Stories of Welcome

Small acts of compassion create a big impact on a refugee family

Sponsors welcome a second Syrian family to Connecticut

Sometimes recognizing and respecting what makes people different enables their similarities to shine even brighter. Coming together from diverse cultures, languages, and faiths, this sponsor group and the refugees they welcomed found that joy, laughter, and peace transcend their differences.

In March 2024, eight members of The Welcoming Project Sponsorship Group welcomed a Syrian family of six to New Britain, Conn. The members, who are mostly all retired, merged their skills, experience, and interfaith beliefs to help Zyad Al Mahameed, Souzan Al Jarad, and their children settle into a diverse community with new opportunities

Sue Sames, who leads The Welcoming Project, said that opening their group to different faith and non-faith members acted as another kind of welcoming. She shared that sponsorship has exposed her to interfaith teachings, including “Tikkun olam,” which is a concept in Jewish faith that refers to repairing the world through small interactions.

“It’s just an appreciation for small acts of compassion and kindness. And it’s just been so helpful to be exposed to that,” she said.

Sponsorship is a series of small, compassionate acts that creates a big impact on families and the communities where they settle. The Welcoming Project group first experienced this by co-sponsoring a Syrian family with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in 2022. Co-sponsorship was such a positive experience that the group—along with the Syrian family they co-sponsored—decided to sponsor a new family, this time choosing the Welcome Corps program. Through the application, they indicated they hoped to welcome a Syrian family who spoke Arabic, knowing the Syrian family who had joined their community in 2022 was eager to provide support.

The daughter of the first family they co-sponsored was bursting at the seams to help welcome a second Syrian family to Connecticut, Sue said.

“She says, ‘I can hardly wait. I can just hardly wait to tell them that everything is going to be okay, that they’re safe here.’ And it just brought tears to my eyes,” Sue said. “We help them feel safe. We help them just know that everything is going to be okay.”

While co-sponsorship and group sponsorship have many similarities, sponsorship through the Welcome Corps involved more hands-on support. Sponsors greeted the family at the airport, drove them to appointments, helped them fill out essential paperwork, and worked with them to find housing.

Members of The Welcoming Project Sponsorship Group and the Syrian refugee family they welcomed.

Sponsorship through the Welcome Corps is providing Zyad and his family with a second chance. In Syria, he said his family lived a nice, simple life. He married Suozan in 2006, and they had their first child two years later. But in 2011, civil war broke out very close to their home.

“It was so eventful that we spent the first period, I was moving my family—even within the village area and the surrounding area from one spot to another—from a few days to another few days, just to stay alive, to avoid what was going on,” he said.

Zyad feared for the life of his wife and two-year-old child. When she slept, he was happy that she was unaware of the surrounding war. “That’s when I thought that I should start a plan to get out of there, just to save our lives,” he said.

They obtained passports and crossed the border into Jordan in January 2012, with just the clothing they were wearing. Zyad said they felt welcome in Jordan, but there were few resources to support newcomers. Over 12 years, their family grew by three more children. Zyad worked 12-hour days to meet the family’s basic needs, but realized his children needed more opportunities.

“The first and foremost thing a parent thinks about is their children and their future,” Zyad said.

“My children are growing older and older and coming of age gradually. As we all understand as a child grows, as an individual grows, their needs in life and want in life also slightly increase and broadens,” Zyad said. “The first and foremost thing a parent thinks about is their children and their future.”

His oldest daughter was one of the top students in her class, which led Zyad to question how much his children would be able to grow in Jordan when their lives were so difficult and expensive.

Now in the U.S., years after his initial meeting with the U.N. Refugee Agency, Zyad said things are completely different: “It’s a whole [other] chapter for us.”

With that new chapter comes a mix of emotions, he said.

“As good and wonderful that the news was, you’re leaving friends and loved ones behind from your own homeland,” Zayed said. “Overall happiness and joy, of course. You have to understand it was a whole complex, emotional journey.”

Thankfully, The Welcoming Project Sponsorship Group immediately helped the family feel at home.

“Everything is going to be okay.” That’s what the daughter of a Syrian refugee family eagerly wanted to share with a new Syrian refugee family of six, who she helped to welcome to Connecticut.

“It was a very wonderful shock and surprise to see these wonderful people waiting for us. There was a person who spoke Arabic who was helping us communicate,” he said. “They brought us to a little apartment which was furnished which was waiting for us. There was actually even dinner, a meal which was even warm when we arrived.”

After sponsor Susan Graham-Handley took the family to tour the elementary school, they stopped by the park on the way back to the family’s apartment. All four kids raced to the swings. It was a moment Susan said she’d never forget.

“I just reminded myself to take a mental picture of this because it was just such a joyful scene,” Susan said. “And if I’m ever feeling a little stressed out about anything, I get to remember this moment because it was just so lovely.”

Sponsor Michael Sames, Sue’s husband, said he’s learned a lot from the experience and their friendship with the family. “Just sitting with them and spending time with them, I find myself tearing up all the time because I can’t believe that I’m there and that I’m part of this. It’s just way, way beyond expectations,” he said.

For Zyad and his family, he said the sponsor group has gone above and beyond to welcome them. “Each and every one of them when they come into contact with us are very loving and very courteous and welcoming, especially with the children,” he said.

 Zyad and his family appreciate that their sponsor group and new community have helped them feel welcome and comfortable.

And while the sponsor group is made up of many cultures and faiths, Zyad said their differences have not been a focal point. The group took time to understand and meet the family’s cultural and religious needs, helping them to feel cared for.

“When it came to our cultural necessities, when it came to a prayer time, when it came to Ramadan, when it came to this and that, they were so well versed just to make sure we got everything we needed and wanted and what would make us comfortable,” Zyad said.

“It’s human to human, it was amazing,” he said.

This is an experience where you really get to make a meaningful contribution like you’re actually changing the course of someone’s life. There aren’t many volunteer experiences that allow you to do that. It’s a big commitment of your time, but you’re not being asked to do anything that you don’t do in your normal life,” Sue said. “I’ve got to say, this has just been one of the joys of our lives.”

Sue Sames, Sponsor