At A New Jersey Mosque, People Of Different Faiths Welcome Syrians | KERA News

At A New Jersey Mosque, People Of Different Faiths Welcome Syrians

Aug 13, 2016
Originally published on August 15, 2016 2:47 pm

For Alissa Berger and her family, it was the first visit to the Dar-ul-Islam mosque in Elizabeth, N.J.

"We are from Temple Emanu-El," says Jenny Tananbaum, who came with the Bergers and refers to the nearby Jewish synagogue.

"We are here to adopt a Syrian family," says Berger. "We are going to work with a family for a year to help them." This is not a handout, she says, but practical help to upgrade inadequate housing, make sure the utilities work and help with employment and navigating American culture.

She's moved by the plight of middle-class Syrian families who lost everything in a brutal war and feels it's similar to her own family history.

"As Jews, our great-grandparents came here to start a new life," she says. "This was us, you have to remember that. It touched our hearts. Their families are like us, getting displaced. How can we not help?"

Tananbaum says her grandmother walked across Poland to escape persecution, got to Canada and eventually entered the U.S. illegally. "I get it," she says, explaining why she wants to help Syrian Muslim refugees.

The visitors take off their shoes inside the mosque and join an unusual grass-roots coalition of volunteers that includes Girl Scouts, a former refugee from Lebanon and Pakistani-born immigrant schoolteachers.

More than 8,000 Syrians have arrived in the U.S. this year, as this country accelerates a program to meet an administration goal of resettling 10,000 Syrians by the end of the government's fiscal year in October.

More than 200 Syrian refugees have been resettled in New Jersey in the past few months. That has strained official resettlement agencies, especially after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie notified the State Department that he would no longer support any refugee resettlement.

"We are not happy about that," says Berger. "It's not fair. We would like to help these people."

On a Saturday afternoon, more than 50 Syrian refugees — women and children resettled in Elizabeth — have been invited to the mosque for a party. There is a snack table, balloons and gifts for the children.

Nargis Choudhry and Saman Khan, Pakistan-born immigrants who are now teachers in New Jersey, organized the gift-giving by pairing American children at a nearby Islamic school to choose the presents for the Syrian kids. The gifts are mostly big watches, which are popular with American girls, and bows and arrows for the boys from a popular American movie.

"Hunger Games," says Khan. "After that, bows and arrows [are] so 'in' as a toy."

Khan and Choudhry acknowledge that these gifts may be unfamiliar to Syrian children recently arrived from refugee camps in the Middle East.

"They will be surprised because a lot of these things will be new for them," says Khan. "But you know what, they are going to have to live in America and they need to know what American kids like."

That's the biggest challenge for the newly arrived. The Syrians must learn English and the details of a new culture at the same time. The children get special English instruction in school. The mothers need extra help.

So Leila Esposito, a 16-year-old Girl Scout, has stepped in.

She has organized a babysitting service for the mothers who come to the mosque for English instruction. Her work is for the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest achievement in scouting that encourages girls to "change the world" through community projects.

Her friend, Shaden Awad, also working for the gold, organized a tutoring program in math and English for the kids.

"They missed, like, four years of schooling," she says, "so we are just helping them catch up and welcoming them to America."

Their Scout leader, Wafa Chabbani Esposito, Leila's mom, says she's here because she understands the pain of leaving everything behind. "They've been through hell. I have been through war and I was a refugee and I know what it means."

Born in Lebanon, Esposito fled her country's civil war and became a U.S. citizen.

She shepherds the Jewish group to make them feel welcome in their first visit to a mosque.

"'Salaam,' it's like 'Shalom,' " she says, citing the Arabic and Hebrew words for peace.

Esposito introduces the Berger family and Jenny Tananbaum to Wael Haloud and her children. Haloud, a Syrian mother of three, quietly takes in the Americans who are offering her a lifeline.

When the introductions are done, Tananbaum says, "Tell her from us, we are all people, we are all humans, we just want to help and be friends."

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We're going to hear now about Americans offering to help resettle Syrian refugees. The U.S. has increased the number of refugees coming here. Some, especially in this charged political season, say that newcomers aren't getting security screening, enough that they - aren't getting enough security screening. That wasn't a concern to a diverse group that met recently to try to lend a hand. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Here's the scene at a mosque in Elizabeth, N.J. on a recent Saturday afternoon. It's a party for more than 50 Syrian refugees - recent arrivals, all mothers and children. The volunteers to come to support them are an unlikely alliance that includes Girl Scouts, Jews from a nearby synagogue and Pakistani-born immigrants.

NARGIS CHOUDHRY: OK, Nargis Choudhry.

AMOS: Nargis.

CHOUDHRY: Nargis, yes. I'm a math teacher here.

SAMAN KHAN: Saman, Saman Khan.

AMOS: Choudhry and Khan, born in Pakistan, say they're proud to be Americans. Their kids were born here. They organize gifts for the Syrian children selected by American kids - big watches popular with girls, bows and arrows for the boys from a popular movie.

KHAN: Which one was it? Like, "Hunger Games"? So after that, bows and arrows is so in as a toy.

AMOS: But do you think they'll be surprised by some of these gifts?

KHAN: They will be surprised because, you know, a lot of things, they will be new for them. You know what? They're going to live in America. They need to know what American kids like.

AMOS: How to live in America - that's the biggest challenge after a move from crowded refugee camps and a brutal war. More are arriving every day as the Obama administration tries to meet a goal of bringing 10,000 Syrians here by the end of the fiscal year in October. The kids will learn English in school. The mothers need more help, so some 16-year-old Girl Scouts are stepping in.

LEILA ESPOSITO: I'm Leila Esposito. And for my Girl Scout project, I'm going to be doing - it'll be for the mothers who take their ESL here.

AMOS: That's English class.


AMOS: Her friend, Shaden Awad, organized a tutoring program in math for the kids.

SHADEN AWAD: They missed, like, four years of schooling. So we're just, you know, helping them catch up and stuff and, like, welcoming them to America.

AMOS: A wider welcome that's been strained, she believes, because Syrian refugees are Muslim. So Awad launched a cultural awareness program in her high school.

AWAD: You know, Islamophobia on the rise and stuff like that, so - 'cause I live in a purely Caucasian, suburban town.

AMOS: Are you the only Muslim in your high school?

AWAD: One of, like, two. The other one's my brother, so (laughter) yeah.

AMOS: Their scout leader, Wafa Chabbani Esposito, says she's here because she knows what it means to leave everything behind. Born in Lebanon, she fled her country's civil war, eventually became an American citizen.

WAFA CHABBANI ESPOSITO: They have been through hell. I have been through war, and I was a refugee, and I know what it means.

AMOS: And she knows how to make the Jewish group feel welcome in their first ever visit to a mosque.

W. ESPOSITO: Salaam is like shalom. Salaam. Salaam like shalom.

AMOS: Alissa Berger is here with her daughter and husband. Jenny Tananbaum came, too, all from the same nearby synagogue. They've volunteered to mentor one Syrian family for a year. Berger and then Tananbaum explained why they are here at a time when New Jersey's governor has raised security concerns and halted any cooperation with the federal resettlement program.

ALISSA BERGER: Which is very - oh, we're not happy about that at all. I think that - listen, as us being Jews, this was us how many years ago. You know, as Jews, our great-grandparents came to this country to make a new life for themselves. And that's what these people are going through.

JENNY TANANBAUM: My grandmother actually walked out of Poland across Europe to Amsterdam because she had to flee persecution, took a boat illegally to get to Canada and came into - illegally into the United States. So I get it. You know, I heard her story. So this is no different than these people. So how can we not help?

AMOS: Moved by the biggest refugee crisis in a generation, they plan to give practical help - advice on banking and budget, housing and utilities that work. It's a large donation of time more valuable than any handouts. Wafa Esposito makes the introductions.

W. ESPOSITO: Um Wael Haloud (foreign language spoken) Madame Jenny.

AMOS: Um Wael Haloud, a Syrian mother of three, quietly takes in the Americans who are offering a lifeline.

TANANBAUM: Tell her from us that we are all people. We are all humans. We just want to help and be friends.

BERGER: Yeah, yeah.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Elizabeth, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.