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Beginning Again: Syrian Refugees Struggle to Build a New Life in New Jersey

Two families of Syrian refugees find hope and comfort in unexpected quarters: among them, two North Jersey synagogues

Mohammad Ali Zakkour says that his former life in Syria was very good.

He had his own clothing workshop where he made jean alterations for men and women, and he was able to comfortably support his wife and three children. Life in his third-floor flat in Homs was comfortable. And safe.

Then the war changed everything.

Inspired by the pro-democracy Arab Spring, the civil war began on March 15, 2011, now known as the “Day of Rage” when peaceful demonstrations against the government forces of Bashar al-Assad were met by a harsh military crackdown. Aerial bombings and street fighting killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and left cities devastated.

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city has been a key battleground in the uprising against the government forces of Bashar al-Assad. Zakkour says that during heavy street fighting between rebels and government forces, a tank blast blew through the apartment, breaching a wall. By September 2011 he realized it was no longer safe for his family.

Like many Syrians, the aerial bombings and street fighting forced the 36-year-old Zakkour and his family to leave everything behind and flee to Jordan. They made their way to Ma’an, in southern Jordan, where Zakkour eked out a living for four years as a tailor. But he says the living conditions there were rough.

“The [hot, arid climate]was harsh,” said Zakkour “We struggled a lot there” and faced poor living conditions.

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Credit: Thomas E. Franklin
Kate McCaffrey of the Bnai Keshet Synagogue, welcomes Maryam Al Radi with big hug, as Mohammed Al Radi smiles at right. The two have become very close in the few months they have known each other, despite cultural and language differences.

So when the International Rescue Committee (IRC) approached them offering a chance at a new life elsewhere, they took it. He says that when he was offered a choice between Spain and the United States, he chose the U.S. because he felt his children would have a better life here. The Zakkours were resettled in Elizabeth in July 2015.

“I don’t think of my future except through my children,” said Zakkour. “Because where I’m standing, there are millions who wish to be standing.”

The IRC resettled the first Syrian refugees from the civil war in 2013. Since then,158 Syrian refugees have settled in New Jersey -- about 36 percent of all refugees in the past two years. The resettlement is handled by three different NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), the IRC, Catholic Charities in Camden, and Church World Service, although its program is currently overseen by the state Department of Human Services.

Gov. Chris Christie, who repeatedly said he would bar all Syrian refugees from the country -- including 5-year old orphans -- in his presidential bid, has notified the Obama administration that the state will no longer participate in the program as of next month. Christie, however, does not hold the power to bar resettlement -- just the participation of the state government. Advocates say the program will continue, although an NGO will have to be put in charge.

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Syrian crisis, a grim milestone in the bloody civil war that has left an estimated quarter million dead, and the mass exodus of nearly half the country’s population.

The death figures are staggering.

Nearly 11.5 percent of Syria’s population have been wounded or killed since 2011, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR). Another 1.88 million Syrians have been injured.

As a result of the war, nearly half the Syrian population has fled their homes, many risking their lives in perilous boat crossings to Europe, in search of shelter and basic needs like food and healthcare. Countless millions have been forced to resettle outside the country, and have come to depend completely on humanitarian aid.

In New Jersey there has been a growing grassroots movement by various local religious groups and ad hoc volunteers to provide assistance and friendship to Syrian families trying to adapt to a new life in America.

Some of that support has come area churches and mosques, but it also as come from more unlikely sources, such as two North Jersey Jewish synagogues.

“There were some members of the congregation that were interested in getting involved with the refugee crisis,” said Kate McCaffrey of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, which befriended some of the refugees in December. “We were concerned about the violence and the response of the United States,” McCaffrey recalled.

With a wink to the dominant Christian faith in New Jersey, Bnai Keshet invited 10 refugee families for a "traditional" Jewish Christmas dinner of Chinese takeout this past year. The Syrians, having recently fled their war -ravaged homes, gratefully accepted. The unusualness of a Jewish synagogue hosting a dinner for Muslim refugees on the Christian holiday was not lost on the women.

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Credit: Thomas E. Franklin
Mohammed Zakkour works at his new sewing machine. The Bnai Keshet Synagogue in Montclair raised money to buy the sewing machine so Zakkour, who was a tailor in Syria, would have a way to generate income.

“We wanted to find a way to do something that was positive,” says Bnai Keshet’s Melina Macall. “[It’s a time] when Jews and Muslims are kind of left out in the cold.”

McCaffrey said that despite the differences in faith, this was not a new concept to the Jewish community. “Many members of our congregation were refugees themselves, or came from families that were refugees during World War II,” McCaffrey said.

About 150 people attended the Muslim-Jewish gathering. While the children played games, the adults got to know each other. “Everyone came together and it was a really nice evening,” Macall recalled. “It was completely apolitical.”

Mohammad Zakkour and his family were there that night, his wife Samer then pregnant with their fourth child. At the dinner, the women learned Zakkour was a tailor back in Syria, and knowing he was having trouble finding work, they sprang into action and quickly raised the money needed to buy him a commercial sewing machine from within the synagogue community.

McCaffrey, an associate professor of anthropology at Montclair State, said she enlisted the help of Montclair’s Fashion Studies professor Emily Pascoe, to purchase the sewing machine for $530. Zakkour quickly set up shop for alterations in the family apartment, but says it’s been a struggle drumming up business.

Yet Zakkour seems happy to be in America. He knows that learning the language is the key to finding work, so he regularly attends tutoring sessions with Nadege Nicoll who teaches English to refugees at the Elizabeth library once a week.

Nicoll is a foreigner herself, a French national living in Short Hills. She says she immediately felt empathy for the refugees after meeting them at a clothing drive organized by her friend Rana Shanawani, a Syrian-American who has worked tirelessly to coordinate the ad-hoc bands of volunteers. “I just wanted to help,” Nicoll said. “It’s not political or religious. Its just people helping people.”

The main obstacle for the refugees remains the language. Virtually none can converse in English well enough to find a job, often relying on Google Translate. McCaffrey says that although the cellphone app helps with the basics, it’s inexact, and at times it creates moments of hilarious absurdity. “(Zakkour) typed something to me that said ‘tongue unable Thanksgiving,’” said McCaffrey, thinking back to when they bought the sewing machine. “That was how the Google translation came out, but I think what he said was ‘I can’t thank you enough.’”

The language issue could be made easier on the families, notes Shanawani, CEO and executive director for the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship. “I’ve suggested to [the IRC] multiple times, why couldn’t they have been placed in [South] Paterson, where 50 percent to 60 percent of the population speaks Arabic,” she says. “They could’ve been in a school system where two thirds of the kids are bilingual Arabic-English.”

Alison Millan, the resettlement director for IRC's New Jersey office, says that as of Monday the IRC has resettled 110 individuals (27 cases) in New Jersey, from 2013 through June 20, 2016. In Elizabeth alone, they have resettled 101 individuals (21 cases).

Most don't have any “U.S. tie support,” meaning friends or family to help provide for them. So settling them in Elizabeth makes the most sense because they are closer to the IRC resources and programs.

Once they arrive, she says that the IRC picks them up at the airport, furnishes an apartment for them, orients them to the community, and gets their children enrolled in school. They also help obtain social security cards, food stamps, health insurance. The IRC works with them to figure out their goals, but the adjustment she says is not easy.

“Many families have fled very traumatic experiences,” says Millan, whose office is next door to the apartment building in downtown Elizabeth where a few of the Syrians live. “For any family we resettle, that first year is pretty difficult. The IRC is here to support them, but we see our role as helping them learn as much they can, so they can be as self-sufficient as possible, as early as possible.”

Starting a new life in an urban city like Elizabeth can be overwhelming. Some refugees have complained that their children have been bullied at school and of course, finding a job is daunting.

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Credit: Thomas E. Franklin
Mohammed Zakkour playfully tosses his daughter Judy, 3, in the family's apartment in Elizabeth where the IRC resettled them.

Some of the volunteers are concerned that the Syrian children are falling far behind in school, not only due to the language but also to the lapse in learning from the time they left their homes. Nicoll, one of the volunteer tutors, says they are lagging dangerously behind.

“I worry about the children,” she says. “They are left to fend for themselves. I think the language would not be an issue if they received more attention in school.”

McCaffrey, who is a college educator, says they need extra help. “These are children (who) have had trauma, dislocation, and have not been in school for years,” says McCaffrey. “They really need extra attention.”

The IRC provides a pretty comprehensive package, but what they cannot supply are intangibles like friendship, acceptance, and dignity. For the refugees, this has been provided in part by a wide group of volunteers led by Shanawani.

In March, she brokered a meeting between the refugees, the IRC, and members of the Elizabeth school district, in an attempt to address some of the serious classroom issues the children were having. She also facilitated “adoptions,” matching North Jersey churches and synagogues with individual families.

After receiving the sewing machine back in February, Mohammad Zakkour has remained friendly with Kate and Melina from Bnai Keshet, mostly through text messages translated by the Google app. But since then, another Jewish group, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, has “adopted” the Zakkours.

“My synagogue is meeting weekly, helping them with English,” Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz says. “It became clear we could do hands-on things the IRC can’t do.” This included getting Samer Zakkour pregnancy care.

Dantowitz said the Zakkours are adjusting to life in America, and appreciate the friendships they formed. She said Mohammad texted her on Passover to wish her a happy holiday, which she said was really thoughtful.

“There are many crises in the world, the Syrian crisis is just one,” she said. “This is about human beings in God’s image. It just happens to be Jews and Muslims.”

Zakkour said he’s really appreciative and he wants to teach his children that religion, race, and gender should never get in the way. He’s very grateful that he found people who feel for him and his family. “We are all brothers and sisters in humanity,” Zakkour said. “I want to teach that to my kids. I want to plant the seed.”

The Al Radi family, who are Muslim, were also guests at the Christmas dinner at the Bnai Keshet synagogue. They have since become frequent guests, recently taking part in a Community Seder for Passover, sitting with Kate McCaffrey’s family.

The Al Radis are from Daraa, one of the most heavily bombed cities in Syria. Fadel Al Radi says that snipers and bombings kept his family trapped in their home for over a year.

“When we were in the house there was no safety,” Al Radi explained in Arabic, communicating with the help of Khalid Bendriss, a volunteer who often visits the family, and tutors the children on weekends. “You hear the strikes. You couldn’t even go get bread.”

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Credit: Thomas E. Franklin
Bnai Keshet Synagogue congregant Yael Silverberg-Urian, at bottom, welcomes the Al Radi family, who are Muslim, to their community Seder for Passover.

Al Radi had his own business in Syria, working as a welder making fences and garage doors. He says that his business was connected to his home. One night a bomb struck next-door, killing his neighbor. A wall between the houses fell, injuring his wife Maryam and damaging his shop.

Another time they were at a relative’s house when a bomb struck their home. “Our kitchen and half the living room were gone,” Al Radi says, dropping his arms like bombs falling from the sky. Around this time their son Mohammad, 7, became sick. That’s when they left for Jordan to get medical care. They never returned.

They lived for three years in Zaatari, an enormous refugee camp in the desert two-hours from the capital city of Amman. They say the conditions there were bleak. The IRC then relocated them to Elizabeth. While they are happy to be here, they’ve struggled to adjust to American customs and Fadel is frustrated that he cannot speak the language or find work.

“They had a pretty horrible experience in Jordan,” says McCaffrey. “Maryam said that they were treated very badly, less than human. They have been struggling to reestablish themselves.”

The United States is one of the few countries that require refugees to pay-back their travel costs, after they are resettled. The Al Radis, who have four children, received a notice from the IRC informing them that they must start to make monthly payments. The Al Radis, who have no means of income, were panicked.

Bnai Keshet again stepped in to help. Macall and McCaffrey quickly started a GoFundMe page, shooting a video and photos with the family, to help pay off the nearly $7,000 debt.

“We are amazed that in less than 72 hours we raised the full amount,” says McCaffrey. “This seems news worthy in and of itself! The response was remarkable.”

“There's so many people that have come out from all different towns and congregations to support these families,” McCaffrey says. “I think that they feel that they have recovered some of their dignity, but still there's a lot of challenges.”

Outside of school, the Syrian children have limited interaction with American children. Recreation, sports, and playtime, things that are familiar to American children, have remained elusive, and like the adults the language remains a barrier.

Recently, Heba Elhamasy, 22, a student from Montclair State and founder of Ihsan Charity, Inc., a nonprofit “dedicated to the welfare of refugees” worldwide, took the Al Radi children and Maryam to Monster Golf in Paramus. The children ran around in the darkened room playing videogames and riding motorcycle simulators, a rare occasion where they were able to forget about their worries and relax.

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Credit: Thomas E. Franklin
The El Radis pose for a photo with Kate McCaffrey's family, congregants at Bnai Keshet who have become close to the family, as well as with Khalid Bendriss and his wife Aman, a volunteer who also has become close with the refugee family.

Elhamasy, who also brought household items and clothing donations from her organization to their home earlier in the day, paid for the children and took delight in seeing them have such fun. “It’s the “small acts of kindness and friendship that make a difference,” she says. Elhamasy, whose parents are Egyptian, has even taken the children to her parents home in Jackson for a sleepover recently. “My parents love them. We speak the same language (Arabic). We feel a closeness. There’s a need (here).”

Just recently, three interfaith groups, Bnai Keshet, Temple Bnai Abraham, and the Al Andalus Foundation, organized a fundraising campaign to send 17 of the refugee children to daycamp at the Elizabeth YMCA. For two weeks this summer, they will have an opportunity to play with other children, improve their English, swim, and go on field trips.

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed by the scale of this catastrophe, but there are ways to help on a local level,” McCaffrey wrote in an email, appealing for donations, hoping to raise $3,000 to cover the balance. She says that the YMCA has offered a very generous subsidy to pay for the rest. She estimates that a $100 donation will cover the cost for one child, for one week.

Most of the children must attend summer school classes in the morning, so the YMCA has tailored the camp schedule, with sessions beginning in the afternoon.

“They live in apartments with no yards, this will give them an opportunity to swim and play, and practice English,” says McCaffrey. “This will help restore the smallest piece of childhood to children who have already lost so much.”

To contribute, please contact Kate McCaffrey at

Salma Hassan contributed to this story.

Thomas E. Franklin currently is a freelance multimedia journalist and a multiplatform journalism professor at Montclair State University with 30 years in the newspaper business. He’s perhaps best known for his iconic flag-raising photograph taken at Ground Zero. In 2002, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work on 9/11.

Franklin is currently doing a long-term research project on the Syrian Refugee crisis, and welcomes your comments and feedback. He can be reached at, on Facebook, and on instagram.

The complete portfolio of photographs of Syrian refugees in New Jersey can be viewed online.

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