Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo By Michael Alexander
During a stop by the Catholic Charities Northlake office, Atlanta, refugee resettlement volunteer Susan Scollo, bottom right, watches Fatma, a Syrian mother, browse through some children's apparel, as two of her children show more interest in the toys and the youngest sleeps in her baby carrier.


Two women find friendship is their common language

By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published July 7, 2016

CLARKSTON—Fatma, a Syrian refugee and mother of five children, loves treating her friend Susan Scollo to steaming cups of tea and coffee flavored with cinnamon, and homemade chocolate and coconut desserts.

Scollo, a volunteer with Catholic Charities Atlanta’s Refugee Resettlement Services, visits Fatma weekly to help with errands or sort through documents.

After violence forced them to leave Syria, Fatma and her husband Mohammed spent more than a year living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Their names have been altered to protect family members still in Syria.

Before 2011, when the clash began between Syrian military and opposition forces that escalated into a full-scale civil war, the family enjoyed a nice life in Homs, Syria. They were building a home, and Mohammed had a good job at a dairy. But the ancient city has been devastated and destroyed. The family car was struck by a missile. They eventually decided to flee. With the help of Fatma’s brother, the family escaped to Lebanon.

Catholic Charities Atlanta resettled the family, moving them to an apartment in Clarkston. The DeKalb County community has opened its arms to refugees from across the globe.

A parishioner of Transfiguration Church in Marietta, Scollo learned about the organization’s Family Friend program through her husband’s involvement with a Catholic Charities Leadership Class.

“I just prayed about it,” said Scollo. “Is this the right thing for me? There’s so many people with different gifts.”

Fatma, foreground right, a Syrian mother who came to the United States with her husband and five children in January 2015, ponders what type of meat to purchase at a Clarkston grocer as her children (front to back), Farh and Ahmad and Catholic Charities resettlement volunteer Susan Scollo look through the chicken. Photo By Michael Alexander

She has been a Family Friend volunteer for more than three and a half years.

The Family Friend program matches volunteers with recently arrived refugee families. The friends commit to working with their assigned family for two hours per week for the first four months they are in the country.

A new friend, a new name

On the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in January 2016, Pope Francis used the observance to remind the world that “welcoming the stranger” is a corporal work of mercy.

“Family Friends are, first and foremost, a welcoming face amongst the uncertainty and fear that comes with moving to a new place where everything is unfamiliar and you may not even speak the language,” said Kimberly Longshore, refugee resource coordinator for Catholic Charities Atlanta. “They help families learn things like how to check the mail, how to do their laundry, and work their thermostat. They also allow them the opportunity to practice their English.”

Scollo has worked with two Burmese families. This is her first time working with a Syrian family. From the start, she and Fatma had an instant connection.

When Scollo first visited and introduced herself, she explained that “Sue” was a nickname. Fatma had her own plan and decided to call her new acquaintance Susan.

“That’s a better name,” Fatma told her.

“One of the first things I usually bring to a family when I go is a picture English dictionary,” said Scollo. “It truly helps with learning parts of the house, food names, places around a city, and other helpful words such as words used at a doctor’s appointment.”

After living in Georgia for more than a year, Fatma speaks English well. She had studied translation for a brief time with a British instructor at college.

“She didn’t know at the time how important that would be,” said Scollo.

Scollo knows very little Arabic.

“The only word I really know is lollipop,” she joked.

Fatma’s three youngest children, ages 1 to 5, play nearby. The oldest two girls attend the International Community School in Decatur.

“All my children love Susan,” said Fatma.

Fatma’s 3-year-old daughter, Farh, plays with a cell phone and giggles as she shows Scollo pictures.

“I had an old iPad and I brought it over,” said Scollo.

Farh and Scollo have their own way of communicating.

One day, she realized that Farh was telling her not to remove the car seat from her vehicle because they had plans to go back out.

“I know her so well. I know what she’s trying to tell me. I speak ‘Farh’,” said Scollo.

“She is my sister”

Fatma’s husband works daily in Tucker, and she has no driver’s license. Scollo helps by taking her to the market or to doctor’s appointments.

She has become familiar with all the grocery stores and farmer’s markets in metro Atlanta that offer ethnic foods, and learned a lot about Syrian cuisine along the way.

Some of the refugee families’ needs are more basic. Scollo recalls one woman who had never seen a doorknob and didn’t know how to turn it.

“It really varies from family to family,” she said.

Scollo spends a lot of hours driving from her Marietta home to serve families, but minimizes the travel, saying she is fortunate to have the time to do it.

“It’s such a blessing to me. They become part of my family,” she added.

Scollo said she keeps in mind the words of St. Therese to “do small things with great love.”

Catholic Charities resettlement volunteer Susan Scollo, sitting left, provides some help as she goes through the incoming mail with Fatma. Scollo, a member of Transfiguration Church, Marietta, has worked with the Syrian family for some 14 months. She also works with two other families from Burma. Photo By Michael Alexander

To Fatma, Scollo’s efforts are not small.

“I wish every refugee family in America had a ‘Susan’,” said Fatma. “She is my sister in America.”

Fatma, who is a Muslim, always has a special farewell for Scollo when she departs. “God bless you and God bless your family,” she tells her.

Although she likes America, Fatma misses her family in Syria and hopes her husband’s family in Lebanon will be able to join them at some point.

“I had to go,” she explained. “My children are safe.”

Although they have no family here, they have received assistance from Syrian-Americans in Atlanta.

“The American Syrian community has been very supportive of the refugees,” said Scollo.

They donated a washing machine and a new car, just like the one destroyed in Syria.

“God … he knows everything,” said Fatma.

Scollo is regularly treated to tea-party-like lunches, including a chicken and onion filling baked into a ground wheat pie.

Hospitality and giving to others is something Fatma learned from her parents.

“Fatma … she just amazes me,” said Scollo.

“It’s a true friendship”

One day, Scollo arrived to see one less couch in the living room and questioned the young mother.

“My neighbor didn’t have one, and I gave it to them,” was Fatma’s response.

The family gives back by visiting other Syrian refugee families.

“They go and meet all the different families. She cooks and brings them the food they are used to,” said Scollo.

This summer, Scollo has planned fun trips to the zoo, aquarium and other sites in Atlanta for the children.

“We have a lot of fun together,” she said. “It’s just so much joy.”

Scollo also works to help Catholic Charities set up apartments for refugee families with donated furniture, household items such as linens, and a week’s worth of groceries.

“One year we did a Christmas party and we just asked them to bring bedding,” said Scollo.

But it’s the work of being a friend that Scollo enjoys the most, and she often finds it difficult when a family starts to move on.

“It’s a true friendship,” she said.

Although her four-month official commitment to Fatma’s family as a volunteer has lapsed, Scollo continues to extend a helping hand in friendship.

Each of the families befriended by Scollo has had babies born since arriving in America. She is helping Fatma plan for the future by making plans to begin studying for her U.S. citizenship test.

“The rewards are so great to see families become part of our American society,” said Scollo.

Longshore said she could tell Scollo was a good fit for the Family Friend program from the beginning because of her compassion.

When a Catholic Charities family has a challenge, the staff often turns to Scollo.

“Sue has just been one of the most generous and helpful volunteers we’ve ever worked with and she does it all with such humility,” said Longshore. “She does it because she truly loves working with refugees and she expects nothing in return.”