March 2019 | Written by John Curtis
In 2014 Sabeena Ali retired after 30 years as an occupational therapist. Her physician husband was still working and two of her three children were grown and out of the house. ”Now what do I do with myself?” she asked. The answer came a year later on the nightly news, as she watched the worldwide refugee crisis unfolding.
“I have to do something,” she said. “God has given me so much and I am sitting here all comfy.”
The next day Ali Googled refugee agencies, got on the phone, and called IRIS. “What can I do to help?” the Newtown resident asked. “They asked if I could get a bunch of people together to sponsor a refugee family.”
Ali first reached out to a friend in Easton, Conn. They, in turn, found others willing to help and, as their group grew, took on a name, Connecticut Refugee Resettlement Connection. Unlike most co-sponsors, they were not centered around a church or within a town. Members came from all over Connecticut. “We were just a bunch of people coming together,” Ali said. “We didn’t want to make it a faith-based group. We wanted it to be for purely humanitarian reasons.”
They worked with the Islamic Center of Bridgeport and the Madina Academy in Windsor, where there’s a large community from the Arab world. They collected furniture and money and went to IRIS for training. By May 2016, they had resettled a Syrian family in Bridgeport, which has a multi-cultural community and good public transportation.
“After we resettled this family, because we were from so many different places, we weren’t able to organize resettlement to support a second family,” Ali said. “That was one of the drawbacks to not being from a church group or the same area.”
Since then, Ali has continued to volunteer with IRIS, about five to six hours a week. In each of the past two years she’s collected between 50 and 60 coats for the annual winter coat drive. She collects fabric for a sewing group, as well as bedding, sheets, pillows, toys and books for children.
Just over a year ago, Ali began to help with CORE, a mandatory three-day educational session that instructs new arrivals in the customs, laws, and bureaucracy of life in America.
“We help bring people to and from CORE, giving them rides,” Ali said. “Sometimes we would help with child care or getting lunch. Whatever they needed at the time, we would do.”
In addition to her time with IRIS, Ali also works in her home community, raising awareness of the plight of refugees. She has staffed a table for IRIS at the Newtown Arts Festival and arranged a screening of a film about Palestine at a local church.
Like the people she helps to resettle, Ali and her husband came from another country, Canada, in search of better opportunities. They found them in Newtown, where they have lived on and off for about 15 years.
Ali has found satisfaction and rewards in her work for IRIS, particularly the Syrian family she helped resettle. The family had left Syria after losing their home to a bomb. “They were having a difficult time wrapping their heads around everything,” Ali said, recalling a day when she was driving the mother to a doctor’s appointment. “She looked at me and said, ‘Our home is good. Everything is good.’ I saw her go from everything is just wacky to having that peace to be able to say ‘I am in such a better place. Yes, there are troubles, but it’s all good.’”