Safe from Syria war, family embracing new home in Ledyard

Rich Denton, a volunteer from Ledyard Congregational Church, works on math skills with Hanif Mahmoud, 15, during English lessons July 22 at the family's Ledyard home. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Rich Denton, a volunteer from Ledyard Congregational Church, works on math skills with Hanif Mahmoud, 15, during English lessons July 22 at the family's Ledyard home. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Ledyard — Fidan Mahmoud's thoughts of home and enthusiasm for the future in a new country are united by one aspiration.

Speaking through her friend Lein Arnaout, who also left Syria with her family at the outset of the civil war, Fidan answers questions about her new life in America, punctuating them with the Arabic word for school, madrasa.

"I'm excited for school," the 17-year-old said. She smiled and added in English, "So much."

"New friends, new school — I haven't been to school in four years," she said through her friend and translator.

Under the pavilion at Colonel Ledyard Park on a hot Thursday evening, Fidan kept close to Arnaout, the pair sharing messages on their phones while Fidan's father, Hasan Mahmoud, helped move tables around for a picnic.

Fidan's mother, Fahima Jemmo, kept a careful eye on the youngest child, Fulla, 7, who had run after a kickball punted high into the air by her brother, Hanif, 15, who was fresh out of soccer practice with the Ledyard team.

Only 4 when her family fled Syria, Fulla has never been formally educated.

Now in America thanks to the sponsorship of the Ledyard Congregational Church, whose dedicated core group of volunteers has raised money, found housing and continues to help the family as they become accustomed to life in a new country, Fulla will attend public school for the first time in the fall.

Hope for a better future and an education for their children put Mahmoud and Jemmo on the path out of Syria to Turkey and then finally America — a destination Jemmo said they never even dreamed of.

"We hope to provide a good future, a good education, good medical treatment — these things weren't able to be provided in Syria and Turkey," she said.

Leaving home

The decision to leave their home was not easy, Mahmoud and Fidan said, speaking through translators Yomen and Zin Arnaout.

The Arnaout sisters are students at Three Rivers Community College and are working through an internship set up by the Rotary Club to continue their translating duties and help with English lessons.

The Mahmoud family comes from a small town, Kafr-Safra, only miles from the Turkish border. They moved a few years ago to Afrin, in the Kurdish northeast of Syria, to build their own home.

But when the war broke out in Aleppo, a city about 25 miles from Afrin, as Mahmoud explained, it became difficult to get enough food to feed his family. The house project was abandoned.

He held out hope to stay in Syria, but it soon became impossible.

"Anybody could face the same thing (and think): 'I'm going to stay for the last minute,'" Mahmoud said. "If it wasn't a difficult situation or condition, I wouldn't have left Aleppo."

As minority Kurds in Syria, they had no passports and could not legally leave the country, which forced them to pay people who knew the routes into Turkey.

"We were thinking, 'Are we going to go through or are we going (back) to Aleppo?' because it was dangerous to go illegally to Turkey," Mahmoud said.

For two years and seven months, the family waited in Ïzmir, a coastal town in Turkey. 

Mahmoud worked at a shoe factory as a manager, which required him to stand for 12 hours a day, while the older two children found work to support the family. Fidan, the oldest daughter, worked as a translator.

In the course of their stay, as the civil war in Syria worsened, Mahmoud said many of the family's friends gave up waiting and traveled by sea to Greece and then to Europe.

"A lot of people, they died when they were trying to go to Europe," he said through a translator. "I was thinking about my kids, it was very dangerous ... I'm not going to take this risk and put my life and my family (in) danger."

The family applied via an extensive interview process to travel out of Turkey through the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.

After a year and a half, they heard they had been selected, according to Zin Arnaout, the translator.

"I was able to wait ... and not put my family in danger like that," Mahmoud said.

Outreach from Ledyard

Meanwhile, in southeastern Connecticut, the struggle of those like the Mahmoud family and the images of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea struggling to reach Europe strongly affected members of the Ledyard Congregational Church.

In particular, the image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned on the journey from Turkey to Greece galvanized the church's will to do something, the Rev. Catriona Grant said.

The church was interested in doing more service and outreach.

Grant approached the New London-area clergy association and Start Fresh, which was working with the Integrated Immigrant and Refugee Services as part of the "10-in-10" plan to bring 10 families to 10 communities in Connecticut.

IRIS sponsors refugee resettlement in New Haven, where it is based, and facilitates co-sponsorship programs across the state, helping community- and faith-based groups like the Ledyard Congregational Church navigate the process of refugee resettlement.

For older members of the congregation, their memories of sponsoring a family from Laos led them to raise the possibility of sponsoring a family that was struggling to leave the chaos in Syria.

"It was such a high point where they said, 'let's try and do this again,'" Grant said.

Those members undertook the enormous responsibility of preparing for the family's arrival, including raising thousands of dollars to support the family for the first six months — after that, they are expected to support themselves — setting up services for the family, as well as finding furniture and the Gales Ferry home the family now occupies.

For Sara and Dave Holdridge, who coordinated the church's mission committee that oversaw the family's arrival and are doing much of the scheduling for the translators and lessons and everyday errands, their will to help is rooted in Christain teachings.

"Jesus didn't say the strangers had to be Americans or Christians, and we fall back on those teachings," Dave Holdridge said. "If you asked any of our group why you're doing that, you'll hear something similar."

Language barrier

For the Mahmoud family, the time between finding out they would be coming to America and getting on a plane was only a few short weeks.

Jemmo said through a translator that it felt like packing for a month, rather than moving. Among the few items she packed were some rice and cracked wheat (bulgar).

"I knew it was a new country," the mother of three said, "and maybe at the beginning I wouldn't be able (to get) the food that we used to have."

They were all nervous that they would not meet anyone that spoke their language, or be able to support themselves in their new country.

"When we met (the translators, Yomen and Zin) it was so helpful and made us so happy. I felt like from the very first time I met them, they were going to be family because they welcomed me as family," Mahmoud said.

In the first weeks, scheduling became a 40-hour-a-week job for the Holdridges.

They coordinated with their daughter Vicky to provide regular English lessons for the family, rides to and from doctor's appointments, the bank and the grocery store, and even sightseeing and fun around the area, including a visit to Ledyard's Memorial Day parade, the Mystic Aquarium, Bluff Point and a performance of the Coast Guard Band.

The Holdridges manage an email thread that provides updates on how the family members are doing, what they need and what support the congregation can give.

They'll request things like a dehumidifier and, within a few minutes, they'll have two.

"It's everyone's project and everyone can be part of it," Sara Holdridge said.

For now, English lessons consume the church volunteers.

For the Mahmoud children, their daily lessons — games, workbooks, writing stories — are a crash course. They will enter Ledyard public schools in a few short weeks.

Their parents must use translators to understand bills, fill out paperwork and talk to their doctor.

On a Thursday afternoon in June, the family gathered after an English lesson, joking with volunteers Bonnie and Rich Denton and Vicky Holdridge.

Vicky oversees the English lessons and teaches English as a Second Language at Three Rivers Community College. She enlisted Yomen and Zin's help.

Jemmo offered a shirt she'd made for Yomen as a thank-you gift.

Already speaking Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish, and having already had English lessons in Syria, Fidan joked with Yomen that "there's no more space in our mind (for) English."

Listening to the volunteers speaking in English with Yomen and Zin, Mahmoud is more optimistic.

"Our wish is one day to talk all of these words ourselves," he said.

Mahmoud and Jemmo have attended New London Adult Education classes several times a week, but that program will end this month.

Lacking English can be a barrier to many secure jobs, and is an obstacle when it comes to getting a driver's license, as the test is not offered in Arabic.

This is of particular importance to Mahmoud, who hopes to drive as soon as he can.

He works a few times a week at The House of Pizza in Quaker Hill, prepping pizzas and sandwiches. His lack of English has prevented him from working directly with customers or communicating much with his co-workers, but he said he hopes to advance quickly.

Hopeful

As the picnic ended and the children scattered, their parents noted how fast time has passed since they arrived in America.

It has felt much shorter than three months, they said — they have family members back home that they miss. Fidan has sent emails daily about how much they miss their relatives overseas.

But the family has remained hopeful. They want to learn English and support themselves — like other families, Mahmoud said.

For everything that her parents have given to her, Fidan's aspirations are to one day return the favor. The 17-year-old wants to be an engineer, to help realize her father's dream.

"I want to build a house, especially for my Dad," she said. "It's the first thing I want to do."

n.lynch@theday.com 

Editor's Note: The names of the family members have been anglicized and the spellings appear differently here than in earlier reporting.

Volunteer Sara Holdridge, top center, works on English lessons with members of the Mahmoud family, clockwise from top left, Fidan, 17, Hanif, 15, Fahima Jemmo and Hasan Mahmoud, Wednesday at the family's home in Ledyard. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Volunteer Sara Holdridge, top center, works on English lessons with members of the Mahmoud family, clockwise from top left, Fidan, 17, Hanif, 15, Fahima Jemmo and Hasan Mahmoud, Wednesday at the family's home in Ledyard. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fulla Mahmoud, 7, left, and her sister, Fidan, 17, right, lean in close to their mother, Fahima Jemmo, during discussions around the dining room table following English lessons June 30 in the family's Ledyard home. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fulla Mahmoud, 7, left, and her sister, Fidan, 17, right, lean in close to their mother, Fahima Jemmo, during discussions around the dining room table following English lessons June 30 in the family's Ledyard home. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fulla Mahmoud waves goodbye to Ledyard Congregational Church volunteer Rich Denton June 30 as he leaves the Mahmoud family's Ledyard home after English lessons. Hasan Mahmoud and Fahima Jemmo and their children, Fulla, Fidan, 17, and Hanif, 15, are refugees from the conflict in Syria and lived for three years in Turkey before receiving approval to come to the United States, with sponsorship by the Ledyard church. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fulla Mahmoud waves goodbye to Ledyard Congregational Church volunteer Rich Denton June 30 as he leaves the Mahmoud family's Ledyard home after English lessons. Hasan Mahmoud and Fahima Jemmo and their children, Fulla, Fidan, 17, and Hanif, 15, are refugees from the conflict in Syria and lived for three years in Turkey before receiving approval to come to the United States, with sponsorship by the Ledyard church. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Hasan Mahmud carries pans of pre-rolled pizza dough July 22 as part of his job at House of Pizza on Old Norwich Road in Waterford. Mahmoud is working to improve his English language skills with goals of getting a driver's license and improving at work. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Hasan Mahmud carries pans of pre-rolled pizza dough July 22 as part of his job at House of Pizza on Old Norwich Road in Waterford. Mahmoud is working to improve his English language skills with goals of getting a driver's license and improving at work. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Hanif Mahmoud, 15, is introduced to his new teammates by Ledyard soccer coach Bill Glenney on July 21 following a pre-season workout at Ledyard High School. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Hanif Mahmoud, 15, is introduced to his new teammates by Ledyard soccer coach Bill Glenney on July 21 following a pre-season workout at Ledyard High School. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fulla Mahmoud listens to English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher Sara Weeks, not pictured, as her parents, Hasan Mahmoud and Fahima Jemmo, attend class July 27 at New London Adult and Continuing Education. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fulla Mahmoud listens to English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher Sara Weeks, not pictured, as her parents, Hasan Mahmoud and Fahima Jemmo, attend class July 27 at New London Adult and Continuing Education. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fidan Mahmoud, 17, breaks into laughter as she practices her English skills with a conversation in which she invites Ledyard Congregational Church volunteer Bonnie Denton to her birthday party, July 22 at the family's Ledyard home. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fidan Mahmoud, 17, breaks into laughter as she practices her English skills with a conversation in which she invites Ledyard Congregational Church volunteer Bonnie Denton to her birthday party, July 22 at the family's Ledyard home. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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