Syrian refugee family finds sweeter life at Mount Airy diner

Sameer Dahan serves up his delicious desserts at the Trolley Car Diner, during a dessert tasting, in Philadelphia, February 7, 2017.

Sameer Dahan drizzled a spoonful of glistening rose water over a serving of halawat el jibn — Arabic for “the sweetness of cheese.”

Ken Weinstein, owner of the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy, sampled the concoction, letting its creaminess dissolve on his tongue.

Dahan, 40; his wife, Majidah, 24; son Ayman, 9; and daughter Iman, 2, awaited a verdict that could make their new lives even sweeter. He was trying out for his first job in America, as a pastry chef.

Also sweating out a decision on Tuesday afternoon were a handful of members of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Ever since the Syrian refugee family arrived in Philadelphia two months ago, the Chestnut Hill congregation has assisted them with their everyday needs and expenses through the church’s year-old resettlement ministry.

Raising his voice over their expectant chatter, a smiling Weinstein announced, “He passed the test!”

After he conferred with diner manager Adam Meadows, it was decided that Dahan would be offered a job — 20 to 30 hours a week, at $10 an hour — to make desserts and assist as a cleaner. Three hundred dollars per week before taxes won’t be enough to support Dahan’s family, Weinstein acknowledged, but it’s a start.

“My grandmother was an immigrant from Lithuania,” he said. “I would have hoped that someone would have done the same for her.”

Who knows, Meadows added. A starter job at the diner might one day lead to a catering business for Dahan.

Rail-thin Dahan beamed, a smile shy a few teeth.

“The first job is big,” said Kelli Myers-Gottemoller, resource developer for Bethany Christian Services, a social services agency that resettled the family. “It gives a history of employment in this country, and makes it possible to move on to a job with full-time hours.”

Like the proverbial village raising a child, a support network made up of ordinary individuals willing to help, such as those at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, can be critical to the successful integration of refugees, advocates say.

Given the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, and a new president who recently halved the quota for refugee resettlements this year, partnerships between faith communities and government-authorized agencies such as Bethany are ever more important, said Myers-Gottemoller. “The safety net of a faith community is incredibly valuable,” she said.

For the time being, the Dahans live in transitional housing at the Lutheran Seminary House on Germantown Avenue. They are seeking a permanent rental in Northeast Philadelphia, closer to the heart of the city’s Syrian community, which numbers several hundred. Many, such as the Dahans, are recently resettled refugees from Syria’s bloody civil war.

The violence drove the family from their home near Damascus three years ago. To make their escape, Dahan recounted through an interpreter, they joined a small group that walked through the desert for two days and crossed the border into Jordan. The drone of government planes, which seemed to follow them, was unnerving, he said.

While living in Jordan’s capital, Amman, the family underwent the repeated biometric screenings and security clearances that were part of their vetting as refugees. In Syria, Dahan had been a tailor. But to make ends meet in Jordan, he learned to produce pastries in a commercial bakery.

The Dahans arrived in Philadelphia on Dec. 15, which the refugee team at St. Martins-in-the-Fields took to be a blessing for Advent.

Writing letters and calling Congress to protest the cutback on refugee resettlements is one approach, said Marnie Kerr, a retired Germantown Friends School teacher and member of the St. Martin’s refugee assistance team. But welcoming a family like the Dahans, she said, feels “more concrete.”

Arrayed around Dahan on tall round tables at the diner were four more desserts in his repertoire, including a Syrian baklava and kanefeh ashta, a confection of cheese, clotted cream, and shredded wheat topped with simple syrup and chopped pistachio nuts.

As the leftovers were being loaded into Styrofoam containers, Dahan and his family slipped out to the parking lot, where Susan MacBride, a St. Martin’s refugee ministry volunteer, was waiting to give them a ride. The family piled in after strapping little Iman into a child safety seat.

As the car pulled away, it passed a lawn sign in front of the diner. "Hate," it read, "has no home here."