Syrian Refugee Family Knows English Is The Key To Independence

Sep 15, 2016
Originally published on September 15, 2016 12:39 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNES, HOST:

For one Syrian refugee family, an American suburb provides a safe haven from war and also poses a lot of new challenges. We're following the family's progress as a church congregation in Princeton, N.J., helps them adjust. They are among the more than 11,000 Syrians resettled in the U.S. over the last year amid intense debate over whether Syrians pose a security risk. NPR's Deborah Amos reports the Syrians arrive with their own fears. She found them learning basic English and grappling with the mysteries of their adopted home.

OSAMA: (Speaking Arabic).

GHADA: (Speaking Arabic).

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The Syrian family has only been here a few months - new and overwhelmed. But they're learning things about their new country. It begins with English lessons.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Red, red, red - touch your head. Blue, blue, blue - tie your shoe. Brown, brown, brown - touch the ground.

AMOS: The kids have missed years of school. They need enough English to catch up in an American classroom, so the team of volunteers from Nassau Presbyterian Church turned the house into Camp English Class.

TED HOLSTEN: How about a little bit of...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yes, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yes. Goldfish?

HOLDSTEN: Oh, good, you like goldfish.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Goldfish, goldfish.

AMOS: Public school teacher Ted Holsten drills the kids at the kitchen table.

HOLDSTEN: OK. You guys, you did very well. Now you can relax, OK?

AMOS: There's no relaxing in the living room.

BEVERLY LEACH: What are we doing?

OSAMA: We are playing cards.

LEACH: Good. We're playing cards.

OSAMA: Thank you.

LEACH: You win.

AMOS: It's the language lab for parents Ghada and Osama with English vocabulary taped to every wall.

LEACH: Let's do it again. This is a way we learn to speak faster and faster and get into the flow and don't worry so much about each word.

AMOS: Beverly Leach, an experienced language teacher, tailors lessons with patience and humor.

LEACH: What's he doing?

GHADA: He is studying.

LEACH: OK. OK. But we want to go fast like duh-duh-duh (ph).

AMOS: It's exhausting, especially for Osama, blinded in a mortar attack in Syria. But everyone's in a hurry. They all know that English is the key to the couple's independence.

LEACH: And so we're just beginning, and now they're going to build vocabulary like crazy. I think they'll be able to negotiate their lives quite well to start with.

AMOS: But how to negotiate this alien place? America doesn't look like the glimpses they've seen on social media or in the movies. And they're still struggling with trauma. Even this far from Syria's civil war, Ghada and Osama asked NPR not to reveal their last names or the names of their children. But they let me sit in on their classes.

LEACH: Where's Charlie?

OSAMA: Where's Charlie?

LEACH: What's he doing?

GHADA: What's he doing?

LEACH: Good.

AMOS: It's the place where I can ask, how's it going? Osama knows there's a political debate over Syrian refugees. But he's not sure what it means. He's surrounded by supportive church members and embraced by the local Muslim community. The family celebrated a religious holiday at a public park with more than a thousand American Muslims who came for prayers and family picnics. That surprised him, as he tells me through an interpreter.

OSAMA: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Well, he didn't expect that there would be such big gatherings.

AMOS: What did he think was going to happen?

OSAMA: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He expected to have them pray and then everybody needs to go home - no gatherings, nothing...

OSAMA: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: ...Because they're a minority. And he didn't expect minorities to have that much freedom. So...

AMOS: There's also some surprising fears, completely unexpected, revealed in an English lesson that starts with words to describe what's in the yard, a stretch of lawn that backs up to a forest behind the house.

GHADA: Grass.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Grass.

GHADA: Flowers.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Flowers.

AMOS: Then, Ghada asks, what's the word for bear?

LEACH: What's outside? Bear?

GHADA: And bear.

LEACH: Did they see a bear?

AMOS: Bears are not uncommon in this part of New Jersey. The family heard about a bear spotted nearby. Then news was terrifying, especially for the kids. After years of war and chaos, they are still hyper vigilant when it comes to threats, says Louisa Ajami, another member of the Nassau church team. She says the family is still not convinced that they're safe.

LOUISA AJAMI: The first day we got there, we were introduced to the family. And the mother said, what's up with all these woods around here? And she said, will any creatures come out and get us? And I said no, probably not. She still looked very nervous. And I said, but there are bears. And I shouldn't have said that.

AMOS: But they've come - they lived through a war.

L. AJAMI: They're lost. They have no frame of reference - none, whatsoever. So they're learning it all anew on top of everything else they have to deal with.

AMOS: Every reference is shifting, says Barbara Ajami, Louisa's mom. These Syrians come from a conservative culture, she says. Ghada has been dependent on her husband. But Osama is blind, wounded in the war, and the couple will have to adapt, she says.

BARBARA AJAMI: It's going to be hard for him. You know, she has gone from a 1940s housewife American-style to a liberated woman in a couple of months. It's just incredible. And she's very brave. She is eager to learn. You know, I would be cringing. She's eager (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

AMOS: A few days later, a car is the classroom when Barbara Ajami comes to see the Syrians again. Osama is in the passenger seat. Ghada is behind the wheel.

LEACH: He's going to go in and sit beside her because he knows how to drive. And she's just going to practice the English words for windshield, windshield wipers, ignition - stuff like that. God help us all (laughter).

AMOS: The car's not running. Still, this is new for Ghada. She's never been behind the wheel before. She wears a tight headscarf for the occasion.

GHADA: OK. Where is the brake?

GHADA: This?

LEACH: Yes. That is the most important. That is extremely important.

GHADA: Not to brake?

LEACH: You have to be able to stop.

GHADA: This is stop?

AMOS: The neighbors drive by and cheer her on.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Driving - wonderful.

GHADA: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GHADA: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Whoo-hoo. Fantastic.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: So how does it feel? Good?

GHADA: Yes (laughter). It's good (unintelligible) up, up.

AMOS: You mean, go, go.

GHADA: Yeah. Go, go (laughter).

GHADA: And her husband, Osama, cheers her on too. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Princeton, N.J.

MONTAGNES: And tomorrow, Deb goes with Osama to a dentist who has her own refugee history. TEST Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.