The state of New Jersey has not been the most welcoming of places for refugees in recent years and months. Several states have opened their doors to individuals fleeing war-torn countries during this time of widespread migration, but my home state is not accepting nearly as many as you might expect from a state of nearly 9 million people. According to the Department of State’s Refugee Processing Center, the Garden State’s refugee arrival total between Oct. 1 and May 31 was the same as that of North Dakota, a state with fewer than 800,000 residents. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced in April of last year that the state government would no longer take part in the federal government’s refugee resettlement program, leaving that to nonprofit groups such as the International Rescue Committee.
So while New Jersey has accepted less than 1 percent of refugees in America since the fall, there are still 327 new refugees living in this state, and many of them have settled in Elizabeth. While I do not teach in that city, I have paid close attention to this issue, both as a concerned citizen and as adviser of Westfield High School’s Community Service Club. When my friend Jenny, a Westfield parent, told me that she was interested in establishing a weekly tutoring program for refugee families at her temple in Westfield, I eagerly shared that information with my students. They responded immediately, and we have been active members in the program since it began in late February.
The program has become a bustling hub of activity on Saturday mornings at a local temple. Adults and students gather for tutoring sessions in ESL and math, while more teens and tweens play Uno and other games, and younger children play with toys, take karate lessons and engage in art activities. There are clothes available for adults and children to take, and there is a spread of food in the hallway. Jenny and her friend Alissa have done an extraordinary job of reaching out to our most vulnerable new residents, and they are constantly sending out emails with supply items that the refugee families could use.
I have stopped by the temple to help on a half-dozen occasions since it started, and I’ve met some fascinating individuals. Wafa, who is a volunteer for the families, considers herself a “one-man band” of helping refugees in Elizabeth settle and integrate in America. Wafa knows what it’s like to be a refugee, as she said she is a “fourth-generation refugee.” Her great-grandfather fled the Armenian genocide in Turkey, while her grandfather was a refugee who left Palestine. Her parents fled the Lebanese civil war in 1974, moving to Libya. After living in Libya and Italy, Wafa said she came to America. Wafa brings adults to job fairs and job counseling, and brings families to the supper clubs that have been sprouting up in recent months, in which American families break bread with refugee families. She said the Westfield program is valuable because it combines tutoring with games and overall integration.
I asked Wafa how the families felt about coming to Westfield, where the median household income ($146,734) is more than three times that of Elizabeth ($43,568). “It’s inspirational,” Wafa said. “They know that’s where you need to be and you have to strive for it.” Looking around at the Syrian, Iraqi and Congolese families in the building, Wafa said, “Don’t underestimate determination.”
Lana is a 16-year-old 10th-grader, and her family came to America from Iraq five months ago. At the temple, she likes to stand in the hallway and chat with people. “I love everyone here,” Lana said. “They’re like family. They understand me.” She said her ESL teacher helps her a lot in Elizabeth High School, and she wants to attend Kean University after she graduates. Lana said she wants to be a doctor, and wishes to travel (so far, she’s only seen Iraq, Syria and the U.S.).
When I met Mohamad, it was in an ESL tutoring session. He said he was a craftsman, and he was trying to learn the words for different tools. We reviewed the words for hammer, screwdriver, tape measure, saw, wrench, screws and nails. I drew, we looked at photos, and we talked about the difference between a flathead and a Phillips-head screwdriver. When I asked Mohamad if he had any tools, he said no. Later on, I spoke with some of the volunteers and told them this. A week later, a volunteer named Agnes walked in with a bag full of professional-grade tools. We gave them to Mohamad, and he smiled and thanked us. He held the tools in his hands as he continued a tutoring session with a volunteer named Steve, who helped Mohamad with counting (using the tape measure) and with height, width and depth.
When I met with Abdullah, I was helping the 10th-grader with his English skills. I worked with him and his dad, Mohammed, on question words. We worked on examples of sentences that feature Who, What, When, Where, How, Which and Why. I drew again, to try and help Abdullah visualize the reasons he’d use each word. Mohammed seemed to understand when I explained that “Why?” typically requires a much longer answer than the other question words.
When I got home from the session, I received an email from Jenny featuring the link to a Huffington Post story about Syrian refugees living in Elizabeth who are struggling to find work. Mohamad and Mohammed are both featured in the story, which features photos and interviews with both men. The story answered some of the questions I wasn’t able to ask in my tutoring sessions, due to the language barrier and the fact that I was actively teaching them. Mohamad was actually an interior designer in Aleppo, and he owned his own business, focusing on living rooms and children’s bedrooms. He had been in Jordan for nearly five years before being selected for resettlement in the U.S. As he sets his sights on starting a business here, he knows that he must learn English first, and is preparing for classes at Union County College. As for Mohammed, he was a newspaper editor in Daraa, and has been here for less than a month. With five children at home, he told the Post that he would take any job, and that he could not afford gas for his home.
In recent sessions, I’ve talked with Omar, a former businessman and attorney from Iraq, who has spent a lot of time working with a volunteer tutor named Mike, and they have developed a strong rapport. Omar knows how to hold a basic conversation in English, but he wants to deepen his vocabulary in order to grasp the more detailed, subtle meanings to various English words. I suggested he follow the “five-finger rule” of reading books and newspapers, in which he reads only those texts for which there are no more than five new words per page, to avoid overwhelming himself. I also suggested that he keep a vocabulary notebook for new words (and gave him a marble notebook in case he wishes to try), I made sure he had a public library card, and I advised him to read the newspaper (which he and Mike had already been doing together). “I can talk with anyone,” Omar said. “I increase my language, my ability to speak.”
There are a lot of people finding their voices in these sessions. It is an extension of the work being done in Elizabeth’s public schools, albeit in a different town. But for people who have had to cross far too many borders already in their lives, it’s important for these refugees to take part in an activity that doesn’t concern itself with borders. Volunteers pick the families up at their mosque in Elizabeth, then drive them over to a temple in Westfield, where individuals of various faiths, denominations, ages, genders and ethnicities help them learn and feel welcomed in New Jersey and in America. This is essential community engagement, and it shows no signs of letting up. As a teacher, citizen and human being, I am so proud to be a part of it. I know that my students and the refugee families I’ve met feel the same.
“If you have no hope for the future, you won’t get where you want to go,” Lana said, smiling all the way.