July 27, 2016
By Nichole Golden Catholic News Service
CLARKSTON, Ga. (CNS) -- Fatma, a Syrian refugee and mother of five children, loves treating her friend Susan Scollo to steaming cups of tea and coffee flavored with cinnamon and homemade chocolate and coconut desserts.
Scollo, a volunteer with Catholic Charities Atlanta's Refugee Resettlement Services, visits Fatma weekly to help with errands or sort through documents.
After violence forced them to leave Syria, Fatma and her husband, Mohammed, spent more than a year living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Their names have been altered to protect family members still in Syria.
Before 2011, when the clash began between Syrian military and opposition forces that escalated into a full-scale civil war, the family enjoyed a nice life in Homs, Syria. They were building a home, and Mohammed had a good job at a dairy. But the ancient city has been devastated and destroyed. The family car was struck by a missile. They eventually decided to flee. With the help of Fatma's brother, the family escaped to Lebanon.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta resettled the family, moving them to an apartment in Clarkston. The DeKalb County community has opened its arms to refugees from across the globe.
Scollo is involved in Catholic Charities' Family Friend program, which matches volunteers with recently arrived refugee families. The friends commit to working with their assigned family for two hours per week for the first four months they are in the country.
"Family Friends are, first and foremost, a welcoming face amongst the uncertainty and fear that comes with moving to a new place where everything is unfamiliar and you may not even speak the language," said Kimberly Longshore, refugee resource coordinator for Catholic Charities Atlanta. "They help families learn things like how to check the mail, how to do their laundry, and work their thermostat. They also allow them the opportunity to practice their English."
Scollo, a member of Transfiguration Parish in Marietta, has worked with two Burmese families. This is her first time working with a Syrian family. From the start, she and Fatma had an instant connection.
When Scollo first visited and introduced herself, she explained that "Sue" was a nickname. Fatma had her own plan and decided to call her new acquaintance Susan.
"That's a better name," Fatma told her.
"One of the first things I usually bring to a family when I go is a picture English dictionary," Scollo told The Georgia Bulletin, Atlanta's archdiocesan newspaper. "It truly helps with learning parts of the house, food names, places around a city, and other helpful words such as words used at a doctor's appointment."
After living in Georgia for more than a year, Fatma speaks English well. She had studied translation for a brief time with a British instructor at college.
Scollo knows very little Arabic.
"The only word I really know is lollipop," she joked.
Fatma's three youngest children, ages 1 to 5, play nearby. The oldest two girls attend the International Community School in Decatur.
"All my children love Susan," said Fatma.
Fatma's 3-year-old daughter, Farh, played with a cellphone and giggled as she showed Scollo pictures. The two have their own way of communicating.
One day, Scollo realized that Farh was telling her not to remove the car seat from her vehicle because they had plans to go back out.
"I know her so well. I know what she's trying to tell me. I speak 'Farh,'" said Scollo.
Fatma's husband works daily in Tucker, and she has no driver's license. Scollo helps by taking her to the market or to doctor's appointments.
She has become familiar with all the grocery stores and farmer's markets in metro Atlanta that offer ethnic foods, and learned a lot about Syrian cuisine along the way.
Some of the refugee families' needs are more basic. Scollo recalls one woman who had never seen a doorknob and didn't know how to turn it.
"It really varies from family to family," she said.
Scollo spends a lot of hours driving from her Marietta home to serve families, but minimizes the travel, saying she is fortunate to have the time to do it.
"It's such a blessing to me. They become part of my family," she added.
Scollo said she keeps in mind the words of St. Therese to "do small things with great love."
To Fatma, Scollo's efforts are not small.
"I wish every refugee family in America had a 'Susan,'" said Fatma. "She is my sister in America."
Fatma, who is a Muslim, always has a special farewell for Scollo when she departs. "God bless you and God bless your family," she tells her.
Although she likes America, Fatma misses her family in Syria and hopes her husband's family in Lebanon will be able to join them at some point.
"I had to go," she explained. "My children are safe."
Although they have no family here, they have received assistance from Syrian-Americans in Atlanta.
"The American Syrian community has been very supportive of the refugees," said Scollo.
They donated a washing machine and a new car, just like the one destroyed in Syria. The family gives back by visiting other Syrian refugee families.
"They go and meet all the different families. She cooks and brings them the food they are used to," said Scollo.
Scollo also works to help Catholic Charities set up apartments for refugee families with donated furniture, household items such as linens, and a week's worth of groceries.
But it's the work of being a friend that Scollo enjoys the most, and she often finds it difficult when a family starts to move on.
"It's a true friendship," she said.
Although her four-month official commitment to Fatma's family as a volunteer has lapsed, Scollo continues to extend a helping hand in friendship. She is helping Fatma plan for the future by making plans to begin studying for her U.S. citizenship test.
"The rewards are so great to see families become part of our American society," said Scollo.
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Golden is a staff reporter at The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.