd have no luggage or not much, but they had tons of luggage. And I thought, what is all this stuff? The suitcases were full of food, so that says something about the anxiety and the uncertainty of, you know, coming here.

AMOS: A week after that first awkward airport greeting, Tom Charles introduces the family to the congregation - Osama, Ghada and four young children - two girls, two boys. The parents have asked that NPR not reveal their last names, fearing for the safety of family still in Syria.

CHARLES: The family's presence has been a blessing for all of us. Please welcome them to Nassau.


AMOS: Now, it's Osama's turn to speak.

OSAMA: Good morning.

AMOS: Good morning, he says, and switches to Arabic to say thank you.

OSAMA: (Speaking Arabic).

AMOS: He doesn't say this - he's the only survivor of a bomb blast that blinded him. His home and his country are in ruins. He's heard that the arrival of Syrians, Muslims like him, is controversial in America. He simply tells them this welcome is more than we expected. And then he adds, I hope we don't disappoint anyone.

OSAMA: (Speaking Arabic).

Thank you.


AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Princeton, N.J.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We refer to the senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church as "Dave Davies." In fact, his name is David Davis.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 14, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio of this report, we refer to the senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church as "Dave Davies." In fact, his name is David Davis.
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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