(Some editing for clarity and length)
What is your background?
I am Syrian — I was born and raised in Syria for 19 years of my life. I got married and moved to the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia area) and lived here for 29 years. I have five kids, two boys, three girls. My two eldest are married and I am a grandmother and have three grandchildren. I worked as a teacher and instructor. I now work at Fawakih Institute (Herndon, Virginia) as a Quranic linguistics instructor. I am very happy with them.
What pushed you to start an organization and begin helping Syrian refugees?
Since the war, we started to see many tragic incidents happening. A lot of people started to seek refuge somewhere out of Syria and even in Syria. We felt that we can’t just look. Yes, we can pray and make dua and that is very important but that’s not all, we have to do something more. So the only thing I could do, I am good at cooking, I have talent in doing beads, so I thought let’s invest in that. So we tried to be involved in every bazaar. We cook, we sell food, get the money, and we send it to needy people. We helped people in Zaa’tari camp in Jordan. We brought about four containers and little by little we started to send clothes containers to the refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon. We did a good job and then we started receiving refugees here. We received seven families and the first meeting we did as a Syrian community. We sat together and when we talked only about these seven families I can’t tell you the amount of pressure I felt. I felt like a nightmare is coming. How are we going to assist all of these people? They were only seven families.
Alhamdulillah, all the community stood up for these seven families. A year after, we started to receive like three or four families every week. Six months later the number increased. Then we started to hear about more families in Norfolk, more families in Charlottesville. It was a lot of pressure. Many of the people who came to visit they couldn’t go back. They sat and applied for TPS (immigration status: “temporary protected status”) — now they have no work permits — they need financial assistance and rent. Since we know how to work together as a team, we thought that it was about time to establish our own organization. So we applied to the State Department and we were approved, alhamdulillah, as a non-profit with a tax ID number and that really boosted our help for people. Now we have legal status and if we ask people to donate, we can issue tax receipts and we are legal and can work on a legal basis. We can build credibility, and we can show people where their money went and how it was spent.
How many families have you helped so far?
Alhamdullilah, we were able to help 180 Syrian families. We helped a few Iraqi and Afghan families too. To be honest, I wanted to help more non-Syrian refugee families but it was too much. It was a heavy load.
What kinds of social challenges do the refugees have?
Each family has their own suffering and their own needs. We have a lot of widows and people with disabilities. We have many people that can’t provide for themselves for very legitimate reasons. A lot of illness among kids.
Are the illnesses physical or mental, or both?
Both. We have kids five-years-old seeing psychiatrists – they’ve been through a lot. They’ve seen the bombs. They’ve seen their houses were demolished – they were in the war zone. They have seen their own family members killed, sometimes two or three, in front of them. One man lost his wife and he doesn’t know where she is after a bomb in the market. Many, many devastating stories.
How has the Muslim community responded to this crisis?
As a Syrian, you understand the mentality of the Syrian refugees. Of course, many people have helped. Many people from all communities, masha’Allah. I’m very proud of the Muslim community, and non-Muslims helped a lot. So, alhamdulilah, many people have good hearts and they want to help. But Syrian families come back to you because you understand their mentality and their needs. At certain points you have to give them tough love, at other points you have to just deal with whatever anger they have. Sometimes you are able to endure it, and sometimes not, but you have to because you know they’re in difficult circumstances.
The donations we receive is Amana and we have to put it in the right place — give it to the right people. But alhamdulillah we are able to help many families — with furniture, with rent and utilities, tutoring, whatever is need. Today we have at least nine families that we are responsible for, almost fully for their rent and other expenses.
How long do the local agencies or the agency which brought the refugees to the U.S. help each family?
The United Nations brought them here. It’s not how long, but how much. They give each person in the family $950 dollars. If it’s a family of four, it will be $950 times four. If the family is seven, $950 times seven. If the social worker is really a good person or he or she has good skills in money management, they would use it for them in the best way, would get decent furniture at the best price, and use the rest of the money for rent and utilities. Many social workers don’t have those skills. They rent them expensive houses that they don’t need so money is wasted. What we do here with Br. Khaled from IRC, we have a good relationship with him, all of the families that go to him he refers them to us ahead of time. With Br. Khaled, we were able to furnish most of the Landover, Maryland houses for about 25 families. For other families we were able to partially help, because they didn’t recently arrive but got our phone number from another family. We ask them what they need, how many are in their family, what was their occupation in Syria. I take that information because it will play a big role, later on with how I’m going to be able to help. If their needs aren’t great and they live too far, I order the things on Amazon, and they receive it to their home. Believe me, the new items they receive, they really love it.
What is Mozaic Kitchen for Refugees?
Our project, Mozaic Kitchen for Refugees, started in October of 2016. The purpose of this business was to bring all of the talents in cooking among refugees and for them to start catering, learning business building skills, learning the American standard in cleanliness, sanitizing, and all of that training, and bringing them all the supplies they need. Cooking for one’s family is different than cooking for 100 people. We put them on the right track. The other important thing is marketing because they don’t know anybody here. So It is our mission to bring customers and spread the word, do some promotion here and there. We have done many bazaars and events where we cater.
Many of the refugees say that they can cook everything. The first step is that I order food for my house, and tell them to cook me this or that. I bring it home and try it. I’m a good cook and I give him or her feedback and say, this is good or maybe this has an odd flavor, maybe you need to put butter instead of oil. We try to increase the quality getting it as good as possible. Then we check where they are buying their food and supplies from. They have to go to the right stores so at least they can make a good profit and have fair prices and not be overpriced.
As to pricing, we sit together and I advise them, but it is their choice in the end. I tell them that fair prices will not only bring customers but will keep them coming back. Then we start connecting them with people. We advertise by letting people know what types of food each chef cooks. We also started business cards for whichever chef is really professional. Whoever I see that has potential and is striving to get on their feet, and doesn’t want to live on aid and assistance, we immediately help them. Those are the good candidates.
Who are the people involved in Mozaic?
There are three officially, and our volunteers are over 100. Myself, I deal with the families one-on-one. Mona Darwish, the co-founder, she deals with the Virginia families. She’s been helping the Muslim community for over thirty years. The third board member is an accountant, Rana Hmaidan, and deals with all our accounting and giving us advise.
Is an organization founded and run by women?
Do you have assistance from your husbands?
Well, it’s mostly moral support. The thing that my husband really helps me with are the personal visits. When we go to the families, he goes with me. I think that gives the males in the family a lot of support. He gives them advice from his own experience. He refers them to job opportunities.
Are the people you help mostly in Maryland because it’s cheaper?
Yes, when the official refugees arrive, they are placed in Maryland. In Virginia we have some in Norfolk and help them partially with Eid and through the winter drive, and connect them to people there who can help them more. The same for Charlottesville. We send trucks for them on Eid, and for winter, we send carpets, jackets, blankets— all of the stuff they need.
Are you connected with other organizations in your work?
Locally, we work with a lot of organizations like Islamic Relief, ICNA relief, and we have good connections with McLean Islamic Center, Adams Center, 17 Cents A Day, Kind Works, and many more.
What do you see as the future of Mozaic?
Our mission is not only helping refugees. Our mission is having projects— educational projects, training in life skills — and not only with refugees. This year it is refugees, because it’s a high demand, but when things settle, insha’allah, we will help other needy people. Our focus will be on women and children. We will give them all kinds of training, especially widows and divorced women, to make them independent and able to support themselves and their families.