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Repaying a kindness: Resettled Syrian tailor shares mask-making skills with those who guided him to safety

Tailor Abdulkader Hayani (right) and his four children, Mustafa (foreground) and Ali, Fatimah, and Ameeneh (rear), made masks in the basement of their home.
Tailor Abdulkader Hayani (right) and his four children, Mustafa (foreground) and Ali, Fatimah, and Ameeneh (rear), made masks in the basement of their home.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

They arrived as refugees from Syria three years ago, exchanging the danger and uncertainty of their war-torn homeland for the sanctuary of a rented house on a quiet street in Framingham.

Since then, Abdulkader Hayani and his family have settled into their new lives as Americans: working hard; learning English; dreaming of buying a home.

And when danger and uncertainty enveloped them again — this time in the form of a global pandemic — they were ready to take on a new role: not as victims of the crisis this time, but as capable leaders of one of countless efforts to step up and help.

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It is a reversal that resonates deeply for the young Syrian tailor, whose well-honed professional skills are ideally suited to the task of making face masks. The love and support that surrounded his family in their first weeks and months in this country — chronicled in a 2017 Globe series — left the new immigrants amazed, deeply grateful, and eager for the opportunity to become benefactors instead of beneficiaries.

“Ever since we came here, people have been helping us and making us feel comfortable,” Hayani said through an Arabic interpreter. “Now we have a chance to help other people.”

His experience escaping from a bloody civil war has proven useful in this new time of crisis. He knows what it is to be patient — to wait years in hope of a return to normal life — and it is patience he counsels today, along with perspective, and faith.

Fatimah and Ameeneh Hayani trimmed the extra threads on the masks their family made in the basement of their Shrewsbury home.
Fatimah and Ameeneh Hayani trimmed the extra threads on the masks their family made in the basement of their Shrewsbury home.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

“I thank God that there is no war here,” he said.

In Syria, Hayani left school at 9 years old to learn the respected craft of tailoring beside his brother. In time, he came to own his own tailor shop in Aleppo, overseeing six employees and 10 sewing machines. The business was only a year old when the Syrian civil war began, and the city he loved began to fall to rubble. He fled with his family to Jordan, and waited in limbo for five years before being cleared to come to America.

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These days, the Hayani family — including Abdulkaders wife Asmaa and their four young children — gather in their bright, spacious basement in Shrewsbury, light streaming in through a sliding glass door as they work together manufacturing face masks at a rate of 50 or 60 per day. Abdulkader irons sharp pleats into the fabric while his eldest son, Mustafa, 12, runs the sewing machine. The younger children trim extra threads from the fabric with scissors.

Several hundred masks made by the family have already been distributed for free to people in need, including migrant farm workers and residents visiting food pantries in Boston. Masks may be ordered for a suggested donation of $18 apiece, money that will help support other Syrian refugees.

Adbulkader Hayani and daughter Fatimah, 7, received supplies to make masks from a member of Temple Beth Elohim.
Adbulkader Hayani and daughter Fatimah, 7, received supplies to make masks from a member of Temple Beth Elohim.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

One of the donated masks went to Anthony Meeks, a longtime city outreach worker who counsels young people on the streets of Boston.

“I looked in the bag and realized it was personally made by somebody, and for this I am so honored,” Meeks wrote in a heartfelt thank-you note. “Just think, you probably saved my life.”

The mask-making project has brought the Syrian family together again with their friends from Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, the socially active synagogue that sponsored their 2017 resettlement. Volunteers from the temple rented and furnished the Hayanis’ new home in Framingham, greeted them at the airport in Boston when they arrived, and served for months as a surrogate extended family, providing child care, rides to job interviews, and daily help navigating American culture.

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Now, partnered again on the mask-making project, some of the same suburban volunteers who guided his first steps toward assimilation are taking direction from the Syrian tailor on the finer points of sewing.

“To see these new Americans looking for ways to give back is heartwarming and joyous," said Michael Gilman, a member of the temple who is leading the mask project. "It restores hope, and lets us know that kindness remains the driving force, whatever our religion or belief system.”

Members of the temple’s social action committees have tracked down needed fabric and hard-to-find elastic for the masks, and have taken the lead in distribution. About 20 have begun sewing themselves.

On a Zoom tutorial with the temple’s crew of volunteer stitchers last month, Abdulkader Hayani answered questions about fabric layering and stitch counts. Asked how wide the ironed pleats in each mask should be, he waited patiently while his interpreter fumbled for the Arabic word for “pleats.”

When the query was clear, Hayani answered in English: “One inch and one-quarter.”

“My Arabic sewing vocabulary is maybe not as good as it should be after working with Abdulkader for three years,” joked interpreter Danny Woodward, immigrant services program manager at Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, or JFS, which has overseen the family’s resettlement.

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At the end of the Zoom call, temple volunteer Barbara Shapiro thanked the tailor in Arabic. Smiling, he responded with the Hebrew word for peace: “Shalom.”

The two have known each other since the night in January 2017 when the Hayani family first arrived at Logan Airport, when Shapiro carried one of his exhausted daughters.

Altogether, eight Syrian families were resettled west of Boston three years ago by a coalition of 10 Jewish temples and the Framingham nonprofit JFS. All the transplanted Syrians found work in time, but several have recently lost their jobs in the fallout from the pandemic, leaders of the mask-making project said.

Donations received in exchange for masks will help support the families with financial needs. The masks are available for order online. The effort has raised $8,000 so far, said Gilman.

Abdulkader Hayani considers himself lucky. The menswear store where he does in-house tailoring has been closed, but he expects his job to be there when it reopens.

His family recently won an affordable-housing lottery for first-time home buyers, allowing them to purchase a new home in Grafton later this year. His children are thriving, playing soccer and speaking English. (“The problem now is teaching them Arabic,” he said.) The tailor said he feels comfortable in ways he could not have imagined three years ago: “I know more people, I talk to people more, and I begin to understand Americans, how they live and think.”

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He said he sprang into action making masks after he saw a New York doctor on TV describing how he had to wear the same mask for three days. He made a short instructional video with his son, and when temple members saw it, they asked to partner with him.

The first batch of masks he made went to outfit home health care workers for Jewish Family Service — the same organization that helped bring his own family to safety.

He said he is grateful that he could, in some small way, return their kindness. His freedom to help — unremarkable to most — feels to the newcomer like a revelation.

“If you wanted to help someone in Syria,” he said, “you would probably die.”

He said he thinks Americans may understand a little better now the hard experience of refugees like him.

“They know what it feels like to have something heavy hanging overhead,” he said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.