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Syrian Siblings Find Their Way At Vermont Prep School05:23
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Ghena, left, 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. (Ryan Caron King for NENC)
Ghena, left, 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. (Ryan Caron King for NENC)
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The Alsalloumi family waits outside a U.S. immigration office that's tucked in a strip mall in East Hartford.

The family — mom, dad, their two daughters and eldest son, Ayman — 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 [was] canceled because of the snow," 16-year-old Ayman says. "But we just came to try."

The Alsalloumis started this process last fall, but when I ask how many months until he’ll get a green card, Ayman says, "We really don’t know yet. Maybe about four, five, something like this."

So the family heads home to West Haven to wait.

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

"We did about 10 interviews, or more than 10," he says. "A lot of questions. They asked us about from when we’re born until now."

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

"They came here just for us, for our future," Ayman says, translating for his mother, who's speaking in Arabic, "to complete our study, to complete our education."

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 there. Ayman and daughter 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. The school offers scholarships to refugees already living in the U.S.

The students start the day at chapel on campus with announcements from the headmaster. Ayman stands 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 says that’s good for them because they get immersed in the English language. She teaches their ESL class.

"It’s a real pleasure to get to know Ayman and Ghena and to watch their development," Greenstone says. "I feel honored to be a part of their new life here. I’m just very pleased."

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

Ayman, Ghena and their classmate Michelle Leblanc show me around campus. Ayman tells 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. The next day they have a scheduled trip to the mountains.

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

After class, Ghena shows me her home on campus.

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

"This means 'welcome' in Arabic," she points out.

Ghena works on math schoolwork with teacher Karen Stark. (Ryan Caron King for NENC)
Ghena works on math schoolwork with teacher Karen Stark. (Ryan Caron King for NENC)

Ayman lives right across the street in a house for boys. They 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, says 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've felt safe in a long time," he says.

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

"Of course they’re so gracious, 'Oh, nothing, nothing. We love it.' But then, when pressed, it was to have more students from their culture and who spoke their language," Lovett says. "So that’s our goal."

Lovett says the school is ready to sponsor more Syrian refugees. But if President 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, an architect. He says 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," he says. "If they love us, if they want us."

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

This story is part of the series “Facing Change,” by the New England News Collaborative, which examines the shifting demographics of the region.

Ayman listens in his chemistry class. (Ryan Caron King for NENC)
Ayman listens in his chemistry class. (Ryan Caron King for NENC)

This segment aired on February 27, 2017.

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