Wilton welcomes Syrian refugee family

With the help of the Wilton Interfaith Action Committee (Wi-ACT), School Sisters of Notre Dame’s Wilton chapter and volunteers, a Syrian refugee family of six will move into their temporary Wilton home today, March 10.

The family will be staying in a recently vacated building on the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s Belden Hill Road campus. The three-bedroom, fully furnished and functional building is suitable for transitional housing, and the sisters have donated its use to Wi-ACT.

The family — a 33-year-old widow and her five children, ages 2, 5, 8, 11, and 12 — will live in the home for six months until sustainable permanent housing can be found, likely in a more urban setting.

During that time, Wi-ACT and the nonprofit Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) will work with the family to help it to be fully self-sustaining and independent in the United States.

Each refugee family that enters the United States is highly vetted by United States security authorities for up to two years before it is granted asylum and allowed to relocate.

The family was screened by the United States government, said Wi-ACT Chair Stephen Hudspeth, as well as Church World Service, which finds families that are “most appropriate” for IRIS.

IRIS then contacted Wi-ACT to see if it was interested in accepting the family and the committee unanimously voted to do so on Feb. 25.

“We heard about the Syrian refugee crisis and realized that based on our past experience with resettlement of a family from Iraq a half-dozen years ago, we were in a good position to help,” said Peggy Zamore, Wi-ACT member and chair of the steering committee’s Transportation Subcommittee.

“That being said, Wi-ACT’s steering committee knows how daunting the work is in refugee resettlement, having already done it once, and therefore deliberated carefully before agreeing that we would re-enter the field given the compelling need.”

Wi-ACT’s 38-member steering committee has been divided into the following 10 subcommittees, which each serve a different function in resettling the family:

  • Acculturation.

  • Clothing and furnishings.

  • Education.

  • Employment.

  • ESL.

  • Facilities operations.

  • Finance.

  • Health.

  • Interfacing.

  • Transportation.

Hudspeth said many of the subcommittee chairs helped when Wi-ACT helped transition the Iraqi family six years ago, “so they really know what they’re doing.”

Acculturation and transportation

The Acculturation Subcommittee is responsible for making sure its volunteers learn about Syrian culture “even as we help our family to learn about American culture,” said  Heidi Hawk, subcommittee co-chair, and the job of the Transportation Subcommittee is to ensure that all of the family’s transportation needs are met.

Hawk said the subcommittee has been “very fortunate to have a half-dozen interpreter volunteer already,” but it could “always use more.” The same goes for the Transportation Subcommittee, said Zamore, “particularly those who have seven- or eight-passenger vehicles.”

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Acculturation Subcommittee may email Hawk at hhawk@optonline.net, and anyone interested in volunteering for the Transportation Subcommittee may email Zamore at peggyz18@gmail.com.

Clothings and furnishings

The transitional housing donated by the School Sisters is already furnished, but the permanent housing the family will move into after six months won’t be. The Clothing and Furnishings Subcommittee will help the family furnish it, said Pat Hoeg, subcommittee chair.

Hoeg said the subcommittee has received a “generous” amount of local clothing donations and has arranged for the family to visit Person-to-Person in Darien, which “specializes in clothing low-income families very nicely,” the day after their arrival.

Education, ESL and health

The five children will attend Wilton public schools and Hudspeth said there ha ve s been nothing but “positive responses” from the school community.

Members of the Education Subcommittee have been “emailing and meeting very effectively and encouragingly” with members of the school community, said Phyllis Boozer, chair of the subcommittee.

“We are particularly pleased that they see the ‘teachable moments’ for all of their students presented by our refugee family, in addition to the educational opportunities they will be affording the family,” said Boozer.

Since the children will need computers to do their homework and other after school-related work, subcommittee member Alexa Schlechter has been working on a Google GoFundMe project to fund the provision of computers and Internet access to the family.

“We know our schools will be focusing on the children’s ESL development and that kids tend to absorb language like a sponge anyway,” said Char Griffin, chair of the six-member ESL Subcommittee, “so we will be focusing our work on the mother.”

Griffin said the transitional house has even been labeled with post-its that identify objects with their English names “to help the family get used to seeing English words linked to specific and familiar household objects.”

Dr. Hossein Sadeghi, a pediatrician and member of the Health Subcommittee, will conduct the children’s health exams, and the mother’s physical will be conducted at a Yale- New Haven Hospital clinic, which has “offered its services free of charge for initial health exams for the refugee families served by and through IRIS,” said Madeleine Wilken, chair of the Health Subcommittee.

Employment and finance

The Employment Subcommittee is planning to help the mother find work so her family can become “self-sustaining in a relatively short period of time,” said Employment Subcommittee Chair Paul Breitenbach.

“IRIS has successful techniques for making that happen, which we will employ along with techniques we developed ourselves in our earlier Iraqi family resettlement work.”

An IRIS caseworker will conduct an extensive in-depth skills assessment with the mother, while the Employment Subcommittee will help her develop her résumé and “explore entrepreneurial opportunities with a person who specializes in helping low-income people to develop successful entrepreneurial ventures,” he said.

Help from the broader Wilton community, including potential employment opportunities, is “something we very much need and appreciate,” said Breitenbach.

The Finance Subcommittee will help the mother with “family budgeting,” said Don Weber, Wi-ACT treasurer and chair of the Finance Subcommittee.

Weber said the U.S. government also provides a one-time $925 per family member to each asylum refugee family and these funds will provide an initial source of immediate financial support for the refugee family.

This resettlement effort is being separately funded from Wi-ACT’s usual work, and although the committee has “no idea” how the family feels about coming to Wilton, Hudspeth said, “fortunately, the Wilton community has been very welcoming and very inviting.”