During a nighttime visit last week to the Riverdale, Md., apartment of a recently resettled Syrian refugee family, Temple Beth Ami member Mark Joffe began the conversation by telling Louay Alhelal of a possible job opportunity. Since settling in Riverdale a few weeks ago, Alhelal has found work fixing computers with other Arabic-speaking immigrants, but he wants a job where he can better learn English.
“My wife, Arlynn, was driving today, and she saw a truck that said, ‘Looking for electricians and apprentices,’ and she quickly wrote down the phone number, so we will call,” Joffe said.
Alhelal, 33, his wife, Nour Alhuda, 31, and their four children, ages 6 through 11, are one of three Syrian refugee families living in the same apartment complex that the Reform congregation in Rockville has been assisting over the last year. This family fled their native country five years ago to escape civil war, going to Jordan while their application for refugee status in the United States was being processed. They were admitted in August 2016 and were settled initially in Tucson, Ariz., spending more than a year there.
The couple is slowly adjusting to life in the United States — including relying on others to take them shopping because they have no car — but Alhelal and Alhuda are without their extended families, who are still overseas, unable to join them due to an executive order passed by President Donald Trump that bars refugees from six majority-Muslim countries, including Syria.
“It’s not something that’s easy to accept,” Alhuda said through a translator. “Of course, I’d love to have family come here. This is not desirable. We were hopeful they could bring in either my father and mother or his father and mother for a visit here, but that’s much more difficult now.”
Asked if he had a message for Trump, Alhelal said the president has a right to be concerned about immigration but needs to understand that refugees are not trying to do harm.
“From a personal perspective, this decision was damaging for our own families and the personal relationships we have,” he said.
Earlier in December, the Supreme Court upheld the third version of the travel ban signed by Trump since he took office, although legal challenges are still pending. The uncertainty over the legality of the ban and of the status of the refugees it attempts to restrict from entering the country have complicated the refugees’ lives as well as the operations of resettlement agencies and synagogue staff during the last year.
Walaa Abdulraheem and her husband, Majed, both 29, have been living in their Riverdale apartment since March with their two daughters, ages 2 and 3. She had hoped her parents, who are living in Jordan, would be able to join them. But their application for refugee status was declined because she has a brother who is in a Syrian prison.
“This decision is inclusive of a lot of people,” Majed said. “There are a lot of people that were waiting to come over. They have nothing to do with terror, or the war. And it’s unfortunate because they’re just trying to get out from a bad situation. They just want to escape.”
Temple Beth Ami is one of eight synagogues that are working with the nonprofit organization Lutheran Social Services as part of its Good Neighbor program, which helps resettle refugees by working with the State Department and resettlement agencies. The congregations handle the practical aspects of the resettlement process, such as finding and furnishing apartments, making medical appointments and helping the families buy a car.
LSS spokeswoman Autumn Orme said the slew of executive orders and court challenges has put the organization “in a twist” as well the congregations they are working with.
“It made our partnerships more difficult because we were planning on families arriving at the airport, and then all of a sudden a court case will go into effect,” she said.
Similarly, Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at the Jewish resettlement agency HIAS, said the last year has been “exhausting and difficult” for her organization because of the travel ban.
“This is no way to run a program,” she said. “This has been very chaotic. We want to send a specific message to the world with refugee resettlement. If you can, imagine the impact on someone who is about to come. They’ve gone through security screening, they’ve revealed everything about their lives, and then to be told they’re not allowed to travel. What we’re doing to people is unconscionable.”
Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington said his synagogue had been sponsoring a Syrian family of five since March but that the decision to do so was not about any action from the Trump administration. When the synagogue began working with LSS in 2016, Alexander said, no one thought there would be a Trump presidency. Instead, the congregation’s involvement was a response to the steady drumbeat of news reports from the Middle East and Europe detailing the refugee crisis.
For the congregants involved, getting the family settled during their first weeks in the area was like a full-time job for the congregants most involved, Alexander said. They were responsible for setting the parents up with job training and English language training and placing the three children, one a 2-year-old, in school.
By Alexander’s account, the family has found success in the United States and is integrating itself into the synagogue and the broader community. They’re Muslim, but “their family is now a family of the synagogue,” he said.
At Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., helping an Iraqi single mother and her two children has spurred Peter Schnall to reflect on the difficulties of refugees who arrive without a familiar support system already in the region.
“I think about how my father’s grandparents showed up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, got off a boat and were absorbed and embraced — and sometimes exploited — by all these other people who could help them,” Schnall said. “For a lot of refugees today, we’re scattering them all over the country and even here, all over the Washington area. You have different languages and all these different cultures — it’s crazy complicated. It can be really difficult to build that community.”
Joffe said the impact of the travel ban has not directly impacted his congregation’s efforts in helping the refugees integrate into American society, but it has consequences for all of their families.
“Everyone has relatives either in Syria or Jordan,” he said. “While the families are progressing toward getting jobs, they do have people they care for that are locked out of getting to the U.S.”
Community is something that Alhelal and his family are starting to find among fellow Arabic-speakers, but branching out will take time and a greater fluency in English. Toward the end of last week’s visit, a light moment occurred when Joffe told him “we’re going to teach you English over the internet. We’re just waiting for you to say yes.”
“Yes,” Alhelal replied.
—Dan Schere and Jared Foretek