As Rabbi Deb Smith walked up the pathway to Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church on June 25 for an interfaith iftar — the meal following the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — the guests of honor mulling about noticed her kipa. “One after another they touched their heart and said, ‘Shalom,’” Smith recalled. “To each, I touched my heart and said, ‘Salaam.’ There was nothing more we could say to each other.” That’s because she doesn’t speak Arabic, and the guests of honor were newly arrived refugees from Syria, settled in Elizabeth, who don’t speak English.
Sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, the interfaith iftar is an annual event that the two organizations began three years ago. This year, the first to honor refugees, attracted over 100 Christians, Muslims, and Jews. It was the third welcoming event FFEU, an organization whose mission is to foster relations between Muslims and Jews, has sponsored — the previous two were in synagogues in the Greater Washington, DC, area, at Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va.; and at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. The Basking Ridge gathering was also one of 111 similar events in 32 different states that are part of an interfaith effort sponsored by Refugees Welcome, a coalition of over 50 religious organizations that includes the Union for Reform Judaism, Anti-Defamation League, National Council of Jewish Women, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and Women of Reform Judaism.
Inside the church, women with young children and babies on their laps shushed and entertained them as clergy from various faiths, including Smith, spoke about the message of compassion in their respective religions.
As plates were passed, gestures of friendship were made — smiles were exchanged in lieu of conversation and Middle Eastern fare offered to those without. The meal began with grapes and dates and bottles of water; then women lined up on one side of the room and men on the other and volunteers heaped their plates with falafel and hummus, gyro meat, and chicken.
The eagerness of the refugees to show friendliness and good cheer belied the difficult journeys they have had. Speaking through ad hoc interpreters, two of the women shared pieces of their stories quietly with a visitor, while Hasan Al-Nabilesi told of his journey with the larger audience.
The group of 16 families was settled in Elizabeth over the last two months through the efforts of the International Rescue Committee. They are among 19 Syrian refugee families (77 individuals) settled in New Jersey between Oct. 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016, 2,805 altogether who came to the United States during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of State Refugee Processing Center.
There are currently 4,837,134 Syrian refugees in the world, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
‘We want a peaceful life’
Salma, 32, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of putting family members still in Syria in danger, left Syria in March 2012 with her husband and two daughters, now 11 and five. That’s when their water and electricity was cut, followed by “patrolling with airplanes” and then their house was burned down, one of about 50 in their town of Idlib, she told NJJN.
“The next step after burning the house is to kill us,” Salma said. So about two days later, they escaped to Turkey with five other families on a truck used to transport gasoline. “We had to do that to get out,” she said.
When they reached Turkey after the hour-long ride, they went to the Hatay refugee camp near Reyhanli, one of five tent cities in Turkey; according to the UNHCR, there are some 2,800,000 Syrian refugees in the country. When they arrived, Salma said, “it was very cold. There was just a tent. But on the second day, we had foam, something on the floor.” After two months, they found housing through the UN and eventually made their way to Elizabeth.
Maryam al Radi, who came to the iftar with her husband and four sons, 14, 13, seven, and five, was quick with a smile and a joke. (She kept saying, “French,” but when a visitor tried to speak French, she winked and said, “English.” She spoke neither.)
Her 13-year-old son Ibrahim has begun to pick up bits of English and tried to translate for his mother, with words, motions, and sound effects. Together they described their journey from Syria through Jordan to the United States. Toward the end of the conversation, a bilingual volunteer took on the task of translating for them.
Ibrahim described their home in Syria as a “big house.” He said his father did well in an industry manufacturing or installing “doors and windows” until the war. Imitating the sound of machine guns, Ibrahim explained that it was “scary the baby,” pointing to his younger brother, now five. Maryam then pantomimed holding and rocking a baby followed by a knife execution of the child. As Ibrahim put it, “Police come and take the baby and kill the baby.” Making sure it was understood that it did not happen to them, he added, “Other families’ baby — you take the baby — and died. Police killed them.”
The family escaped to a camp in Jordan. But, according to Maryam and Ibrahim, Jordan, with over 655,000 refugees (according to the UNHCR), was not very welcoming, and the camp they were in was particularly violent. “The Jordan no work,” said Ibrahim. “All people sees is one from Syria is bad. They want kill you.” He showed scars on his hand, arm, and back that he said were from being cut with a knife by Jordanians. He also recalled the shock of moving from their large home into “two rooms for me and my family, four boys, my mom, and my Bab,” as he calls his father.
With an interpreter on hand, Maryam was able to express her thoughts on being in New Jersey more fluidly. “Thank God it is going well,” she said. “The main obstacle is the language and getting work. I would like to be working. I’d be thankful if you found a job for me,” she said. “Most important is for the children to get an education.” She added, “We don’t want to be wanderers. We want to settle and live a peaceful life.”
The iftar was not the Al Radi Family’s first interfaith experience. While they were still in Jordan, Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, which had already hosted a Christmas dinner for refugees, held a successful GoFundMe campaign to raise money to cover their airfare. After arriving, the Al Radis attended Shabbat services and a communal Passover seder at Bnai Keshet.
Wafa Esposito, a volunteer from Summit with roots in Lebanon, has been working closely with the families in Elizabeth, with the women in particular. Most are illiterate, she said, compounding the issues facing any immigrant. She is starting a nursery in a mosque in the city so that the women can drop their children off and then attend classes. In the meantime, Esposito said, some of the children have not been in school in years. “None of them speaks English,” she said. “You can do nothing without the language…. The kids can’t express themselves. They can’t learn properly.” She pointed to the need for bilingual teachers in the Elizabeth schools and a “quality ESL program.” Housing issues are also a concern. “The houses they were assigned to all have plumbing problems, electrical problems, and they are infested with cockroaches and mice,” she said.
On this evening, however, they listened and then they broke their fast — men on one side, women on the other, and embraced the strangers welcoming them in.
Walter Ruby, FFEU Muslim-Jewish program director, said, “We are very gratified to play a role in welcoming our Syrian brothers and sisters and to join with so many others in the Jewish, Muslim, and interfaith communities….”
Their welcome, he added, says “‘no’ to the campaign of fear, bigotry, and Islamophobia to scare the American people into saying ‘no’ to desperate people fleeing horrific violence.”
Smith, who was on the iftar planning committee, said, “This seemed the perfect opportunity. They are strangers in a new land at the high point of their [religious] calendar. To do this in a multi-faith setting gives us a chance to respect, acknowledge, support, and extend to them our hands and our hearts in welcome and blessings.”
Also at the iftar were NJ State Senators Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20) and Linda Greenstein (D-Dist. 14); ADL NJ regional director Joshua Cohen; Jonathan Golden, director of the Drew University Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict; and Melina Macall of Bnai Keshet, who has spearheaded some of the synagogue’s efforts on behalf of Syrian refugees.