A Syrian Refugee Family's Resettlement In The U.S. Is Captured In Graphic Novel

Sep 29, 2020
Originally published on September 29, 2020 6:51 pm

For the Aldabaans, a Syrian refugee family, the path to the American Dream has begun with mortgage on a house in suburban Connecticut — one with a grassy backyard and room for bikes and birds.

Adeebah and Ibrahim, parents of five school-aged children, work while their kids — who now speak English — attend school. The oldest two, Naji, 19, and Ammal, 18, are seniors in high school and making plans for college.

Their travels to this reality, though, have not been easy ones.

The challenges the family faced along the way is told in a powerful and moving new graphic novel Welcome to the New World. The story begins in 2016 when the Aldabaans arrive on election day in November — and wake up in Donald Trump's America.

A page from Welcome to the New World.
Metropolitan Books

Author Jake Halpern began to document the newcomers' transition. His reporting, with artwork by Michael Sloan, became a weekly nonfiction comic strip in The New York Times that won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. The new book expands the story.

"They are so good at adapting, this is such a different world here," Halpern says. He documented everything from first jobs to English classes, the kids' first day at school, a house fire — and even a death threat.

Naji, 19, showing his younger brother Ahmed, 7, how to ride a bike.
Maher Mahmood

Halpern points out that Ibrahim put an American flag outside the house as soon as the family moved in.

"They just bought this house — it's like the American dream realized," Halpern says. "They are thrilled. The mom and the dad, Adeebah and Ibrahim, and also Naji, the oldest son, have all been working full time to get a mortgage for this."

A page from Welcome to the New World.
Metropolitan Books

It's been a long road for the family, from Homs, Syria, where a civil war drove them to find safety in a Jordanian refugee camp in 2011. The long-awaited approval to resettle to the U.S. came in 2016 but posed another agonizing decision: Only Ibrahim, his wife and five children could travel. Approval for the extended family still pending.

Naji says the choice as to whether to stay or go was wrenching. They were following the U.S. presidential election, where candidate Donald Trump vowed to suspend refugee resettlement, especially for Muslims.

"My dad's mother, she told my dad if we go to the United States and Trump wins, 'I might not see you again,'" Naji recounts. Ibrahim was so conflicted he considered a longer stay in Jordan to wait for approvals for his mother and brothers.

Ammal, 18, adjusting her hijab in the mirror.
Maher Mahmood

But Naji insisted that any delay was risky. He argued that a better future was only possible in America. His father was prohibited from any work in Jordan, where they had been living. Naji had been out of school for five years.

"This was a big part of why Naji was pushing so hard for the family to come to America," Halpern says. "Relentlessly pushing his dad."

Naji ended up being the driving force in the family's move to Connecticut. Halpern's book documents the divergent experiences of the parents and children finding their way in a new country.

Ibrahim Aldabaan settled in Connecticut with his family in 2016.
Maher Mahmood

Looking through the pages of Halpern's book, recounting their experience in intimate detail, the family is reminded of surprising terrors along the way. Bears, for example. Ibrahim spotted them in suburban Connecticut while delivering packages for Amazon. Another initial fear? Basements. The family had learned from American films that basements, unknown in Syrian homes, are scary.

"I see the movie in my country," Adeebah laughs. The kids remember that their dad was the only one brave enough to make the first trips to the basement.

A page from Welcome to the New World.
Metropolitan Books

The book also recounts real hazards, like a middle-of-the night apartment fire that forced them to find shelter in a hotel. "It was night in winter, there was a snow storm coming," Halpern says.

They had to move again after a frightening death threat on Ibrahim's cell phone.

But the family has taken the setbacks in stride and built at new life through hard work and resilience, Ibrahim says. And, he says, they made the right decision to move ahead with the resettlement in America.

"I have my children, I have my family, I am like any American. Yes, I'm lucky," Ibrahim says.

Halpern has observed that Ibrahim makes his own luck: "I've just seen this man worry and push for his family for four years and yeah, I admire him for that."

Rahaf is 10. She's the youngest daughter in the Aldabaan family.
Maher Mahmood

At the same time, Halpern points out that a dad, especially a refugee dad, has to make wrenching choices. The Aldabaans cannot forget all they have lost, but Halpern's book also documents what they have gained.

"Now, we all realize that it's a good thing for us, especially now that we are helping our family back home. So, at the end, it helped both of us," Naji says. "If we were there, we wouldn't be able to help them. We always make sure we take from us and give to them."

Naji still hopes that the extended family will eventually be approved for resettlement in the U.S.

"Every day, we hope something new is changing. This election will be better," he says. "We are expecting them to be here."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This next story begins in 2016, when a Syrian refugee family arrived in Connecticut a day after the election of Donald Trump. Author Jake Halpern documented the family's ordeals in a series in The New York Times with artist Michael Sloan. Now they have a new graphic novel "Welcome To The New World." NPR's Deborah Amos caught up with the author and family together.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When the Aldabaans looked for their first family home in America, they chose this quiet suburban neighborhood with a grassy backyard and room for bikes and birds. It's where I meet Jake Halpern. We mask up outside to meet the family.

JAKE HALPERN: They just bought this house. The mom and the dad, Adeebah and Ibrahim, and also Naji, the oldest son, have all been working basically full-time in order to get a mortgage for this.

(Non-English language spoken).

Naji, how are you?

AMOS: The welcomes here are warm and familiar, sprinkled with Arabic greetings that Halpern's learned. Everyone in the family now speaks English.

IBRAHIM ALDABAAN: Hi, my name is Ibrahim Aldabaan. Here is my family. I have five children.

AMOS: It's been a long journey; from Homs, Syria, where a civil war drove the family to flee to a refugee camp in Jordan. The approval to resettle to the U.S. came in 2016 and posed another agonizing decision. Only Ibrahim, his wife and children could travel. The extended family - a grandmother, two uncles, wives and cousins - their approvals were still pending. Remember; it's 2016. The presidential election and candidate Trump was promising to end refugee resettlement, especially for Syrians.

NAJI ALDABAAN: So we were so scared that Trump will win the election. My dad's mother - she told my dad, if we go to the United States and Trump wins, I might not see you again. So that was one of the things that pushed my dad to not go.

AMOS: But Naji pushed back. The only future for the family was in America, he argued. He'd been out of school for five years.

HALPERN: This was a big part of why Naji was pushing so hard for the family to come to America, relentlessly pushing his dad.

AMOS: But you win.

N ALDABAAN: I won, yeah (laughter). Yeah.

HALPERN: All right.

AMOS: But this day is for celebrating that decision and a book about them...

HALPERN: So here at the back is the picture of your family

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wow.

AMOS: ...From the beginning of the journey...

HALPERN: This is your apartment in Syria.

AMOS: ...To a detailed account of the refugee experience. There were surprising terrors, like bears - Ibrahim had spotted some in suburban Connecticut when he was delivering packages for Amazon - and fear of basements, unknown in Syria except in American horror movies, says Adeebah.

Oh, so you think a basement is scary.

ADEEBAH ALDABAAN: Yes. Yes. I see the movie in my country.

N ALDABAAN: We'd never had basements before like that.

AMOS: There were also real hazards - a fire that burned up everything and forced them to move, a frightening death threat on Ibrahim's cellphone that warned the family would die unless they went back to their country. The first call Ibrahim made was to Halpern.

HALPERN: I'll never forget it. It was a night in winter. There was a snowstorm coming. It was actually a really weird situation as a journalist because I knew in a horrible way it was good for the story. But that night, I decided, OK, I'm there to show support. That was really intense.

AMOS: But through it all, Ibrahim still says he is lucky.

I ALDABAAN: Still, I have my children. I have my family. I am like any American. Yes, I'm lucky.

HALPERN: Ibrahim also made his own luck. I've just seen this man just worry and push for his family for four years. And yes, I often tell him that I admire him as another dad for that.

AMOS: But a dad, a refugee dad, sometimes has to make wrenching choices. He left his mother and brothers in Jordan for his children's future here. Four years on, Naji, now a high school senior, is planning for college along with his sister. Ibrahim put an American flag outside the front window as soon as the family moved in. The Aldabaans cannot forget all they have lost, but Halpern's new book also documents what they have gained.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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