Norwich volunteer group sponsors Norwich's first Syrian refugee family

Norwich – Since this past spring, nearly two dozen volunteers from churches throughout the greater Norwich area have been meeting, raising funds and attending training in New Haven to prepare to sponsor the first Syrian refugee family to settle in Norwich.

On Sept. 14, the efforts of the Greater Norwich Welcome Group came to fruition, when members traveled to New Haven to meet a Syrian couple newly arrived from Jordan. Nearly three weeks later, on Oct. 3, group members returned to New Haven to greet the parents and 13-year-old sibling of one of the first arrivals.

“They're lovely,” said Sara Ofner-Seals, pastor of the Park Congregational Church and Welcome Group member. “They're very welcoming. It's odd to say ‘they're very welcoming,’ but when you go to see them, they immediately have you sit down, bring you coffee, pastries. They are extremely grateful to be here, extremely happy to be here. They’re very eager to learn the language and find a job so they can contribute. They're just incredibly kind, warm people. It's been a joy.”

Welcome Group members will not discuss details of the family’s situation, their residence or their experiences in Syria and their two- to-three-year stay in Jordan prior to their arrival in the United States.

Norwich area volunteers started working on sponsoring a refugee family after officials from the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services spoke at a meeting of the Greater Norwich Area Clergy Association in January at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich.

In July, the volunteers created the Greater Norwich Welcome Group – choosing the name to avoid any specific religious affiliation, primary group leader Deb Gienau of Uncasville said.

The group raised $8,500, and in August, 14 members attended mandatory training by IRIS in New Haven.

“By the end of August, we put ourselves in ‘green status’” Gienau said, “meaning we were ready to accept a family.”

Greg Marino, IRIS co-sponsorship coordinator, said groups in "green" can expect to be assigned a family within two weeks. The local volunteers should be ready to find the family immediate housing, assist with enrolling in English classes, help the children enroll in school and be ready to search for jobs.

Gienau said the group met little resistance in its effort to raise funds and received donations of furniture and other assistance for the family. The apartment was furnished and was ready the day before the family arrived. Wayside Furniture in Waterford offered three mattress sets at store cost, Gienau said, and Self Storage Solutions in Waterford donated use of a truck to bring the bedding to Norwich.

“This has been a very joyous experience ever since it started,” Gienau said.

On Saturday, the Norwich family and four other refugee families living in New London, Norwich, Lyme and Ledyard, came together with the volunteers from the civic and religious groups who helped resettle them at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Gales Ferry.

IRIS, which has settled about 450 families throughout Connecticut in its last fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, asks volunteer groups to commit to assisting its sponsor families for at least six months and to be involved with the leased property for at least a year – figuring that most leases run for a year, Marino said.

Before the family moves into the apartment, volunteers work with a translator to label numerous common items in both English and Arabic – including light switches, hot and cold water faucets, heating unit switches and stove controls. Families also are given a cellphone and instructions for calling police and fire. IRIS also recommends the volunteer groups alert local fire and police departments of the family’s presence.

All families received physical exams prior to traveling to the United States, Marino said. Anyone with active tuberculosis would be denied travel and travel could be delayed for those with other certain medical conditions. Once families are settled in Connecticut, the state Department of Public Health requires them to have medical exams.

Marino said the families have U.S. “refugee status” and soon after settling, will receive employment authorization cards -- Red Cards. Those also serve as a federal IDs until Green Cards are processed, Marino said.

There is another immediate welcoming requirement the U.S. State Department puts on the local group. The day after their arrival, the family must be provided with “a culturally appropriate hot meal,” Marino said.

“Fortunately, the local Syrian community comes out for this,” Marino said. “There’s a reason everyone loves Syrian food. It’s so delicious.”

c.bessette@theday.com

The Greater Norwich Welcome Group seeks donations of cash and Kohls stores gift cards to assist a Syrian family newly settled in Norwich.

Write checks made out to Park Congregational Church, with "Refugee resettlement" in memo line and send to Park Congregational Church, 283 Broadway, Norwich, CT 06360.

The group also is looking for volunteers to help tutor English.

Contact Pastor Sara Ofner-Seals at (860) 887-3747.

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