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‘We have more than we need’: First Iraqi refugee family arrives in Northampton 

  • Chris Hjelt and Linda Vincent of Northampton, left, Father Bill Pomerleau, who will serve as a caseworker, Jack Hjelt of Northampton and Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities Agency, await the arrival of an Iraqi refugee family Feb. 17, 2017 at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. The refugee family will resettle in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Translator Yamila Irizarry-Gerould, left, and Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities Agency, test a language translation app Feb. 17, 2017 while waiting for the arrival of an Iraqi refugee family at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. Chris Hjelt and Linda Vincent of Northampton wait, at right. The refugee family will resettle in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Above, Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities Agency, center right, greets Jasimiyah Hussein and her sons Yousuf and Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 26 and 20, all Iraqi refugees, as they arrive Friday night at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. The family will resettle in Northampton.Left, Chris and Jack Hjelt of Northampton, with the assistance of translator Translator Yamila Irizarry-Gerould, right, show Ayoob Al-Dulaimi how to operate the kitchen faucet at the Hjelts’ home, where the Iraqi refugee family will live temporarily. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY PHOTOS

  • Jasimiyah Hussein, an Iraqi refugee, safely arrives Feb. 17, 2017 at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. She and her two sons will resettle in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Translator Yamila Irizarry-Gerould, left, greets Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 20, and his mother Jasimiyah Hussein, both Iraqi refugees, following their Feb. 17, 2017 arrival at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. The family will resettle in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Translator Yamila Irizarry-Gerould, left, and Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities Agency, greet brothers Yousuf and Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 26 and 20, who are both Iraqi refugees, following their Feb. 17, 2017 arrival at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. The men, along with their mother Jasimiyah Hussein, will resettle in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The Rev. Bill Pomerleau, left, welcomes Iraqi refugees Yousuf Al-Dulaimi, 26, his mother Jasimiyah Hussein and his brother Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 20, to their temporary residence in Northampton early Saturday, as translator Yamila Irizarry-Gerould, center, looks on. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Chris and Jack Hjelt of Northampton, with the assistance of translator Translator Yamila Irizarry-Gerould, at right, show Iraqi refugee Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 20, how to operate the kitchen faucet Feb. 17, 2017 in the Hjelt's home, where Al-Dulaimi will temporarily live with brother and mother. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jasimiyah Hussein, an Iraqi refugee, left, and her son Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 20, look around their temporary residence in Northampton Feb. 17, 2017 as Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities Agency, right, unpacks warm clothes for the family. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 20, an Iraqi refugee, left, is shown how to operate the shower in his temporary Northampton residence Feb. 17, 2017 in Northampton. Translator Yamila Irizarry-Gerould looks on, at right. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@amandadrane
Sunday, February 19, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — An overhead announcement at Bradley International Airport drowned out conversation near midnight Friday as Jasimiyah Hussein’s eldest son fetched his mother’s wheelchair.

Yousuf Al-Dulaimi, 26, rolled Hussein’s motorized chair over to the passenger side of the car, and then her younger son, Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 20, took over. Hussein leaned into him with her right shoulder. He put his hands under each of her arms, lifting her out of the car and into the chair.

“It’s her birthday today!” announced interpreter Yamila Irizarry-Gerould. Hussein closed her eyes, her closed lips upturned in a smile, and nodded in affirmation.

“It’s fitting it’s on my birthday,” Hussein said, as the interpreter translated.

It was also her family’s first day in America.

The refugee family from Iraq is the first to arrive in Northampton after more than a year of planning by Catholic Charities and hundreds of local volunteers. The agency planned to resettle as many as 51 refugees, though given recent moves by the Trump administration it remains unclear how many more they’ll be able to bring into the country.

At the moment, the agency has assurances from the State Department for 18 refugees, six of whom have now arrived. The first three, from Bhutan, arrived Thursday and have settled in Westfield.

Hussein suffered from polio and has limited mobility in her legs, according to information provided to Catholic Charities. The family lived in Baghdad before spending over two years in a Turkish refugee camp. And despite previous information that indentified the family as Kurdish, Hussein and her sons said that is not the case.

Waiting in the cold

The hour was late and the temperature cold Friday as aid workers and city volunteers waited to welcome the family at Bradley. After about 24 hours of travel, the trio arrived around 11:30 p.m.

Excitement cut through the exhaustion as the small group waited, their clouds of breath mingling with vehicle exhaust in the sub-freezing air outside Terminal A.

“Yeah, we’re still waiting,” the Rev. Bill Pomerleau, the Iraqi family’s case worker from Catholic Charities, said to someone on his cellphone.

Shuttle buses took turns sending reverse signals — beep, beep, beep — echoing down the tunnel. Chris Hjelt, co-leader of the volunteer “circle of care” helping settle the arriving family, stood waiting with her husband, Jack. Arabic interpreter Irizarry-Gerould and Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities, experimented with Google Translator to pass the time.

“Hello. How are you?” Buckley-Brawner asked her phone.

The phone app spat back an Arabic phrase as Irizarry-Gerould listened, smiling.

“Did it say it?” Buckley-Brawner asked, unable to contain her excitement.

“Yes, but awkwardly,” Irizarry-Gerould said, laughing.

Irizarry-Gerould studied Arabic at Tufts and also lived in the Middle East for four years. The Northampton native said she joined the “welcome home steering committee” to help bring together the people and cultures she cares about deeply.

“It’s the most exciting thing, to be fusing the two worlds I love the most — Northampton and the Middle East,” she said.

Pomerleau received another call, this time informing him the family would soon be pulling through the terminal. Buckley-Brawner turned to face the rear of the tunnel, grinning as she formed her hands into a visor over her brow. Irizarry-Gerould tapped her feet in anticipation, but also to draw feeling back to her freezing toes.

As the group flagged down an incoming SUV, the light caught three beaming faces from within.

Suitcase wheels scraped against cold pavement as the group made their way into the neighboring parking garage.

Ayoob Al-Dulaimi shivered violently as he loaded his family’s belongings into a volunteer group member’s SUV. As Hjelt strategized aloud in English about fitting the remaining wheelchair into the car, Al-Dulaimi appeared eager to help. He picked up the chair in offering, though no one was quite ready to receive it.

A new home

Unable to find a suitable apartment without stairs in the week before the family’s arrival, Chris and Jack Hjelt offered up their own home in Northampton, which is handicapped-accessible. Hussein and her sons will stay at the home for two weeks while Catholic Charities works to find permanent housing, Chris Hjelt said.

“In the weeks to come it’s very important you start learning to speak English,” Pomerleau told the family through Irizarry-Gerould once inside the Northampton home, handing them paperwork.

It was after midnight on Saturday and the family was exhausted from the journey, but volunteers took the time to show Ayoob how to work the stove, sinks and shower. He stared wide-eyed, still smiling. Buckley-Brawner wordlessly passed Hussein a blanket as her sons explored the home.

“The water is perfectly safe to drink,” Hjelt told her guests.

As the Hjelts, the interpreter and Catholic Charities staffers readied to leave, Yousuf Al-Dulaimi, bleary-eyed, turned to the group.

“We have more than we need,” he told the exiting volunteers and aid workers. “We’re thankful to everyone for the welcome.”

After the family slept, they confronted more paperwork on Saturday. They also took some time, Buckley-Brawner said, to explore downtown Northampton.

“They’re enthusiastic,” Buckley-Brawner said Sunday of the family’s progress. “They want to start learning English yesterday.”

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.