Nassau Church Refugee Expeditions: Venturing onto the Syrian Frontier

By: Emma Killeen, Michael Miller, and Shubham Saharan

Hearing about atrocities in Syria has become commonplace in our daily lives. In an increasingly turbulent political atmosphere, many Americans now see the Syrian Refugee Crisis as a propagandized affair as opposed to an issue with human lives at stake. But for the past 50 years, even before the current refugee crisis hit news outlets, the Nassau Presbyterian church in Princeton has been resettling refugees, and their latest focus—a Syrian family.

Osama, blinded permanently by a mortar attack in Syria, his wife Ghada, and their four children came to America over six months ago, and were welcomed with open arms from the church community.  Catching up with Susan Jennings, case manager of the Refugee Resettlement Program at the church, it becomes evident that their resettlement is a large task to take on.  Dozens of volunteers and prior refugees come together to take care of schooling, healthcare, and shelter—all things which many Americans take for granted.  Every week poses a different challenge for the family, whether it be assimilating into society, language barriers, or, for Ghada, learning how to drive.

However, this particular family faces very different challenges from others.  “The one thing we haven’t seen before is the blindness. We’ve never really had anyone with a disability,” Jennings said.  But despite this unprecedented challenge, members of the congregation have faced the obstacle head-on. Even though resettled adults typically start work five to six weeks after their arrival, Osama is unable to do so.  However, he has recently been admitted into a vocational education program for the blind, which is sure to expedite his family’s assimilation.

One of the truly remarkable aspects of the whole journey lies within the demeanor and attitude of the children.  Having seen and experienced events no child should ever go through, they are entitled to be weary and distrustful of a new environment.  Yet they remain steadfastly positive and optimistic.  “Their eyes light up at every new thing they see,” Jennings said. “They’re so open—so receptive to all the new changes around them.  I remember when we first took them to the swimming pool. They were so excited, that within moments all of them had jumped right in with all their clothes on.”  Despite the language barrier which still stands between many of the volunteers and the family, they have all made tremendous strides towards adapting to their new lives.

The entire community—both the church and Islamic families—have banded together to ensure the safety and security of these people despite any religious differences, which stands in stark contrast to the political atmosphere we see today.  “I think it all stems from ignorance,” Jennings said. “Anyone who has spent even a moment with these people know that they aren’t capable of any harm.”

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