Resettlement efforts translate to smiles as refugees give thanks
Ledyard — They may have only met a few months ago, but the refugee families and community of translators and volunteers who filled St. David's Episcopal Church for a potluck dinner in Gales Ferry on Saturday evening seemed like old friends.
Laughing and hugging, they greeted each other and sat down at tables decorated with autumn leaves to talk and share dishes from lemon orzo to zucchini eggplant parmesan. Many wore nametags with their names written in both English and Arabic.
Five refugee families living in the region gathered together with more than 100 volunteers from the different civic and religious groups who helped sponsor them at the potluck dinner to share stories and give thanks.
Before the dinner, Ahmad Kabny, a Syrian refugee living in New London with his wife and five children, gave a speech expressing his "deep gratitude."
In words translated into English by volunteer interpreter Joumana Hajj, he thanked the people, groups and government who welcomed them in the country "where everybody respects and loves us."
Speaking through translator Holly Popa Khader in an interview, Ahmad Kabny said the family had been a little nervous at first as they would be coming to a new country with a new language, but he said the experience has been everything they hoped for.
The family — co-sponsored through Start Fresh Inc., a volunteer-based group — is studying English and looking for jobs, and is happy the children are going to school and getting an education, he said.
"We feel very happy, and it feels very welcoming," Kabny said as he sat a table with his wife, Halima Issa, and their son, Mohammad, 17.
Speaking through a translator, Hani Hamou and his wife, Yadiz, who are from Syria and have been living in Lyme with their three children since May, said in an interview that the people here "give from their hearts" and they thanked the Lyme-Old Lyme community.
Three churches in Old Lyme, the First Congregational Church, St. Ann's Episcopal Church and Christ the King helped resettle the family.
Hani Hamou has found a job and all three children are happy and in school, they said.
Yadiz Hamou said her hopes for the future are that her children are safe and educated so they can become something one day.
Their son, Mohamed Hamou, 12, who joined his parents at the table during the interview, plays soccer and has learned English and multiplication in school.
Mohamed, who also speaks Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish, spoke in English and said he has made "a lot of friends."
Civic and religious groups co-sponsored the refugee families, who are living in New London, Ledyard, Lyme and Norwich, through the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven.
Start Fresh welcomed the Kabny family, as well as a Sudanese family of six.
The Greater Norwich Welcome Group, a coalition of churches in the Greater Norwich area, is assisting a family from Syria, and the Ledyard Congregational Church also helped a Syrian family.
Chris George, executive director of IRIS, said in a phone interview Saturday that the agency anticipates it will resettle about 500 refugees this year — double the number it assisted last year.
So far this year, IRIS has placed refugee families with 31 community groups across the state under a co-sponsorship model in which the agency trains the groups to help resettle the families, he said.
At Saturday's potluck, which was attended by 150 people, Ron Ward, co-leader of Start Fresh, said the volunteers' involvement is about humanitarian efforts to help people who experienced horrible conditions.
"I think the caring and hospitability of the civic groups and faith communities is just so evident in how many people have come out tonight to this event," he said.
Charlotte Harrison, an intern with Start Fresh and a junior at Connecticut College, said she enjoys directly helping the families and wants to work in the future on resettling refugees.
"They've been through so much, but they're so optimistic, so working directly with them is a very rewarding experience," she said.