BY REBECCA BENNETT — Representatives from more than 20 different faith organizations came to University Christian Church (UCC), located at 6800 Adelphi Road, on Saturday, April 9 to welcome six refugee families from war-torn Syria who have relocated to the City of Hyattsville, Riverdale Park and College Park.
According to religious leaders who spoke at the welcome dinner, the decision to leave home is a difficult one, but the subsequent journey can be much more challenging. “Two months ago, a nephew of my [Syrian] wife … was going to the school when shrapnel almost killed him,” said Gaith Abdo of the Islamic Society of Greater Washington Area. “So that’s when they decided to leave.”
He said his wife’s family went by road to Turkey, and then tried to take rubber boats to Greece, but the coast guard forced them to go back. They then traveled by bus from Turkey to Greece. They were fortunate to have friends there who could find them temporary housing until they could secure their exit from Greece to Germany and on to Switzerland, he said.
“They are not terrorists … These people are real people, real families who are forced to leave their homes under very severe conditions,” Abdo said. “I don’t like to call them refugees. I like to call them guests.”
Imam Othman Talib from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society said he was just a baby when the first Gulf War erupted in 1990. His family was visiting his aunt and uncle in the United States at the time, and they had to decide whether to stay here or go back to a country in the middle of war. They decided to stay, he said.
This was the first time members of UCC met their new Syrian neighbors. Most of the Syrians at the event were new to the United States within the past six months to a year, according to UCC Rev. Nathan Hill.
“One of the needs they have is to simply know their neighbors,” Hill said.
Rev. Sharon Stanley-Rea, director of Refugee & Immigration Ministries, an organization based in Washington, DC, helped to organize the local welcome dinner as a part of the kick off of a national “Refugees Welcome” campaign.
“We believe that by educating the public on why we have a Syrian refugee crisis that people will change their minds about the issue,” said Omar Hossino from the Syrian Council of America. “We were very heartened by the outpouring of support by the church community and our neighbors and friends in welcoming these new families from Syria and hope it kicks off a national campaign to welcome the refugees.”
Stanley-Rea said that the Syrian families were thrilled with the welcome offered to them at the event. “Many spoke of hearing negative comments about refugees on the TV and radio news, and so were grateful to hear the statements and smiles of welcome offered by those who attended,” she said.
Elected officials from the City of Hyattsville and Riverdale Park provided words of encouragement that were translated into Arabic. “We are so happy and grateful that you are here among us,” Councilmember Edouard Haba (Ward 4) said. “We feel that this is a privilege to host you here in our city.”
“Those of us who live in our relatively comfortable lives and shed menial complaints can’t possibly compare the anguish and torment suffered by the Syrian people,” Councilmember Tom Wright (Ward 3) said.
“Let me invite you to bring the best of what Syria had to offer and nurture it here,” Riverdale Park Mayor Vernon Archer said. “Cultivate your best in freedom and openness.”
UCC’s faith tradition is Disciples of Christ, which Hill said has a long history of resettling refugees from all over the world through organizations within the church. “This is just a part of wanting to be a church at the intersection of this diverse neighborhood and welcome and supportive to all of our neighbors and wherever they come from and their situation,” Hill said.
Hill also said UCC has recently helped resettle refugees from Cambodia in this area.
According to Stanley-Rea, the new Syrian residents want assistance in finding jobs which match their training and skills; which ranges from computer expertise to butchering to architecture work, etc. They also need English language assistance, assistance obtaining drivers licenses, as well as obtaining vehicles. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to help.
Other Syrian families are likely to arrive in our area, Stanley-Rea said. Those refugees enter the U.S. through a State Department resettlement office, which she said assists intensively with their initial resettlement needs over the first 90 days.
“Refugees Welcome” is also working on a similar event assisting multiple African refugee groups, according to Stanley-Rea.