For Muslims observing Ramadan, strengthening community is as important as the fast itself. At the end of each day, families typically get together with friends to break the fast and eat, but community can be hard to find for newly arrived refugees in this country.
More than 5,000 people resettled in California last year from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Department of Social Services.
On Monday, a dinner was held in Orange Country to help some of those families get acquainted with their neighbors.
“It’s already hard enough that they’re starting from zero without knowing the language,” says Alan Abdo, who co-owns Olive Tree with his dad. “[We] wanted to show them a side of America where it’s compassionate and welcoming because that’s who we are.”
The sun is setting and 36-year-old Mona Al-Rebdawi is sitting among family, friends and total strangers at the Olive Tree Restaurant in Anaheim’s Little Arabia District. Wearing a long black jacket and beige hijab, this mother of five smiles as she grabs a date to break her fast.
“I can’t even tell you what I’m thinking right now,” Al-Rebdawi says in Arabic. “I’m still in a tough place – very tough.”
She and her family arrived in California six months ago after waiting 5 years to resettle in the U.S. from Syria. Al-Rebdawi, her husband and five sons left after mortar shells struck just outside her home in the city of Daraa. “We couldn’t sleep. If we slept, we wouldn’t know if we’d wake up,” she remembers.
The shelling left the neighborhood and her home in ruins. “That was it. We took our kids and left the country with nothing and we didn’t look back,” Al-Rebdawi says. “We traveled by foot to Jordan.”
To help families like the Al-Rebdawis get settled in their new home, the Arab American Civic Council hosted a dinner with refugees at the Olive Tree. The idea is to give newly arrived refugees a chance to break bread and build relationships with Southern California locals.
“We’re bringing together community members to help welcome new families, new Americans that are here with us in Orange County,” says Rashad Al-Dabbagh, co-founder and director of the Arab American Civic Council as well as one of the event organizers.
On this night, talk about everyday struggles – paying rent, getting credit, and navigating the education system - dominated the dinner table conversation. “We left, and in exchange for fear of violence and death, we are now dealing with different struggles,” Al-Rebdawi says.
Struggles like how to get credit to rent an apartment. “Someone who is new is on their own to find a place to live,” she says. “Then you find a place and you’re told you need strong credit, you have to have a history, you need to get a check from your employer. I’m telling you I’m new here. I still don’t have those things you mentioned. Do I stay in the street?”
For now, they’re getting help from World Relief Garden Grove, but that aid runs out after 90 days. On top of that, her kids are having a hard time making friends. “My kids — of course they’re struggling too,” Al-Rebdawi says. “That’s why I’m trying to give them the best… It’s enough what they’ve seen. It’s enough what they’ve experienced.”
Refugee families like the Al-Rebdawis also face anti-Muslim sentiment that’s grown louder in some parts of the country. More than 40 percent of Americans say that the United States should not accept refugees even with security screenings, according to a poll from the Brookings Institute.
“There are segments of this country that are not welcoming especially with the toxic election season. During this election there are candidates that are using cheap politics,” Al-Dabbagh says, referring to a proposal by presumptive GOP candidate Donald Trump to ban Muslims from coming to the U.S.
Trump needs no introduction for Al-Rebdawi. “Oh yes, Trump. I’ve heard of him,” she says.
She believes Trump has mischaracterized Muslims and refugees. “He doesn’t want Muslims because he thinks all Muslims are terrorists,” Al-Rebdawi says. “But no, Islam is not terrorism. Terrorism is something else. Terrorists are under the cloak of Islam, but they are not Muslims.”
Al-Rebdawi is eager to explain her faith to strangers, but her primary concern is what’s next for her family. Soon they will be moving to Irvine so her kids can attend school there. Then she will look for a job, hopefully, she says, as an Arabic tutor. “We’re still not adjusted, but I have faith that it will get easier God willing,” she says.