Fewer than 20,000 of the estimated 4.8 million refugees from Syria have come to America. But the pace has picked up, and gradually, Syrian refugee families are finding their way to safety and recovery in many corners of America.
One of these corners is Northeast Philadelphia, where a small enclave of Syrians is growing in number and confidence amidst a larger Arab-American community. Public schools in the Northeast are set up to accommodate nonnative children, and family members or faith communities may provide financial and other support. But there are a thousand elements to making life work in America, and the cracks and crevices can trip up any recent immigrants and can be particularly vexing to families that have been uprooted from a violent land.
Helping several of these families integrate into society and handle a myriad of challenges are volunteers like Swarthmorean Carol Lastowka. Through the aptly named American Friend program of HIAS-PA (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pa.), Lastowka is in daily contact and visits weekly with two Syrian families who lived in Homs before that city was razed by government forces.
Lastowka teaches family members English, liaises between parents and schools and doctors, helps kids with homework and adults with paperwork and finances, “and probably a dozen other things.” But she is only one person.
“Because their needs are so intense, I appealed to my network through Facebook and Nextdoor,” Lastowka said. “The results have been incredible. Many, many people in our community have become indirectly involved with these two families.” In addition to tutoring and homework help sessions being arranged by a Strath Haven student, Carol’s friends and neighbors have donated household items and cash, funded a microbusiness started by one of the women, and helped one of the men set up a carpentry business.
“Thanks to our open-hearted community, these families feel supported and cared for,” Lastowka said, noting that HIAS is eager to assist others who care to get involved. Visit http://hiaspa.org/get-involved/volunteer.