Empowering refugee women, empowering refugee communities

The Islamic Center of South Jersey hosted a Ramadan dinner consisting of Mona Lari’s sisterhood of refugees and their families.

Syrian refugees and South Jersey faith leaders gathered at the Islamic Center of South Jersey on Friday, June 16 to break their Ramadan fast.

When Mona Lari heard about the enormity of need among Syrian refugees coming to South Jersey, she felt compelled to help. Lari, a trustee with the Pakistani-American Society of South Jersey and active member of the Islamic Center of South Jersey, wanted to empower refugee women who found themselves in a new country where they didn’t speak the language or know the customs, and for that reason, she created a network she refers to simply as the sisterhood group to connect refugees with local women who help their “sisters” assimilate to life in America.

Lari organized a gathering of her sisters and their families, which consisted of more than 30 refugee families who assembled at the Islamic Center of South Jersey in Palmyra on Friday, June 16 to break their fast at sundown as part of the holy month of Ramadan. Camden County freeholder Jeff Nash, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council David Snyder and Palmyra Mayor Michelle Arnold offered the refugees in attendance a warm welcome to their new home.

Friday’s event was an example of the one of the socialization opportunities Lari, a resident of Cherry Hill, has been facilitating through her sisterhood network. She said last year when South Jersey experienced an influx of refugees, she had an overwhelming urge to help, so she turned to local chapters of the Catholic Charities and the Jewish Community Relations Council to bring her sisterhood to life.

She said for every refugee, there is a corresponding member of the Jewish and Muslim communities to act as a resource, friend and unofficial sister. Lari said for refugee women, life in America can be isolating not knowing the language, not having a car and not understanding how American systems work.

For that reason, the American women in the sisterhood will show their refugee sisters how to navigate places such as a grocery store, a mall or a post office.

“Most of these people don’t know how to go to a simple store and purchase things,” Lari said. “ If someone can teach them, that’s going to be wonderful.”

Lari said her goal of the sisterhood is not only to ensure that refugee women learn about American culture but to have women make friends beyond their own refugee community.

At Friday night’s event, Snyder extended his hand in friendship on behalf of the faith communities in South Jersey.

“By definition, you are considered refugees, but among the faith communities here in South Jersey, you are now simply family,” Snyder said.

Nash expressed similar sentiments while sharing the story of his great grandfather who came to the United States about 100 years ago fleeing persecution from the death squads in Poland.

“The United States — your new home — is a nation of refugees much like many of you. Sometimes our national leadership forgets from where they came,” Nash said. “The great majority of Americans believe in the fundamental principles from which this country was founded: freedom of religion, due process of law and equal rights for all.”

Following the welcome addresses from Nash, Snyder and Arnold, the families in attendance broke their fast and prayed before heading to the mosque’s basement for a full dinner. The event’s organizers also gave the more than 100 children in attendance gift cards to purchase toys in celebration of Ramadan.

Lari’s husband, Owais Lari, said the goal of Friday night’s gathering was to bring refugees a sense of community and joy. Hei said many of those in attendance once came from good, well-to-do families, and they have since lost their homes, lived in camps and experienced the death of loved ones.

“This has brought them in a festive mood,” Owais Lari said. “We wanted to put a smile on their faces, and it looks like we’re doing that.”

Refugee and Collingswood resident Mounenera Ayoub said the town she once lived in outside Damascus was a good place until war broke out, and there was no food for her family and no schooling for her two sons. She said in America people are kind, and the women in the sisterhood are helping her to learn English.

“I need [to] learn English to speak with American people, to get [a] better job, to become [a] citizen,” Ayoub said.

Mona Lari said the next event for the sisterhood is a baby shower, which she said will be a great opportunity to introduce Syrian women to an American custom. Lari said she never expected the network of women to grow as large as it has, but she knows if she is able, she has to continue to help as many refugees as she can.

“If the woman is empowered, the whole community is empowered,” Lari said.