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Lyme senior siblings stay together through refugee journey, find new community

Lyme — For Lyme-Old Lyme High School seniors Kamber and Darin Hamou, the last four years have been a lesson about the importance of family both at home and within a community.

Having grown up in Aleppo, Syria, the siblings escaped the country as refugees in 2013 with their parents, Hani and Yadiz, as well as their younger brother, Mohammad, who is now 15, after the Syrian civil war broke out.

Before arriving in Lyme in May 2016, the family endured and fled from bombing attacks in their neighborhood, crossed the Syrian-Turkish border while fearing they would be shot by Turkish border police, and lived for three years in Istanbul while awaiting news of their resettlement to the United States.

Now residents of Lyme, Darin and Kamber, who are 21 and 20 respectively, said they did not attend school for five years before arriving in the United States, as schools in Syria closed once the war began and they were not allowed to attend Turkish schools as refugees. While living in Istanbul, the siblings instead worked labor-intensive jobs for little pay to help their family get by.

“It was the most uncertain time of our lives,” Kamber said. “But we did not lose hope and we also stuck together.”

Staying together as a family, Darin said, was the "most important thing for us."

So when the siblings said the family got word they would be relocated to the United States, they were shocked and excited but also unsure what their new lives would bring, especially in terms of school.

“We didn’t know any English at all. We could not understand it, we could not read it,”  Darin said, explaining the siblings only knew how to read the Arabic alphabet and could only speak Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish before arriving. Neither had studied past a middle school level, they said.

“We didn’t even know what a fraction was when we arrived,” Kamber added. “We didn’t know what to expect.”

Since arriving, however, the siblings said they have flourished over the last four years. Now fluent in English, both have plans to attend college and follow their dreams of becoming working professionals in the United States. Coming to Lyme-Old Lyme High School, they said, has given them the opportunity to learn and thrive in life and the chance, they said, to discover a new family in their high school community.

Both said they were stunned by the way they were embraced by their community and supported to succeed in school, both from teachers and peers.

"Everything was better than we expected," Kamber said.

Besides experiencing immense support from the wider Lyme-Old Lyme community — the Hamou family was resettled and sponsored by three Old Lyme churches: Christ the King, the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme and St. Ann's Episcopal church through the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven — Darin and Kamber said the school district has gone above and beyond to ensure the two would not only learn English, but also excel in other subjects.

Kamber, who is planning to study computer science at the University of Connecticut this fall, said he completed calculus courses in high school and has discovered he has a natural affinity for math and science.

After taking new computer programming courses at the school the past two years and repairing computers for the district the past three summers, he said he's discovered a love for computer programming and cybersecurity — sparking the idea to pursue a career in the field.

Darin, who is planning to study nursing at Three Rivers Community College this fall, said she hopes to become a pediatric nurse after she discovered her love for children while working after school at the Old Lyme Children’s Learning Center throughout her freshman, junior and senior years.

And while she said she is most thankful to have learned English, she also said she was grateful to have the opportunity to tap into her artistic inclinations by taking several art courses in school and joining the school’s Women’s Ensemble her junior year, as well as the school’s Show Choir this past year.

Before becoming a member of the Show Choir, Darin recounted an opportunity to work closely with the school's choral director, Kristine Pekar, and the Show Choir to write and choreograph a production based on her experiences as a refugee, as well as growing up in and fleeing from Syria. Darin directly took part in the production by teaching the Show Choir an Arabic lullaby her mother had sung to her, as well as helping the group put the show together.

The show was performed for the Lyme-Old Lyme community in January 2019, bringing to life her story in front of her new community — one of her favorite high school memories, she said.

“As native Arabic speakers, to do what they have done, as quickly and as well as they have done, is truly extraordinary,” said the siblings' English as a second language teacher, Jim Norton, who also helped them in other courses. “The fact that they are both going on to college and take full credit loads is mind-boggling. ... They were model students and model citizens. The community made bridges to them and they were so open to that.”

School Principal James Wygonik said, “They have taken advantage of everything we have here to better themselves, that’s what’s inspiring.”

“These two kids who came from nothing and to now learn a new language and flourish, is incredible,” he said. “They’ve been quite an inspiration to a lot of people.”

Reflecting on their time in school, Kamber and Darin said that while keeping their own family together and strong has remained at the forefront of their lives since the Syrian civil war broke out, they said they feel lucky to have discovered new family both in their school and in the community.

The high school community “gave us so much," Kamber said, expressing gratitude for his teachers, experiences and opportunities. "We have learned perseverance here and about working hard."

“Now we know English,” Darin added, "We are ready to step forward.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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