Day One, Thursday May 11
A Lutheran Social Service caseworker, two NPC staff members and three NPC volunteers, including Derek Hoffmann, who speaks Arabic, gathered in the international arrivals area of Dulles airport with our hearts in our hands, waiting to meet the refugee family for whom we have prayed. Other than a family of four coming off a Turkish Air flight from Istanbul, we had no idea what or whom to expect! Meanwhile, the family was sailing through customs and passport control on the wings of your prayers. They went through so quickly that there was a moment of confusion in finding each other, but we soon did. There was a palpable sense of joy, relief, and nervousness all at once!
Suddenly, “the refugee family” became four real people: The dad Sif (rhymes with life) who is 39, the mom Laila who is 32, their son Riban (RAY-bahn) who will turn 10 on May 21), and their son Rizan (RAY-zahn) who is 7. They are Syrian nationals of Kurdish ethnicity and Sunni Muslim religious background, who come from the northeastern part of Syria. They are warm, remarkably modern and thrilled to begin a new life in America. At the airport, Sif told Derek that after they fled to Turkey, many friends told them that they should try to find a place to go in Europe, but that he wanted to persevere through the process of applying to come to the U.S., because he loves this country.
After introductions, we piled everyone and their suitcases into our cars and drove to the aptly named Extended Stay America in Gaithersburg, MD, which would be their home for the first 10 days. NPC volunteers stocked the refrigerator and even had a donated laptop computer set up so that they could reach out to let family members abroad know they were safe.
Day 2, Friday May 12
Already getting to work on the tasks at hand! Accompanied by Ruthie Lovejoy, who speaks Arabic, we took the family to sign some papers at the leasing office of the apartment that will be their real home. The apartment is in Rockville, MD. We searched for a 2 bedroom apartment that would be safe, affordable, and accessible to public transportation and good schools. They had a chance to see the apartment, and they were delighted—except for a brief moment when Laila, proving herself to be exactly like moms everywhere, worried about how she would keep the beige carpet clean with two active boys! The apartment venture was followed by a get-acquainted dinner at Lebanese Taverna Café.
Day 3, Saturday May 13:
NPC’s own Nancy Fox and Kris Tockman held a training session and cultural orientation at the church for NPC volunteers. We learned lots of interesting things about the assumptions we make as Americans, and little things that can be considered rude to a Middle Easterner, such as turning the sole of your foot toward someone. Nancy also led a thoughtful discussion on the do’s and don’ts of sharing our faith with our new friends. Happily, she told us that they will be comfortable if we talk about our faith—a strong, motivating religious identity is assumed to be part of who someone is.
Saturday afternoon, the agenda was to acquire a working cell phone and basic cell service. Cell phones are essential for most of us, but especially so for them to call a translator, seek help if they are lost, and have a number to use when job hunting.
Day 4, Sunday May 14
Before the family arrived, we thought they might like one of their first outings to be to a store (we were thinking Target) to get clothes, shoes or personal items. Wrong! They wanted to get the boys outdoors to play! Accompanied by David Mack, another NPC member who speaks Arabic (we are so blessed!), and the DeSarbo family, we went to the Montgomery County soccerplex, a giant park in Germantown, MD with 24 full size soccer fields. We found an empty one, set up some makeshift goals, and soon, Sif, the boys and the DeSarbos had an energetic pick-up game going. Sif and the boys were so happy! David Mack and mom Laila decided to sit this one out, which gave them time for a preliminary lesson on American currency and coins.
After the soccerplex, we took them on their first trip to an American supermarket, specifically the Giant closest to their permanent apartment. It was fascinating to see a grocery store through their eyes, and a little overwhelming. There is organic produce and regular produce, which looks the same, but has different prices. There are store brands and name brands of the same thing, at different prices. There is cheese in at least 3 different sections of the store. And then there are sale prices, but you have to fill out a form to get a card to get the sale prices! Nonetheless, it was a great reminder of how much we take for granted. Mom Laila was happy to choose a 5 pound bag of potatoes and some other basics, and try tortillas to see if they might come close to their familiar flatbread.
Earlier on Sunday, when we were getting ready to go to the soccerplex, David Mack was explaining who all these volunteers are. He told them that we are Christians and we are a church; and we are helping them because it is what our Savior Jesus commanded us to do and expects us to do. I love that people, not a building, are their first impression of American Christianity!
Day 5, Monday May 15
Another practical day. There was a laundry lesson with Claire Levy, and an English lesson with NPC member Joyce Martin. At first, they need to learn simple spoken phrases that will help them when they are out and about. The family is so eager to learn! They say “thank you” all the time, and they try to repeat phrases we say. They understand that English is essential to their survival and success here. On May 30, Sif will begin a 30 day intensive English class for refugees at Montgomery College. Laila can take the class in the fall when the boys are in school. In the meantime, NPC volunteers can tutor them.
Day 6, Tuesday, May 16
Katie the Lutheran Social Services caseworker took the family to register at the Social Security office. This is a key first step in getting identification and being able to work. NPC’s own Georgia Raynal made a beautiful dinner and some breakfast foods for the family, using recipes and knowledge from a time that she and her husband spent living in Turkey. We delivered the dinner to Extended Stay—just a few more days until they can cook regularly for themselves in their new home!
Day 7, Wednesday, May 17
The boys will eventually attend Luxmanor Elementary School. Today was our first attempt to register them, a process which begins at the Montgomery County International Student Center. They brought every document they have; we brought every document we have; and it still wasn’t enough or the right thing. This is a common experience for refugees and anyone trying to navigate bureaucracy, so we weren’t shocked. We’ll try again next week—stay tuned!
In the meantime, NPC member and super organizer Nyla Beth Gawel, who has coordinated ALL of the donations for the family’s new apartment, gathered a few volunteers to sort, box, and label everything that you have donated in preparation for moving day! I have always known NPC to be a giving congregation, but I am truly astounded by the generosity you have shown.
Day 8, Thursday May 18
NPC’s own David Zweifel, another Arabic speaker, took the family to an orientation meeting at Lutheran Social Services. Did I mention how blessed we are to have a congregation with such amazing skills and international experience?