After leaving war-torn Syria and spending two years in a refugee camp in Jordan, a 33-year-old widow named Manal and her five children — ranging in age from 3 to 13 — moved into a three-bedroom house on the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s Belden Hill Road campus on March 10.
With the help of the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee (Wi-ACT), the School Sisters of Notre Dame and volunteers, Manal has been able to start building a new life for her family, and she said it feels “good” to be in Wilton.
“The whole objective is independence,” said Wi-ACT Chair Stephen Hudspeth.
From their experience resettling an Iraqi family six years ago, Hudspeth said, he and fellow Wi-ACT members knew how much work goes into helping a single mother with young children achieve independence.
“Manal’s whole life has been focused on her kids. She’ll do whatever it takes. Time and again, she’s done what it takes and you can see it,” said Hudspeth.
“All of us in Wi-ACT are so impressed with how hard she works, how smart she is and how focused she is on making sure that her kids have a better life.”
To help with the family’s resettlement, Wi-ACT’s 38-member steering committee divided into 10 subcommittees with different functions — ranging from transportation to child care and education to employment, housing and ESL (English as a second language).
Appreciative of all the help and support Wi-ACT has provided her and her children, Manal said she loves the Wi-ACT volunteers and considers them family.
Coming to Wilton
With the hope of resettling in the United States, Manal and her children underwent more than a year of vetting while living in a refugee camp in Jordan.
Manal said the vetting process entailed “many, many questions,” and “sometimes [the examiner] came back to ask the same questions.”
“It was not only very intensive for Manal, but it also involved interviewing her kids to look for any inconsistencies about who they are and where they were,” Hudspeth told The Bulletin.
“Any questions not answered to the examiner’s satisfaction leads to family disqualification since there are so many other Syrian refugee applicants to choose from.”
Hudspeth said he’s been told that in the refugee camps, “coming to the USA is the gold standard” and that resettling in Connecticut is especially desired.
“In the camps, Connecticut is the platinum standard,” he said. “That’s where you really want to go, because Connecticut is really welcoming.”
Before their arrival, Hudspeth said, town officials and community members were very open to the idea of having Manal and her children resettle in Wilton.
“Everybody immediately made themselves available,” he said. “It was absolutely astounding. It was a community-wide response.”
That welcomeness has not waned.
About a week ago at Stop & Shop, Hudspeth said, a stranger approached Manal to tell her how glad they were to have her in Wilton and, noting her headscarf, saying she was “courageous to express her faith.”
For the last nine months, Manal and her children have been spending a lot of time learning English.
“In Jordan, [I spoke] zero English. Now, my English is OK,” said Manal.
Hudspeth said Manal has been working “really hard” to learn the new language.
“I go to class Monday and Wednesday for English,” said Manal, “and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I learn English at home.”
On top of that, Hudspeth said, she does hours of homework each week.
When Manal first came to Wilton, Hudspeth said, an interpreter would translate simple English words but now is needed only for complex translations.
“Her English has come along,” said Hudspeth, “and her degree of comprehension is incredibly good.”
Manal’s children are also learning English with the help of tutors and teachers.
While her 3-, 5- and 10-year-olds have gotten “very good at English,” Manal said, her 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son only know “a little bit.”
“I think it’s tough for the older kids because at least four years of education were lost — two years before they got out of Syria and two years in refugee status in Jordan,” said Hudspeth.
“These kids are so bright, though. You can see that once they get the English down, they’re really going to make it.”
In order to support her family, Manal needed a job, and Dampits International Inc. — owned by Wilton residents David Hollander and his wife, Tair — offered her a part-time one making humidifiers for string instruments.
Manal works part-time at Dampits “so that she has time to work on her English,” said Hudspeth, but with her English improving, she’s moving toward full-time employment.
Manal is also dabbling in entrepreneurship.
The month Manal and her family arrived in Wilton, a Connecticut resident named Meredith, with 30 years of low-income entrepreneurship experience, discussed possible entrepreneurial endeavors with Manal.
“We thought initially food might be an interest because Manal’s a very good cook, but she said, ‘I cook for five kids, I don’t want to cook anymore,’” said Hudspeth.
“So then we talked about [sewing], and while she had never done sewing work before, she really latched on and she really has a gift.”
Hudspeth said making hand-stitched pillows has turned into “quite a business” for Manal, who has also been working with seamstresses Jan Hapke of Wilton and Michele Fugazy of Ridgefield.
“It’s really quite remarkable, these hand-stitched pillows she turns out,” said Hudspeth.
“Manal has come up this huge learning curve — both in English and in her sewing ability.”
Wi-ACT members currently provide transportation for Manal and her children, but Manal hopes to soon take over the responsibility.
Wilton’s Fresh Green Light driving school has offered to help Manal with the driver’s license process by providing the eight-hour Safe Driving Practices Course, learner’s permit exam and on-the-road skills test free of charge.
Manal is scheduled to take the eight-hour course on Dec. 10, and the learner’s permit exam 12 days later.
Once she has her license, Manal will be able to drive herself and her children in the 10-year-old Volvo a Wilton resident donated, which is sitting in the yard of the family’s transitional home.
“Every week, they start the engine up and move it a little bit to keep the battery from completely failing,” said Hudspeth. “I can tell because it’s been turned around in the yard.”
Although the initial plan was to have Manal and her children live in transitional housing for six months, the School Sisters of Notre Dame are allowing the family to stay in the home for as long as it takes to find permanent housing.
“There are very serious plans going forward for long-term housing — hopefully in Wilton, because Manal loves Wilton,” Hudspeth said.
Manal said everyone she’s met in Wilton has been very kind to her and her children.
“I like that, and everybody here in Wilton,” she said.