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'Magical Place For Us': Syrian Family Finds New Home In Rutland

A girl plays piano while two boys and their mother watch.
Elodie Reed
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VPR
Hazar Mansour watches as her kids Layan, 12, center, Mohammad, 9, left, and Danyal, 16 months, right, play in their Rutland apartment. It's been two and a half years since the family, including Hazar's husband, Hussam (not pictured), arrived in Vermont.

They fled violence in Syria. They moved from place to place for years. And now, Hazar, Hussam and their three kids are finally settling into their new home in Rutland, which they call a "magical place."

Three years ago, Rutland was planning to become Vermont’s newest resettlement community: 100 mostly Syrian refugees were expected to arrive, with more to follow.

But a cap placed on resettlement by the Trump administration meant only three families made it to Rutland.

A family photo.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Hussam, Hazar, and their children Layan, left, Mohammad, center, and Danyal, right, were one of three Syrian families to move to Rutland before the Trump administration capped refugee resettlement.

In the second of her three part series on the effects of the resettlement debate in Rutland, VPR’s Nina Keck caught up with one of the refugee families who moved to the city. This is the same family Nina profiled just days after they arrived in Rutland in January 2017.

More From VPR: He Was The Mayor Who Brought Refugees To Rutland. His Regret? Not Bringing More. [Sept. 22]

A thin grey line.

The first time I met Hazar Mansour, her husband Hussam Alhallak, and their two kids, we had to speak through an interpreter. Reporters were covering their every move, and they were living with Greg and Maureen Shillinger, a local couple who helped them get settled.

Two and a half years later, our second interview together feels completely different, starting with the laughter and “good mornings” I hear as I walk in.

Hussam and Hazar have remained close with the Schillingers, and all of us crowd into the Syrian family’s small apartment in Rutland.

A man feeds a young child rice.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Hussam Alhallak shares dinner with his and Hazar Mansour's 16-month-old son, Danyal.

I’m struck by how much 12-year-old Layan and nine-year-old Mohammad have grown since I first saw them. Then Hussam walks up and introduces me to their third child, 16-month-old Danyal, who was born last year. He has big brown eyes and a wide smile: he looks just like his dad.

The Schillingers play on the floor with Danyal so I can talk more easily with the toddler’s parents. Hazar and I sit on the living room couch. Everyone is relaxed and chatty.

Hazar, who pronounces it huh-ZAR, is 37 and stylish. She wears a tightly wrapped scarf on her head and large gold earrings.

“First time in Rutland was very hard for us,” she explains. “Because we came from city center. We were in Damascus and also in Turkey, and [it] was very crowded."

"Here,” she says of Rutland, "very quiet and calm. Big, big difference.”

A woman pushes a stroller and follows two children on a cross walk.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Hazar Mansour walks with her three children through their Rutland neighborhood, which she says is much quieter than their home city of Damascus, Syria.

Hazar speaks Arabic, Turkish and French — she taught the latter language to children back in Syria — but before coming to Rutland, she didn’t speak any English. 

“But, thanks for my husband, because my husband encouraged me to speak," she says. "Especially on the phone. Because on the phone is very hard for English. But my husband told me, ‘You must call, you must call!’" she adds with a laugh. "So I forget some words in Turkish, but for English, I think I am getting better."

“You know, first time, everything is hard: a new place, a new people, a new language, even new weather,” Hazar says. “Now, we used to everything.”

In Damascus, a city that had just under two million people ten years ago, Hazar's husband Hussam worked as an accountant. She was able to stay home with the kids. Family was nearby.

A young boy looks at a globe.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Mohammad, 9, looks at the globe in his family's living room. One of his favorite subjects in school is geography.

They tried to wait out the war, they said, but the bombs kept getting closer. The kids were frightened, especially their daughter Layan. So they fled in January 2015, first to Turkey, then two years later to Rutland.

They haven’t seen their families since, and they tell me that’s been the most difficult part about their new lives.

“You know, every new place, everything beginning, it's hard,” says Hussam, who is 36. “But I had, when I came here, I had a goal. My goal here: go to accounting job, and get accounting certification.”

But before he could do that, there were immediate needs to take care of. The family had to find an apartment, get the kids settled in school, learn English and pay the bills.

A man sits in an office cubicle.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Hussam Alhallak has worked as an accountant at Casella's West Rutland office since February.

So Hussam got a job at a local bakery. He would wake up between 3:30 and 4 a.m. to be at work by 5 a.m., to bake cookies and muffins.

“I was muffin man!” he laughs as his wife and the Schillingers join in.

"And he didn’t have a car,” Greg Schillinger says. "So he had to walk to work.”

Hussam says that got tricky when there were big snow storms, something his family was not used to.

A girl lies on her back and holds a young boy on her feet like an airplane.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Layan, 12, plays with her 16-month-old brother Danyal, who horses around with his siblings when they arrive home from school. Danyal loves it when his family sings the "Baby Shark" song to him, and he sings it back.

Two nights a week, friends and local volunteers watched the kids while Hussam and Hazar took accounting and English classes together at Community College of Vermont. It was slow going at first, and they relied a lot on YouTube and Google Translate.

But both got their accounting certificates, and since February, Hussam has been working in the tax department at Cassella, an accounting job with full benefits that he loves.

In the meantime, Hazar has put her career on hold to care for Danyal.

“I’ve been busy,” she says.

She got her driver's license. The family’s second car, a red mini-van, is parked outside.

A woman in a minivan.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Hazar Mansour drives her red mini-van on her way to pick up her son, Mohammad, from school.

Considering how divided Rutland was over refugee resettlement, I ask the couple if anyone has been disrespectful or rude to them since they arrived. They quickly answer no.

“Here? No,” Hussam says, shaking his head. “Every people nice people, you know.”

Hazar nods and pauses before explaining: “I know some people don't like Syrian refugee. Maybe because we are new here or because, any reason. But any people don’t bother us. All people here very nice people.”

Two other Syrian families moved to Rutland. They didn't want to be interviewed for this series.

Friends and neighbors have told me they’ve settled in well. Both of the husbands have jobs; each family has bought a car. The kids who are old enough are in school. One of the families welcomed a new baby in May.

A girl hands a dandelion to a young boy in a stroller.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Hussam and Hazar said they've only been treated well since arriving in Rutland in January 2017.

As with most immigrant families, the kids acclimate the quickest. That’s been true for 12-year old Layan, who’s learning keyboard and has started middle school.  Mohammad is nine and likes basketball. The kids go to birthday parties, do homework, play sports and hang out with friends.

“Now we are very busy!" Hazar says.

Hussam says Greg Schillinger warned him when he and his wife arrived that parents in America are busy. Now he understands.

It’s a different kind of busy than what they were used to in Syria, they say: more activities for the kids, like gymastics, basketball and swimming.

And things have gotten even more hectic now that construction has started on a new home the couple is in the process of buying, with help from Habitat For Humanity.

A woman under open roofing construction with a man looking on.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Hazar Mansour takes a look at what will be the roof of her family's new home, which they are purchasing with the help of Habitat For Humanity.

The house is going up just down the street from the family's current apartment. Hussam works on it with other volunteers every Saturday.

“Habitat make for us our dream, to settle, finally," Hazar says. "Because we are very tired from all the time move, all the time move. Finally, we find good place to settle. And we never think [to] move from Rutland. I think this magical place for us."

Layan and Mohammad say they love to walk down the street and see how construction on the new house is going.

A boy walks down a sidewalk towards a house under construction.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR
Mohammad walks toward his family's new home in Rutland, where they expect to move in the spring.

“I just feel proud of myself and my parents,” Layan says. "Everything they have done for us, they just try to make us happy."

“When I come past the house, I feel so excited,” Mohammad adds. “'Cause I see a building, and I see a lot of people helping us, which I love.”

The family hopes to move in next spring.

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