For one family fleeing Syria, a haven in New England

Since the Paris attacks, the program to settle Syrian refugees in the US has come under scrutiny. The experiences of one family – the Alnasars – in Massachusetts show how they have embraced their new life, despite many challenges.

The Alnasar family lives in this Westfield, Mass., home. They came to the US a year ago from Syria after an 18-month waiting period in Egypt.

For a man whose store was blown up and who has fled falling artillery shells, life in the United States now offers a new challenge: the political rhetoric of an election year.

Zaid Alnasar and his family were the first Syrian refugees to settle in Westfield, Mass. They are, in many ways, invisible to the community around them. Their apartment is nestled on a city street, with white sheer curtains and laundry pinned up on the porch.

But their story is a picture of how mundane and how profound life in America can be for Syrian refugees. Aside from the new baby born this year, their lives appear unremarkably normal. For the Alnasars, this may be the most remarkable thing of all.

Interviewed twice this fall before the political fallout from the Paris attacks, the Alnasars regard their new life in America as a “safe haven,” as Mr. Alnasar puts it.

Following the Nov. 13 attacks in France, fears about terrorists potentially entering the country posing as Syrian refugees reached a heated pitch, especially in the political world. President Obama has called for the US to accept 10,000 of the estimated 4 million Syrian refugees over this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is among 31 US governors saying he wants to halt acceptance of more refugees until he’s assured that the vetting process is thorough enough.

But given that Mr. Obama has indicated he will veto legislation aimed at pausing the refugee program, it’s likely that more communities are going to have to consider how they will respond to their newest members.

In seeking the answer, it may help to meet these new arrivals who aren’t much different from anyone else, says Mohammed Najeeb, resettlement coordinator for Westfield Ascentria.

“At the end of the day, they eat, they sleep, just like you and I,” he says. “They have ambitions, they take their kids to school, they want to do the best for their future and children.”

When they first settled in, just before Thanksgiving 2014, the Alnasars were the first Syrian refugees in the city. Several others have since joined them. According to the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, 32 refugees have been resettled in the state between 2011, when the civil war began, and 2014.

On a fall afternoon, seven Alnasars – from 3 months to 35 years in age – sit on two couches and folding chairs in a clean, sparse living room. It’s been a year since they arrived, and, for this family, Syrian and American cultures have begun to merge. 

Zenab Alnasar serves a guest thick, rich Syrian coffee – and then Tropicana orange and mango juice. Sons Mohammed, age 8, and Hadi, 10, play Corvette on their PlayStation. Through the door, a blackboard with a quote from the Quran that is written in Arabic is visible. Daughter Malam, 13, sits in her own room using her laptop, translating Arabic to English. When asked what her answer is to the question on her computer, “What would you like to become someday?,” Malam replies with a smile, “Doctor.”

Aside from the schools and city health department, the Alnasars have few interactions with their neighbors, sticking mostly to workers at their resettlement agency, Ascentria, and fellow Syrian refugees.

Having gone through the 18-month process to obtain refugee status, Zaid says, “I want to assure the American community not to worry about the Syrian refugees. Unlike the Syrian refugees going to Europe,” he says, speaking through an interpreter, he and other refugees arriving in the US have been comprehensively vetted. 

‘We were very happy’

Prior to the Syrian conflict, the Alnasars lived in the southwestern province of Daraa (former pop. 244,000).

“It was good – all the life needs were available ... schools, streets, city services,” Zaid says. “It was one of the most beautiful [places].

“I had a house, I had a car – as a family we were very happy,” he says. He drove a taxi and ran a cellphone shop with his brother, while Zenab raised the children.

Then, Zaid says, “The revolution started, and we lost all that.”

On May 14, 2013, two missiles were fired near Zaid’s store. “It threw me ... six, seven yards. My whole shop was destroyed,” he says.

Zaid escaped serious injury, though some children playing nearby did not. Three were dead. He thought he might be able to save a fourth, who was lying on the ground. “I went to pick him up and ... his head was dislocated from his body,” Zaid says.

“That immediate moment, I decided: [At] 6 a.m. the next morning, I’m leaving,” he says. “The next time, it’s going to hit me and my wife and my kids.”

The Alnasars’ life in the US began Nov. 21, 2014, when they arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York – each with one bag in hand.

Recalling his first thought, Zaid says, “We reached a safe haven.”

His family was met by a team from Ascentria Care Alliance, a New England-based organization designated by the State Department as a refugee resettlement agency. The two-member team, which speaks the families’ native language, transports families from the airport to their new apartment – which is prescreened and set up with utilities, furniture, and several days’ worth of food.

In the case of the Alnasars, their Arabic-speaking team brought them to an apartment in a downtown Westfield neighborhood just blocks from grocery stores, barbershops, and churches. Inside, mattresses and blankets were laid out, couches were in place, halal food was in the fridge, and the heat – important to a family moving from a warm climate to New England in November – was on.

Thinking back, Zaid says the neighborhood somehow felt familiar, though one thing was off: “Here the homes and apartments are made out of wood,” he says. Back in Syria, everything was constructed from steel and concrete.

Whether refugees are fleeing civil war or not, Ascentria’s Mr. Najeeb says the first few days for a family are difficult, often overwhelming. Najeeb, who is himself a naturalized citizen from Iraq, says he personally greets each family. “I tell them, it’s going to be OK,” he says.

Najeeb also asks families what their most pressing needs are. For the Alnasars, it was getting medical care for their son Hadi, who has a long-standing liver condition. Over the past year, Hadi’s health has improved and is expected to continue doing so, Zaid says.

It is one of many things that have improved, the Alnasars say.

When they lived in Egypt for 18 months while waiting to be given refugee status, “I didn’t go out of the house much,” says Zaid. “It’s not safe.”

The kids also dreaded school there.

“In Egypt, when we used to wake them up and say you have to go to school, they said, ‘No, we don’t want to,’ ” he says. “Here it’s opposite – they wake me at 6 a.m.”

“In Egypt we used to love holidays. Here, we hate holidays,” adds Mohammed, who along with the other children receives help from an Iraqi tutor-interpreter.

The family attends a mosque in Springfield and is able to maintain a halal diet. When Zenab gave birth to Salih, she says her wishes were respected at the hospital when she requested female attendants during examinations and childbirth. 

“They had no problem providing at all,” she says.

Zaid has found a temporary job at the Lightlife Foods Inc. factory, which specializes in vegetarian food. Working four or five days a week, he is able to pay most of the family’s monthly housing costs, with some help from the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance.

As with all resettled refugee families, the Alnasars also received help from the US Office of Refugee Resettlement, which provides medical services and cash for up to eight months after arrival.

Zaid says he and his family have benefited repeatedly from the generosity of others. In the grocery store, fellow customers will help him find a specific product, and when he first began using the bus, the driver took the time to show him how to use the correct money to pay his fare.

“I find help everywhere I go,” he says.

Safety a priority

Prior to the Paris attacks, says Kelly Gauger, deputy director of the US Refugee Admissions Program, groups opposed to Syrian refugees were loud but few.

“It’s never an entire community,” she says. “Sometimes it’s people that have a distorted view of what a Syrian refugee population will do to their community. Those voices tend to be in the minority.”

Following the attacks in Europe, however, the climate changed – including in Westfield.

John Velis, the state representative for the Westfield district, says he supports Governor Baker’s position. “I do back the governor,” he says. “Our foremost priority needs to be safety.”

Mr. Velis adds that he’s had a number of calls from constituents in recent weeks expressing security concerns.

A November 2015 US House Homeland Security Committee report says that, according to preliminary findings through an investigation begun in December 2014, it’s difficult to find background information on Syrian refugees given limited intelligence on the ground there. FBI Director James Comey is quoted in the report as saying, “My concern there is that there are certain gaps I don’t want to talk about publicly in the data available to us.”

The report also cites a number of gaps in Europe’s refugee resettlement program, adding that America is put at risk when its partner countries cannot carry out adequate counterterrorism efforts.

For his part, Velis says that, although he wasn’t aware Syrian refugees lived in Westfield until very recently, he wants to support them in the long run.

“It’s obviously a balancing act,” he says. “It’s just tightening up the security procedures. After that, of course, [I am] welcoming them with open arms. At the end of the day, most human beings want what we want.”

The Alnasars have settled in, but there are still some remnants of the difficulties they fled. Whenever planes go by overhead, Zenab still raises her arms to shield herself.

“She still has that fear in her,” Zaid says. “I tell her, ‘We’re in America. Don’t be scared.’ ”

Getting accustomed to the cold weather is another transition. It was especially nippy as Zaid spent his first months in Westfield getting around on a bicycle during last year’s record snowfall. “You have to get used to it,” he says.

Other facets of Massachusetts – its fast-paced lifestyle, aggressive driving, and fast-spoken English – have been a lot to absorb.

“My English is not the best,” Zaid says. He’s taking English language classes through Ascentria.

He and his family are also embracing all the new experiences coming their way, like eating pizza and drinking cold-brew coffee – and spending time in parks and shopping in nearby businesses. “We try the things we don’t know to learn [about] it,” he says. “We’re learning from this culture.”

The language barrier has made it hard for the Alnasars to get acquainted with their neighbors. In Syria, Alnasar says, he knew everyone. Here, it’s different. “We speak Arabic,” he says. “I don’t socialize, because the language isn’t there yet.”

Terrorism and security aside, supporting families like the Alnasars comes with a number of challenges for a community. Affordable housing, Ms. Gauger says, can be difficult to find, as are entry-level jobs for refugees who don’t speak English well.

Syrian refugees will be sent to areas of the US with the resources to help them, she adds.

“We’re really going to be spreading them out,” Gauger says. “I don’t think it’s going to overwhelm the system.”

In Westfield, says Debra Mulvenna, a supervising public health nurse for the Westfield Health Department, resources become strained, at least to start. “We do struggle when we have a new group come in with the language and the cultural barriers,” she says. “It could be better, absolutely – they need more help.”

Gauger says overcoming cultural differences can be a challenge. A family from Syria who are practicing Muslims, for instance, may have different expectations for genders than Americans do. To make it here financially, Gauger says, a wife may have to work in addition to her husband.

The Alnasars say they’re open to learning about more than just pizza and cold weather. “For the time being [Zenab] can’t [work],” he says, pointing out that they have an infant to take care of. “But in the future if she’s able to, why not?”

Looking at his children, Zaid says that even if their home country were to find peace, he wouldn’t move his family back – his kids are settled here now, and are safe.

“My vision of America was, Life is beautiful there,” he says. “And I was right.”

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