Going the Distance

“Dad, I didn’t imagine it like this—so lonely,” says 16-year-old Nadir, a refugee from Syria, in an installment of Welcome to the New World, a cartoon strip series published in 2017 by The New York Times. His words appear in a speech bubble above a little dormered house as he peeks out the front window. “I miss Sitti,” he says, referring to his grandmother. “And there are no Arab people in our little town.”

The real Nadir—Naji Aldabaan, now a junior at West Hartford High School, whose name, like all the others, was changed to protect the family’s identity—was in New Haven last Friday with his parents, Ibrahim Aldabaan and Adeebah Alnemar, to celebrate the opening of a two-week exhibition at Hopkins School’s Keator Gallery. All 20 installments of Welcome to the New World are on display there through January 24 alongside a collection of drawings and paintings by Adeebah, who has pursued her creative talents in the US not only as a form of personal expression but also as a means to earn extra money for her family. Favorite subjects in her elegant charcoal drawings include birds and feathers. Naji translates her explanation of one drawing of a single white feather with a curving black shaft. “She feels that feathers are like refugees,” he says. “They don’t pick where to go. They just fall and land wherever they land.”

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Ibrahim, Adeebah, Naji and his four younger siblings first escaped the civil war in Syria by fleeing to Jordan. From there, they petitioned to resettle in the United States. They arrived on election day of 2016, where writer Jake Halpern first met them at the New Haven bus station. He’d been invited by Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), with the idea that the family, which also included Ibrahim’s brother with his wife and children, might eventually allow Halpern to write their stories for the Times.

Over time, Halpern earned their trust, and as their lives in America unfolded, so did Welcome to the New World. The first installment was published on January 26, 2017, and the last on October 26 of that year. The series earned Halpern and illustrator Michael Sloan, both of New Haven, a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Today, the duo is finishing a full-length graphic book that fleshes out the families’ stories, telling many parts that couldn’t be included in the original series, such as a chapter on their life in Syria.

At a school assembly the day of the Keator Gallery opening, Halpern spoke to Hopkins students about two experiences he’d had before Welcome to the New World that prepared him to understand what it means to be a refugee: the story of his great uncle’s escape from the Czech Republic during World War II and the story of a Colombian teenager attempting to cross the US border into Canada. Both cases, Halpern told the students, illustrate the idea of asylum: “Someone’s knocking on the door,” he told them, rapping the side of the wooden podium. “Someone’s saying, ‘Brother, will you let me in? I’m in danger.’”

The same was true of Naji’s family. His uncle, the one who came to the US with him, had been detained, imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime. But even in America, safety was not a given. Ibrahim received a death threat deemed credible by the FBI, and the family was forced to leave their first American home, in Manchester. They lived in a hotel for a month before settling again in West Hartford. That frightening experience was among those documented in Welcome to the New World.

Death threats are not the norm for most refugees, Naji says. He translates for his mother: “Something that really makes us feel safe in the United States is that whenever we meet people, they don’t make us feel like we’re different,” she says. “They welcome us, and we feel very comfortable.”

Ibraham says he believes Welcome to the New World has helped other refugees. “Some people now, they can have a picture about refugees, how they came through, why they came here to America,” he says.

“Our goal is to show people the image that maybe doesn’t show about Middle Eastern Muslims,” Naji adds. “So, by telling our story, we feel like we… did our part to show people who are Muslims, [what is] the Middle East, what is it like?”

While at Hopkins, the family participated in a Q&A with students. They’ve become ambassadors for other refugees, Halpern says—yet another unanticipated outcome of the Times series. Over the past three years, things have gotten better for the family, though of course it’s not always easy. “Look, kids, I know you’re nervous about school,” says Ibrahim’s character, Ammar, in Welcome to the New World. “But that’s why we came here—so you could become doctors or lawyers. Then you can really help Sitti, back in Jordan.”

In addition to Sitti—Ibrahim’s mother—another brother and his wife with six children remain in Jordan. They have been unable to follow the others to the US. “For now there is no guarantee because the rate of refugees coming to the US went down way too far,” Naji says.

Adeebah remains hopeful, not just for their future but for all refugees. Through translator Naji, she says she always tries to use the color white in her artwork, to symbolize hope and love. “Any human could go through what we’ve gone through,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that it’s the end and they should stop. Make your own road and continue.”

Welcome to the New World and The Drawings of Adeebah Alnemar
Keator Gallery at Hopkins School – 986 Forest Rd, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-3pm through Jan. 24; check in at the Forest Road entrance booth
adeebah.com | www.hopkins.edu

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 (featuring Adeebah Alnemar, Naji Aldabaan and Ibrahim Aldabaan), 2 (featuring Michael Sloan) and 4 (featuring Jake Halpern) photographed by John Galayda and provided courtesy of Hopkins School. Images 3, 5 and 6 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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