A fashion statement: What this high school student from Syria did on her summer vacation

Batoul Taha shows off some of the fashion designs she worked on this summer at the Art Institute of Chicago. Taha, a refugee from Syria, has started her junior year of high school in Chicago. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Six weeks at the Art Institute of Chicago fulfilled a dream for this almost 18-year-old high school student from Syria.

“Oooh, I like your style,” said Salam Abdulrazzak sinking into a sofa next to Batoul Taha, who was decked out in a blue floral headscarf and a long, tailored jacket with cuffs and breast pocket accents.

Taha, who was about to turn 18, smiled with a mix of shyness and confidence, her eyes shining bright behind her glasses. She had just finished a six-week summer program focusing on fashion design and illustration at the Art Institute of Chicago and was getting ready to start her junior year of high school.

Abdulrazzak, who works for the Syrian Community Network, an Oxfam ally and a Chicago-based group that supports newly arrived Syrian refugees, had stopped by with a visitor to catch up on Taha’s summer and hear how things were going. Oxfam has been calling for an expansion of the US refugee resettlement program to help the record number of families fleeing violence and persecution around the world.

It’s been just a year since Taha, her two brothers, and their parents flew to Chicago and stepped from the plane into the welcoming arms of a group of volunteers from a local church who have helped ease the family into their new lives after fleeing the war in Syria.

“When I came to the states I always thought we will have some financial support, but actually it means way more when I found the emotional support.” said Taha, thinking back on all that the church volunteers and others have done for her and her family.

Batoul Taha discusses her art work with Salam Abdulrazzak, a member of the Syrian Community Network that has helped Taha’s family settle into a new life in Chicago after fleeing the war in Syria. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Sewing and Drawing

Among those meaningful gestures was the gift of a small sewing machine, something Taha never had back home, even though she was keenly interested in fabrics and stitching things together. It all started with her dolls when she was a girl. She would take cast-off clothes from her mother, cut them up, and sew the fabric pieces into miniature outfits for her dolls.

“They were amazing,” said Taha, remembering the pleasure she took in making the clothes. Sometimes, if her mother was missing an article of clothing, she might find it—or pieces of it—cut and stitched into tiny garments.

The church volunteers were also the ones who made it possible for Taha to enroll in the art institute, paying for her tuition and materials—at least those she didn’t scrounge from home, like the fabric pieces she used in a construction that focused on textures.

The church group had a hunch Taha and the art institute would be a good match. They had seen some of her drawings, Taha said—a skill her father, a calligrapher, had encouraged her to pursue when the family moved to Lebanon, before coming to Chicago.

“My father, he knows how to draw also, so he taught me how to draw,” said Taha, laughing at the memory of her early lessons with him. “One time, he said you should draw it in the middle of the page. I was drawing at the top of the paper.”

To help her, he bought Taha colored pencils and paper.

“I love the materials,” she said, describing the inspiration she gets from them. “Especially when I see the white paper I like it so much—without the lines. It gives you the way forward.”

Harry Potter, Walt Disney, and other friends from around the world

Now, with summer over and the academic year about to start, Taha has a new source of inspiration: Her school has hired a staffer who is originally from Syria.

“I met her yesterday at registration. I was so surprised,” said Taha. “I was so glad there is a new teacher.”

And as happy as she is about the prospect of someone from her own country now on staff, what Taha likes as much about her school is its multi-cultural makeup.

“I have friends from different countries--from India, from Africa, from Syria,” said Taha. “I like that so much.”

Whatever barriers may exist in their native languages, the friends who have command of English will have no problem sharing every high school joy and woe with Taha: Her spoken English is very good. Even a year ago, when her family first came to Chicago, she surprised them all with her proficiency when she began talking to the volunteers who had come to greet them at the airport.

How did she become so competent? In a truly American way: “It’s because I was watching a lot of American movies,” said Taha, ticking off her favorite “teachers.” They are the same icons just about every kid in the US has grown up with: Harry Potter and Walt Disney.

Since 1975, the US has resettled more than 3 million refugees—people who have fled their country of origin because of war, violence, or persecution. Through the years, we have seen just how much refugees contribute to the communities they live in. We see people who open businesses, become our engineers, doctors, artists; people who serve our country as soldiers and as teachers. We see our neighbors, our friends, and our colleagues.

Yet today the US refugee resettlement program is under attack. Act now to protect this life-line for families.

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