WATERBURY, Conn. — Reem Alhaji grabbed a golf ball out of her daughter’s hand and quickly hid it before the 2-year-old could discover its destructive potential.

Seated with her legs curled up on the couch, the Syrian refugee chatted in English – no translator required – as Elin ran around and jumped like a monkey.

“She is very busy,” Alhaji said of her daughter Wednesday. “At seven o’clock she goes to bed. Then this home is relaxed.”

Eight months ago, Alhaji and her husband, Khaled Mohammad, arrived in Connecticut with few personal possessions, no friends, and only a couple words of English.

A photo from that day shows the couple with tight-lipped smiles standing in their new home after a lengthy trip from Istanbul. Alhaji remembered how she felt – nervous and overwhelmed.

Syrians are the largest group of refugees in the world today, making up 5 million out of 22.5 million refugees worldwide, according to Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, a nonprofit that settles about half of all refugees in Connecticut.

The family was expected to be self-sufficient after six months, and it appears they’ve met that goal.

“Financially, they’re on their own,” said Susan Suhr, a volunteer with New Start Ministry, the team of dedicated volunteers who helped find the family housing, enroll Elin in preschool, teach them English, and help them navigate life in a new country. The team initially raised $14,000 to get the family started with all the necessities.

“Our aid and government aid have been cut way back,” Suhr said. “They now pay their bills every month on their own. They’re flying free, which is great.”

The volunteers have stopped their once-weekly meetings and are now taking a look back to see what could be improved if they decide to take on another refugee family next year.

“This has been a very demanding process for many of the team members,” Suhr said. “We all need a break.”

Suhr said her experience working with the refugee family has been a wonderful journey.

“Seeing them blossom is such a rewarding experience,” Suhr said.

Mohammad will take his driver’s license test Wednesday and Alhaji is studying for her permit exam. Someone donated a car for the couple to use once they have their licenses, a donation that promises to make their lives infinitely easier and give them the freedom to socialize and work on their own.

Mohammad works nearly full-time for a moving company, where he’s made friends. Alhaji is hoping to start classes to complete her GED next year, then go on to nursing school. The couple is looking to upgrade their living quarters to a two-bedroom apartment in the same complex. They will apply for a green card when they become eligible, Jan. 4.

While Alhaji and Mohammad are settling into life in Waterbury, life back home hasn’t gotten any easier for friends and relatives.

Air strikes hit towns and villages in northern Syria last week, killing and wounding dozens of people. Rami Abdurrahman, chief of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 42 towns and villages were aerially bombarded Sept. 22, killing at least 12.

At least 735 civilians have been unintentionally killed by U.S.-led coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve three years ago.

Despite the ongoing chaos, Alhaji said her family is doing well in Syria.

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“It’s ok,” Alhaji said. “Just have a little problem for electricity and water. If you have money, it’s ok. If you don’t have money, it’s a very big problem for a lot of people.”

With the Syrian currency devalued to almost nothing, she said people are paying for goods and services in euros, dollars and Turkish lire.

Once she has her green card, Aljahi hopes to bring her brother, who is now in Istanbul, to Connecticut. It’s been four years since she’s seen him. It’s hard not having family here, Alhaji said.

“My team is very good family, but I want to see my family too,” she said.

Mohammad’s family is spread across the world, with one brother in Istanbul, five in Syria and two in Germany. Although he hasn’t seen his brothers in Syria for five years, he said he talks to them often.

Despite the need, the inflow of refugees coming to the United States this year has slowed to a trickle, George said.

Under President Donald Trump’s executive order, the refugee resettlement program is in a four-month suspension period.

This year, the U.S. is taking in 54,000 refugees, about half the number promised by former President Barrack Obama, George said. Starting today, Trump is expected to reduce the annual cap to 45,000.

The situation has gotten worse in Syria, George said, with more refugees fleeing every day, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

“It’s the worst crisis the world has ever seen so it is shamefully, tragically ironic that the U.S. would set a refugee goal lower than it has ever been set before,” George said.

Trump administration officials said the new cap will advance national security interests and reflect the United States’ capacity to properly screen and take in refugees. They said new screening and admittance requirements for refugees will be announced later, as a 6-month review ordered by Trump near the start of his presidency draws to a close.

It’s unclear how those requirements might affect individuals from countries, such as Syria, included in Trump’s revised travel restrictions. Officials couldn’t say whether Syrians would be allowed in as refugees.

There are some exceptions to the restrictions, for refugees who have passed through the security vetting process and have a close family tie in the United States, and for families of people who have worked with U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan.

George said refugees don’t pose a security risk to the U.S.

“We all concerned about safety,” George said. “I have a family, I’ve lived in the Middle East. I’ve lived in war zones and places where terrorists’ bombs were going off every day. The point is, we can save the lives of refugees and be true to the spirit of the Statue of Liberty and bring refugees to this country and not risk our own lives. The Department of Homeland Security operates the most rigorous, time-consuming, invasive vetting process in the world. They don’t take chances.”

The two-year screening process includes fingerprints, checks of FBI, CIA, international terrorist watch lists, and international criminal databases, and hours of interviews.

“It can be done and it has been done for years,” George said. “The administration has not cited a single specific place or point in that screening process that they think is weak and needs to be strengthened. They just speak in generalities.”

Last year, Connecticut helped resettle an all-time high of more than 1,000 refugees, George said, and community groups in more than 30 towns across the state are trained to help more.

In 2016, IRIS welcomed 283 Syrian refugees to Connecticut. So far this year, the organization has taken in 49 Syrians.

“You’ve got an amazing family there in Waterbury,” George said. “What these new executive orders mean is they will keep people like that from coming to the United States. People you are proud to know. People who will make great American citizens and have children who do great things.”

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LARAINE WESCHLER
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