Syrian refugee family gets start on a new life in California

A harrowing night at home with an injured daughter was the final straw that convinced Abdulhamid Jawabra and his wife, Nadin, to flee war-torn Syria with their five children. Nearly two years later, the refugee family has arrived in Modesto, Calif., its resettlement facilitated by the nonprofit organization World Relief Modesto and volunteers from a network of about 20 local churches.

A couple of winters back, youngest daughter Hala, who just recently enrolled as a first-grader at Chrysler Elementary School in Modesto, fell and hit her head, causing a gash that ended up requiring 10 stitches. But the day it happened, it was after 5 p.m. in Daraa, which meant residents were forbidden from leaving their homes until morning.

Hala’s parents put coffee grounds on the wound and held a towel to it to stanch the bleeding. In the morning, they went to a government hospital about a kilometer away from their home but were told it lacked the medicine and tools to treat the injury. The family was advised to continue on to an expensive private hospital. There was another, larger government hospital in the city of more than 1 million people, but it was far from home and getting through Daraa was dangerous because of snipers, Abdulhamid Jawabra said.

“They (the private hospital staff) know there is a war and they know that the government hospital was not receiving patients, so took very, very, very high prices,” Jawabra said through a translator, Mohanad Harbert. “In that day, he decide to leave Syria because if anything happen to anyone of the family after 5 o’clock, nobody can save them. Even he die, he cannot call the ambulance or the doctor. So he has a big family, he has children, so he prefer to leave Syria.”

Daraa is just 5 kilometers from Jordan. After the family was detained at the border for a day despite having passports, Nadin Al Jawabra’s father, who lives in Jordan, helped arrange for their entry.

Abdulhamid Jawabra thought his family’s stay in Jordan would be temporary. When he deemed it safe to return to Daraa, they would. But not long after the couple and their children fled Syria, their reasons to return were taken from them. Bombs planted in his home and in the business he owned and operated for 25 years, an audio recording studio, destroyed everything the family had.

Life in Jordan was safer but in other ways worse than remaining in Syria, Jawabra said Thursday, sitting with Harbert and World Relief staffers in the three-bedroom apartment in which the family has been placed. “Because we are from Syria, they don’t accept us to work, they rent us the houses in a very high rent and they don’t help us,” he said, “and we need to spend too much money because if something they sell it in $1, to us they sell it in $5.

“When they (the United Nations Refugee Agency) told me I would leave Jordan to USA, I was very happy because I know here it is a free country and my children have a great future.”

Friday morning, Jawabra had an appointment with the Community Services Agency’s Employment Services, or Welfare to Work, to begin a job search and get needed training and education. “The important thing for me is to work here, but I don’t know what I will work,” he said. “I hope I work somewhere here to make sure my children will have a safe place to live and a good future.”

Warm welcome at school

The family, which by being granted refugee recognition is protected by international law, is taking other early steps toward a new life in the United States and meeting helping hands along the way.

Principal Miguel Espinoza welcomed Abdulhamid and younger daughters Aya and Hala to Chrysler Elementary on Thursday. Through translator Harbert, he asked the girls a bit about themselves, including what they want to be when they grow up. Fifth-grader Aya said she’d like to be a doctor, and first-grader Hala said an engineer.

In the office, they were warmly welcomed by staff and each given a basket of school supplies, which they promptly sat down and went through as the adults around them worked out their enrollment.

While in the office, the sisters and their dad encountered parent volunteer Fay Viodes, who moved to the U.S. from Iraq with her family 36 years ago, when she was 8 years old. She said her Arabic is very broken, and she understands more than she speaks, but she engaged Abdulhamid and the girls in conversation. She introduced herself, told them her daughter attends Chrysler and said she’d be available to offer any help she can.

The girls were then taken to meet first-grade teacher Victoriah Avugwi, fifth-grade teacher Sarah Hayes and their new classmates.

“Salaam alaikum,” Avugwi greeted them at the door, offering the traditional greeting among Muslims that means “peace to you.”

Introducing Hala, Avugwi pointed out Syria on a globe and told the class Hala had traveled a long way to be with them. When she asked if anyone had questions, the only one was: What happened in Syria that forced Hala and her family to leave?

“There are some not-so-good things happening in Syria, so they got to come to America,” the teacher told the children. Asked roughly the same question by a second child, she elaborated: “Sometimes bad things just happen in the world and it’s out of our control. … America is a safe place for them to be.”

Lori Aderholt, executive director of World Relief Modesto, said she expects that Aya and Hala will be the first in their family to speak English well. “Kids are so resilient, they’re going to learn English quickly,” she said. “The first couple of months are incredible.”

Britta Skavdahl, superintendent of the Stanislaus Union School District, said the girls have been placed with teachers who have expertise with children learning languages. Hala and Aya will receive 30 minutes of English-language instruction each school day. “We get content to them in nonverbal ways,” Skavdahl said. “We get English instruction to them while providing their academics that way.”

There are no other students at Chrysler who speak Arabic, she said, “but some speak Assyrian, which is a close cousin.”

Siblings eager to learn

At the Davis High School Language Institute, older sisters Alaa and Noor Al Jawabra are meeting plenty of new classmates who speak Arabic. Among 200 or so immigrant students from 33 countries, Arabic is the second-most common language, behind only Spanish.

Lindsey Bird, director of the institute, said she initially heard there were no academic transcripts for the girls, but was relieved to learn they attended high school while in Jordan. “Noor we placed as a sophomore because they’re going to provide us with one year of high school grades. Alaa has two years of high school grades, so she is a junior.”

The girls are very eager students, Bird said. “Even in the last two days, I’ve seen improvement.”

In a traditional high school, learning English would be very challenging for the sisters, she said. “Their linguistic ability and what they’re being taught don’t match up.”

She’s assessed the girls in language and math and given them an academic schedule that’s “very language intensive because they have time against them.” As their command of English improves, their schedules will change to make them more academically rigorous, Bird said.

“The goal is to get them to graduate,” Davis Principal Mike Rich said. “If they’re progressing well and it looks like there’s an opportunity to graduate with a fifth year, we’ll give them that opportunity.”

World Relief, churches guide way

World Relief is one of nine agencies in the U.S. that have contracts with the federal government to help refugees resettle. If a family enters the U.S. with family or friends in a community, the goal is to place them there. The Al Jawabra family knew no one in the United States so, when assigned to World Relief, the family was settled in Modesto because the organization has a local office.

World Relief provides initial resettlement services for 30 to 90 days. “In partnership with local churches and volunteers,” its website says, “our resettlement services aim to aid in refugees’ adjustment to the new culture and provide support as a catalyst for self-sufficiency.”

About 20 local churches – Redeemer, Monte Vista Chapel and CrossPoint, to name a few – have volunteers that help World Relief families, said the Al Jawabras’ case worker, Sarah Williams.

A lot of what volunteers do is help families get to appointments for immunizations, Social Security and Welfare to Work, said World Relief’s Aderholt. Beyond that, “the community comes alongside ... to build friendships, offer cultural orientation and help them with their adjustment,” she said.

For example, she said, Modesto Councilman Bill Zoslocki, part owner of the Ashwood Village apartments on Rumble Road, got the Al Jawabra family into a three-bedroom unit in the complex. “He’s been instrumental in opening up housing, which for bigger families is hard to find, so they don’t have to stay in transitional housing very long,” Aderholt said.

Though Abdulhamid Jawabra speaks only a tiny bit of English, he didn’t need a translator to share a message at the family’s home Thursday. Offering two thumbs up and smiling broadly, he slowly said, “World Relief, thank you. Thank you, Miss Lori, Miss Sarah, Mohanad, Eriq (Truitt, another case worker). Thank you.”