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From War-Torn Syria To Snowy Prep School, Syrian Refugees Seek Education In Vermont

Ryan Caron King
Ghena works on math schoolwork with her guided study teacher Karen Stark. Of the 1,000 students who go to St. Johnsbury Academy, Ghena and her brother are the only two who speak Arabic.

Many small towns in New England are eager to welcome refugees from the war in Syria, but that doesn’t seem likely under President Donald Trump’s shifting immigration policy.

St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont has found a way around that -- they’re offering scholarships to refugees already living in the U.S.

Outside a U.S. immigration office, tucked in a strip mall in East Hartford, the Alsalloumi family -- mom, dad, their two daughters, and eldest son, Ayman -- waited. They traveled more than an hour from their home in West Haven, hoping to get fingerprinted for their green card applications. They need green cards to start their pathway to citizenship.

“We had an appointment yesterday but it canceled before, because of the snow,” Ayman said. “But we just came to try.”

The Alsalloumis started this process last fall, but Ayman said he doesn’t know long it will take them to get a green card.

So the family headed home to West Haven to wait.

Cozied next to his sisters on a leather couch in their family room, Ayman, 16, said they waited almost two years for approval to come to the U.S.

“We did about 10 interviews, or more than 10,” Ayman said. “A lot of questions. About from when we’re born until now.”

Credit Ryan Caron King / NENC
Ghena and Ayman Alsalloumi stand on the St. Johnsbury campus on a snowy January day. Their family is from Homs, Syria - a city torn apart by civil war.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Ayman stands on the porch of the house his sister lives in on the St. Johnsbury Academy campus.

The Alsalloumis come from Homs, Syria -- a city torn apart by civil war. They left to visit an aunt in Jordan four years ago -- and never returned. Then the family moved to Connecticut a year and a half ago. Ayman’s mother, Rawan, said she and her husband want to stay here for the children.

“They came here just for us, for our future, to complete our study, to complete our education,” Ayman said while translating for his mother.

Now, Rawan takes English classes and looks after her youngest daughter, Jenna, who’s in third grade. Mazen, the father, works at a New Haven pizza shop and dreams of opening a Syrian restaurant.

It’s not Homs, but it’s not unusual to see Muslim people in West Haven. It’s a diverse urban area. But the two oldest kids don’t go to school here. Ayman and Ghena study four hours away, at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont. It’s an international school in a mostly white, blue collar town set in the Green Mountains.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Ayman Alsalloumi, 16, says his family wants to stay in the U.S. for the long term, no matter the political climate.

When I visited Ayman and Ghena in St. Johnsbury, they started the day at chapel on campus with announcements from the headmaster.

Aymen stood with his classmates for the Pledge of allegiance in his shirt and tie -- part of the dress code. Out of 1,000 students, the Alsalloumis are the only ones who speak Arabic.

Robyn Greenstone, who teachers their ESL class, said that’s good for them because they get immersed in the English language.

“It’s a real pleasure to get to know Ayman and Ghena and to watch their development,” said Greenstone. “I feel honored to be part of their new life here.”

Greenstone said learning English has boosted the students’ confidence in class, and helped them make new friends.

Ayman, Ghena, and their classmate Michelle Leblanc showed me around campus. Ayman told Michelle how he joined the basketball and soccer teams. Ghena doesn’t like sports as much, but she might try skiing for the first time. They had a school ski trip to the mountains scheduled for the next day.

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Ghena, 15, is St. Johnbury's first student to wear a hijab.

Instead of joining the ski team, Ghena said she would rather join clubs like fashion design. She’s St. Johnbury’s first student to wear a hijab, the religious head scarf. Michelle said she likes how Ghena coordinates her hijab perfectly with her outfits.

After class, Ghena showed me her home on campus.

She lives in a house with other international students from Ukraine and China. She pointed to a chalkboard hung up in her kitchen, where the girls doodled a message in Arabic.

“This means welcome,” Ghena said.

Ayman lives right across the street in a house for boys. The siblings go home to pray at sunset, then they eat dinner in the cafeteria. They sometimes miss their family -- and their mom’s cooking -- back home in Connecticut. On tough days, Ghena may talk to a school counselor.

Tom Lovett, the headmaster, said Ghena told him a little bit about what it’s like living in Vermont after fleeing Syria.

“Ghena said that this is the first time they felt safe in a long time,” Lovett said.

Lovett said St. Johnsbury is doing all it can to make Syrian students feel welcome in the remote town. He asked Aymen and Ghena what more the school can do.

“Of course they’re so gracious they said 'oh nothing, nothing. We love it,'” Lovett said. “But then, when pressed, it was to have more students from their culture and who spoke their language. So that’s our goal, two more next year, two more the year after, until we have eight.”

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Ayman listens to his teacher lecture in his chemistry class.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Ayman and Ghena sit in the living room of the house Ayman lives in with other St. Johnsbury Academy students.

Lovett said the school is ready to sponsor more Syrian refugees. But if Trump continues strict immigration policies, prospective students would already have to be settled in the United States.

In the meantime, the Alsalloumis prepare for college. Ghena wants to become a doctor and Ayman wants to become an architect. He said his family wants to stay for the long term, no matter the political climate.

“I don’t have to care about Donald Trump, I have to care about the people who I’m living with, like the people here at school. If they love us, if they want us,” Ayman said. 

The Alsalloumis said they want a peaceful life in New England, where they can build a future.

This report is part of a series called "Facing Change," which examines the shifting demographics of the region. It comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Cassandra Basler oversees Connecticut Public’s flagship daily news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and coordinates breaking news coverage on the air, online and in your morning email inbox. Her reporting has aired nationally on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Here & Now.

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