Building Bridges

Refugee Cover Image

On the evening of August 4, 2016, I received a text that still overwhelms me with emotion, “Nancy just called to say that she has met the Kattoub family. They’re gathering their four bags and heading to the van to begin the journey to West Hartford. She says they are lovely, and so happy to be here.” The Syrian refugee family that St. James’s and St. John’s are co-sponsoring had arrived safely. The Kattoubs – A, A and their three children, H (6), A (5), and J (4) – traveled more than 5,000 miles from their temporary lodging in Jordan to begin their life in the United States with only four bags.

In 2015, parishioners at St. James’s begin discussing their desire to act in response to the rising human toll of Syria’s civil war, including the nearly 5 million Syrians forced to flee their homes. After a process of discernment and organizing from January-June 2016, the St. James’s / St. John’s refugee committee alerted IRIS, the New Haven-based refugee resettlement agency, that we were ready to sponsor a family. Parishioners volunteered to serve on committees related to housing, health care, transportation, employment, schooling, and English language classes. Others agreed to provide cultural orientation and assistance with budgeting as the family adjusted to life in the United States.

With much of the groundwork in place, we received word on July 21 that the Kattoubs would be arriving just two weeks later. Volunteers sprang to action, fully furnishing and beautifying the Kattoubs’ two-bedroom apartment near St. John’s. Upon the family’s arrival, volunteers worked to register them with social service agencies and place the children in school. Parishioners visited the Kattoubs daily for English-language tutoring and to orient them to the neighborhood. Since the Kattoubs speak little English, volunteers have relied heavily on Nancy Latif, an Arabic-speaking parishioner at St. John’s. When translators are unavailable, volunteers have grown accustomed to the sometimes nonsensical translations their cell phones produce through the Google Translate app.

" a time of turmoil abroad and calls for isolation at home, their presence has deeply enriched the lives of many volunteers at St. James’s, who found themselves able to do at least something to help."

A major milestone came in early October when the employment committee secured a full-time job for A, the father, at Savoy Pizzeria and Craft Bar, a newly opened Max Group restaurant (now open for lunch and dinner at 32 LaSalle in West Hartford center!). With H in first grade and A in kindergarten, A, the mother, is caring for J at home, working on her English skills and preparing to seek employment. As they begin their sixth month in Connecticut, the Kattoubs miss friends and family left behind in Syria, but nonetheless continue their admirable hard work to adjust and gain skills for a new life in the United States. Challenges remain – volunteers are continually reminded of how complex America’s social service bureaucracy can be and how difficult it is to make ends meet even when working full-time. All in all, however, the Kattoubs are thriving. Moreover, at a time of turmoil abroad and calls for isolation at home, their presence has deeply enriched the lives of many volunteers at St. James’s, who found themselves able to do at least something to help.

Indeed, since the Kattoubs arrival, parishioners at St. James’s have become involved with helping other refugee families settled in the Hartford area. Not all recently settled refugees have had the benefits of safe apartments and assistance in seeking employment and educational opportunities. Volunteers at St. James’s and St. John’s are coordinating donations and assistance for these other refugee families, as well. On December 27, ten women from the two churches gathered sixteen Syrian and other Middle Eastern women for a tea aimed at building bridges among refugee women, who may find themselves isolated at home as they care for young children. After the event, A volunteered to help clean up, working alongside parishioners. The event illuminated the resilience of these New Americans and the ways we are all enriched when we forge connections that bring God’s love into our world.