Syrian Refugees DMV Bound: Is the Muslim Community Ready?

Community News














When the Syrians refugees come to resettle amongst us, will our community be ready? This is a question being pondered by many groups in the DC Metro area.  To see what is being planned or currently offered in terms of services to newcomers, a few local organizations were contacted just to get the lay of the land and this is expected to be the first in a series of articles mapping the scene.

First are the humanitarian organizations.  According to Kyle Isma'il, Programs Manager at Islamic Relief USA, there are still “a lot of moving parts.” While their mission is to respond, and thus they have not planned any concrete programming as of yet, they are staying in close contact with official resettlement agencies such as partners International Rescue Committee and Lutheran Social Services, who expect by 2016 to have an influx of asylum seekers. Islamic Relief is thinking to fill the need of identifying donors interested in providing family sponsorship.  Indeed refugees from the crisis who have already arrived through non-official, undocumented channels are already calling for financial assistance.  Recently they had one call for a case of eleven people living in a 2 bedroom house and unable to work due to their status.

One of the best ways to be able to get newcomers back on their feet is helping them find gainful employment.  In order for them to be hired though, they are going to need basic English skills.  One local program already in existence to meet this need is the ESL Program at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) which holds two levels of classes, beginning and intermediate, on Sunday afternoons in their library. They have seen their enrollment double this spring, now with a class of 16 and while not from Syria, they are representing Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Sudan and even one non Muslim pupil from El Salvador probably referred from the local government county office.

Indeed, for other masajid interested to organize classes there are funds made available each spring through Montgomery County Adult Education Literacy grants.  The age range for this current ESL group is 15-70 years with the youngest is a refugee living locally with a host family.  Also many of these students escaped a conflict in their home country so have never been to school at all or came from a country where women did not experience high level s of literacy so they are struggling just to learn basic study skills.  While they pay a small course fee to MCC to cover instructors and course materials, there are also grants available from the county and in some limited cases from MCC directly.  Once completing a session of classes, now 9 weeks long, students are able to attend free one-on-one private tutoring with volunteer tutors.

MCC is always looking for more participants to join this volunteer program and Montgomery County Muslim Foundation and ICM have offered to open up space if they can find tutors to offer up some time as well. This would enable students to meet for conversation closer to their home.

Right now some students rely on the Social Welfare Activities Inc. to provide transportation subsidies to get them to MCC.  For more information about these classes or to offer your time you are encouraged to reach out to Usman Sarwar or Karen Bashir at 301-384-3454. They are also hopeful other masajid will start ESL programs, including on days other than Sunday, to reach additional students as the need grows. According to Bashir, “the more we work together, the more services we can provide.”

Another innovative program has been started on Fridays after jumah at the Islamic Center of Northern Virginia, Shirley Gate masjid. This one is called the GSI Ansaar Help Clinic Community Resource Center. The name comes from the reference of the Ansaars (Helpers/Wise Immigrants) helping the Muhaajirs (Emigrants/New Comers) when they came to Medina.  Here they have a team of professionals (many retired) in various fields such as law, accounting, social work, physicians, who “offer advise, guidance, feedback, pointers, opinions, and networking” on pretty much any issue under the sun.  All of this counseling is done on a personal level in person or by phone call to help as Ismail Laher, the organizer, says, “those who have newly landed who still have sea legs.” The idea is to give trustworthy advice and make sure nobody in vulnerable circumstances is taken advantage of because of their situation.  Pro bono referrals can be made about personal finances, job searches, taxes, immigration and visas, family issues such as marriage, divorce and parenting issues, funerals, real estate, home and auto repair, health and mental health issues and referrals to specialists, surgeons, clinics and the like.

If you would be willing to offer discreet confidential advice on these or other topics (and you don’t necessarily need to be present Fridays at the mosque and there will be no listing or online resource made available so that inquiries are managed) kindly contact Laherji as he is affectionately known also hopes other masajid will copy this model as it has become a busy resource being used by at least half a dozen people weekly and could easily be replicated elsewhere.

If you wish to highlight other services/resources for this series, please contact the Muslim Link.