Hussam Alhallak and his wife kept thinking that the war in Syria would end, or that at least conditions would improve. But it persisted, with gunfire in the streets and bombings that drove the couple and their two young children into their basement for protection.
They just wanted to move away from the violence.
The family fled as refugees to Turkey and two years later to the United States, where they are rebuilding a life for themselves far away from war-torn Syria, in the small, working-class city of Rutland, Vermont.
They learned English, and the couple attended community college classes in accounting, all while Alhallak was working early in the morning at a bakery. In February he was offered a job as a tax accountant.
“This is my dream,” said Alhallak, 36, who was an accountant in Damascus. “Thank god for everything. Yeah, yeah, I’m very happy now.”
The family has made great strides in a short time. But three years ago, when Rutland’s former Mayor Christopher Louras announced a plan to relocate up to 100 refugees there, it wasn’t clear how they would be received.
The plan initially divided the economically depressed city of about 16,400. While some Rutlanders were eager to welcome the new residents and pitched in to gather supplies for them, others raised concerns that the refugees could be security threats or economic burdens and felt the resettlement plan was developed in secret.
Then the election of President Donald Trump, who expressed hostility toward Muslim immigrants, threw the plan into question , and Louras lost his bid for reelection in 2017, attributing the loss to his support for the refugee resettlement.
Just three families, including Alhallak’s, arrived before Trump imposed a ban on travelers from certain majority-Muslim countries. Community members welcomed those families, gathering furniture and other goods for the newcomers and offering ongoing support, from helping them learn English to spending time with the children and getting the families summer swim passes for the city pool.
The refugee families in Rutland have “integrated really well” and have mostly been accepted, according to Amila Merdzanovic, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Vermont.
The kids are in school and “have a lot of friends,” Merdzanovic said. “I would say they have done really, really well.”
Current Mayor David Allaire did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Alhallak’s wife, Hazar Mansour, who was a French teacher in Syria and studied French literature, described Rutland as “a magical place.”
“We like Rutland,” said Mansour, 37, who says the people in her community are “very nice.”
In Turkey, work was hard to find and when Alhallak did get jobs, they didn’t pay enough to support the family, he said. Some Turkish people also do not like Syrians, he said.
“I really like Vermont,” said their daughter, Layan, age 12. “In Turkey I had trouble getting along with kids because they kept being rude to me. … I really get along here.”
Once a month, the family travels to Albany, New York, or Burlington, Vermont, to stock up on food from Middle Eastern grocery stores. They speak mostly Arabic at home so their kids will retain the language, and the family planned to attend services at a mosque in Colchester, Vermont, for a recent holiday.
The other two families also are doing well, Merdzanovic said.
Alhallak’s family of five, now living in a small apartment, will soon have a new house, thanks to Habitat for Humanity of Rutland County. Volunteers are building the house with donated building supplies.
When word spread through a newspaper that more money was needed to start construction, Alhallak’s co-workers at Casella Waste Systems Inc. rallied to raise $16,000, which the company matched, in a matter of weeks.
Alhallak and Mansour both miss and worry about their relatives in Syria. They are able to text them, but phone calls are difficult because of poor service, they said. Mansour’s father, who was a professor, was shot and killed in the war as he was returning home from work in 2012.
They hope to one day bring Alhallak’s father and Mansour’s mother, who is sick, to Vermont. They may try to bring siblings, too.
“In the future I have a plan,” Alhallak said.