In my last blog post, we were roughly two weeks out from our sponsored Arab-Sunni-Muslim-Syrian-refugee family of six arriving to Chicago. We knew very little about the family. But what we did know meant it was going to be a tough transition for them even under the best of circumstances. The family had small children (including one with special needs), knew little English, and would be arriving in the cold Chicago weather with very little and likely knowing almost no one. As sponsors of this family, it was our responsibility to try to make this enormous transition as smooth as possible.
Our Temple community had already responded so generously to our calls for help. Still, at the time of the last blog post, I mentioned that we still needed some gift cards, bus passes, and a few other miscellaneous items from the signup genius. And yet again, our community responded: I was told that within just a few hours of the blog being posted, everything on the signup genius was gone. Thank you!
After the Thanksgiving holiday, we were only two weeks from our family’s expected December 9, 2016 arrival. (The arrival was delayed four days from the original December 5, 2016 expected date.) Our attention turned to getting our family’s house prepared. On December 4, 2016, a small group of volunteers (including several of our teenage and pre-teen members of the congregation—as well as my wife) spent the better part of four hours of a Sunday afternoon fighting blustery weather and transporting all of your donations to the family’s new apartment. They then turned their attention to preparing the family’s home—stocking the kitchen with two weeks worth of groceries, preparing the bedding, organizing the bathroom, and decorating the children’s rooms with toys, games, and stuffed animals. Basically, making a house into a home.
Over the next few days, others made final preparations, including fixing up a few things around the home and making a last minute trip to Ikea on Wednesday to purchase and put together a final few pieces of furniture. By the close of that night, we were ready! And just in time, because our family was set to arrive the following evening.
And that next night was incredibly special and something I will never forget. On Thursday evening, December 9, 2016, I was privileged to join a group of roughly 30 Oak Park Temple congregants at the airport to meet and greet our family. My 9-year-old daughter was with me, as were many of her peers. As you can see in the pictures below, our group had flowers, and welcoming signs, and balloons, and winter jackets, and a whole lot of warmth and community.
We were joined by members of the RefugeeOne organization. This included Bassam—the family’s case manager and our Arabic-English translator.
We anxiously waited for several hours. Shortly after 9:00 p.m., we watched as our family passed through customs. As Bassam made introductions, we were treated with the enormous (and constant) smile of the family’s youngest daughter. With tears rolling down her cheeks and her own warm smile, the matriarch of the family greeted each woman present with a hug and kisses on each cheek. The exhausted father, with his few words of English, expressed his enormous gratitude in having all of us there. And I think all of us there felt the great significance of the impact we could have on a real family in need. Having many of our own children present—to greet theirs—made it all the more special.
As most of us said goodbyes (and “see-you-soons”), Annika Rothbaum and Laura Kaufman joined Bassam in transporting the family to their new home. Laura shared her experience with some of us the next morning. She’s given me permission to share her beautiful words:
Good morning everyone.
I was one of the OPT Temple members who took the family to their apartment last night, and I wanted to let you know how touched they were with all the work temple members did to make their new home so welcoming.
I wish you could have seen the smiles on the children’s faces as they found their beds piled high with stuffed animals and explored all the new toys, games and books OPT members pulled together for them.
The parents were so very appreciative of all we did to welcome them. The mother said that the moment she saw the OPT welcoming committee at the airport, she felt immediately relieved.
There is still much to do, but, as we head into Shabbat, I hope you will know that our efforts to “welcome the stranger” have made a real difference.
I’m so proud to be a part of this community!
In the days since, the next stage of our work has already begun. On Shabbat, congregants Lev Slavin and Ellen Goren participated in the first mentorship. Lev took the father to an Arabic grocery store, while Ellen spent time speaking with the mother and children. The children sang a song they had learned from their English studies to Ellen. Lev and Ellen also brought some more clothing for our family, including winter boots for the children. The Syrian family was grateful, warm, and welcoming.
My wife, three children, and I will be doing the next mentoring visit this Tuesday night. This will be the first mentoring experience to include children. Amongst other activities, we plan to bring a favorite household game (Candyland!) to play in the hopes of working with the family to identify colors in English. I will report back.
In the days and weeks to come, some of our teenage congregants will be getting involved in tutoring the children. I know many are very, very excited.
*Please note that we hope to be able to share more detailed information about the family (including their names and photos) very soon, hopefully as soon as the next blog post. We need to ensure the family feels safe and can offer their informed consent before doing so.
**Also, don’t forget you are welcome to guest blog about your own experiences with the family! Just contact me if you are interested – firstname.lastname@example.org.