Last week the first two Syrian families arrived in Rutland. If, as expected, President Trump scales back or halts U.S. refugee resettlement policy, those families may be the last Syrians to arrive.
Hazar and Hussam have barely spent a week in Rutland, but the couple was all smiles as we met in their host family’s living room with an interpreter.
They introduce their children, 9-year-old Layan, and 7-year-old Mohammed.
The couple asked VPR not to use their last names. They’re new, they explain, and want to be careful.
I ask them what this last week has been like. Hazar answers through an interpreter.
“At first, we came here, and we were surprised by the very, very, warm welcome by the people of Rutland. Our case manager [from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program] the mayor [Christopher Louras] and Greg [Schillinger, a member of their host family] came and welcomed us," she says. "And since then, it never stopped, and people are just welcoming us. People have just welcomed us and helped us in every way."
The couple, who are in their mid 30's, had been living in Damascus, the capital of Syria, until two years ago.
Hazar has a degree in French literature, but says she wasn’t working because their children were small.
Hussam, meanwhile, worked two jobs — as an accountant in the morning and as a sales representative for a medicine company in the evening.
But they say their life in Damascus became unbearable. Still speaking through an interpreter, Hazar describes why they left.
“The children were exposed to a lot of terror, and the sound of bombs and the sound of bullets and gunshots all day long. And we were like hiding and ducking underneath the tables all day long," she says.
Hussan leans forward. "We wanted to be safe,” he tells the interpreter, that simple.
“For children and family — my family — yes,” he stresses in halting English.
The couple fled to Turkey and lived in the northwestern city of Bursa for two years.
Hussam was working 14-hour days at two jobs. The couple wanted better opportunities for their kids in school, so they applied for resettlement, not knowing where they might end up.
The process involved four separate interviews: two in Ankara and two in Istanbul, as well as multiple security checks.
Then they waited. Both say that was hardest part.
They learned they were coming to America five days before they got on the plane.
First, they were told they were going to Los Angeles. But at the last minute, that changed to Rutland.
Hazar admits she was initially disappointed, because she’d at least heard of Los Angeles. But now that she’s met their host family, Greg and Maureen Schillinger and their four children, she’s grateful to be in Vermont.
“Rutland ... wonderful!” she laughs.
Layan and Mohammed haven’t started school yet, but their parents say it’ll happen soon.
The children sit quietly until 11-year-old Michael Schillinger sets up a pair of mini hockey nets in the kitchen. Soon, all three kids are playing hard in their stocking feet, squealing and laughing.
Greg Schillinger watches from the nearby dining room and smiles. Kids have a way of simplifying politics, he says.
“So often people talk about it in terms of policy or abstract ideas, and my question is, well, how many of these people do you know? I know four of them, and it’s a loving mother and a caring father and two kids who just love to play games.”
Back in the living room, Hazar and Hussam talk about the close family they still have in Syria. Hussam’s father, brother, and sister are still in Syria, he says.
“My mother, brother and sisters are there too," says Hazar through her interpreter. "I try to call them as much as possible. But most of the time they don’t have electricity, so it’s really hard to get hold of them.”
She goes on, “It was a very, very, hard decision to leave my family there, but I was looking at my children and that was the biggest motivation for me to leave.”
Hussam isn’t sure what kind of work he’ll find. Speaking through his interpreter, he says his long-term dream is to open a pharmacy.
Hazar adds that they left Turkey because they knew there would be better job opportunities for both of them here.
While the couple is grateful to have left Turkey for the U.S., Hazar explains through her interpreter that her feelings are mixed.
“We were happy that we were leaving and my kids would have a better future — but I was also thinking of my family. And I’m going to be a lot further away from them, and I might never see them again, so I was sad about that.”
When I bring up President Trump’s plans to halt resettlement for Syrian refugees, Hazar nods and her face grows serious. She’s holding her phone and says she’s been checking posts from friends she knows who are waiting to resettle.
Her interpreter explains, “She has one friend who posted that says, I have the flight permission and I’ve been waiting for a long time — is it possible that it’s going to wait all of a sudden?”
Looking up from her phone, she says through her interpreter, you can’t imagine what it’s like — some of these families have been waiting three, four, five years, only to have everything stop overnight?
Maureen Schillinger sits nearby, her face angry.
“It breaks my heart, actually, that there won’t be more families. I don’t think it does any good to keep people out,” she says. "It’s a loss for the local community and a loss for the larger community. And it’s just sad."