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Two communities come together to support Syrian family in Ledyard

Groton — Fidan Mahmud, 16, giggled as she looked around a corner in the Islamic Center of New London Sunday.

The mosque in Groton was packed with people waiting in line for food, but Fidan had surrounded herself with a group of other teenage girls restlessly walking around the house, gossiping and looking down at their iPhones as they moved from room to room.

Only weeks ago, Fidan was with her parents and siblings in Turkey, uncertain where they would end up three years after they left their home near Aleppo, Syria.

The family of five is the first to arrive in the region as refugees of the conflict in Syria that has displaced more than half of the country's population in five years.

Less than two weeks after their arrival in New Haven, the family is signed up for health insurance, learning English, and excited to start school in Ledyard in the fall.

Hassan Mahmud, Fidan's father, said Sunday that the transition from Turkey to Connecticut has been smooth.

People here have been welcoming, he said. Respectful.

Speaking through a translator Sunday, Mahmud said the family was ready to face the challenges of learning English, getting jobs and driver's licenses, and navigating the endless paperwork they'll need before they can feel truly at home.

"We came here to learn," he said. "It's just the beginning."

Members of the Ledyard Congregational Church sponsored the family's move to Gales Ferry with help from the New Haven-based Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, which helps resettle refugees across the state.

Hassan Mahmud, his wife, Fahiyma Jmoo, are renting an apartment in Ledyard with Fidan and their two other children Hanif, 15, and Fulla, 7.

The first thing on Mahmud's mind, he said Sunday, is finding a job. He worked as a truck driver in Syria, but finding a similar job in the U.S. will take a while because the Connecticut doesn't offer a driving test in Arabic.

The family will feel settled when they get the big things taken care of, Jmoo said.

"When we find work, and when all the kids start school," Jmoo said.

Hanif and Fulla will start at Ledyard High School after the summer, and Fulla will go to her first day of elementary school ever.

On Sunday, Fulla sat quietly in the Islamic Center's prayer room and listened as adults chatted above her head.

Aya Fraja of Mystic leaned over the girl and adjusted a pearl earring in her ear.

Fraja has been serving as one of several interpreters for the family as they navigate their new home.

Between interpreters or new friends from the Islamic Center and volunteers from Ledyard Congregational, the family has not gone a day without a helping hand from someone from the two communities that have welcomed them.

On Sunday morning, they went with members of the church on a bike ride at Bluff Point. The day before, they attended an international event at the Ledyard church where Hanif, who was locked into a video game on an iPhone Sunday, had covered his hands in temporary henna tattoos.

"They've been exhausted, of course," said Sara Holdridge, a member of the church who has helped drive the family to appointments in the two weeks since they arrived.

But the opportunity to help the family get over their jet lag and adjust to life in the United States is one reason the congregation wanted to find them a home right in Ledyard.

"We wouldn't have had the same personal contact," she said. "It wouldn't have been the same."

Over the summer the family will be spending a lot of time with Yomen and Zin Arnaout, sisters who have volunteered to work as interpreters for the family.

The two sisters, now students at Three Rivers Community College, immigrated from Syria almost three years ago. They said they remember what it was like to arrive in the U.S. as teenagers without anyone to talk to.

They want to make that transition easier for the Mahmud family than it was for them, they said.

Yomen, 21, said Jmoo was overjoyed to meet her at the airport in New Haven and speak Arabic.

"She said, 'I was praying the whole time to meet someone who I would be able to speak to,'" Yomen said. "They were so happy from the beginning."

The family spent Sunday surrounded by people they could speak to, and the Arnaouts have pledged to stay by their side all summer.

"It's about the smile on someone's face," said Zin, 22. "We are not asking for money, it's about letting them ... be happy."




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