Four good reasons to open your hearts to refugees this holiday season

By Oxfam
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When Samhar Assaf learned his family would be resettled in Chicago, he studied up on the city, using GPS to orient himself while poring over photographs. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

These four families from war-torn Syria are striving to make new lives for themselves in the Chicago area.

Driving through the suburbs of Chicago on a late summer morning, I spied a tall, thin man strolling down the sidewalk. At his side skipped a little girl, dressed in a white diaphanous dress fluffed with layers of petticoats. She looked like she had just stepped out of her favorite fairy tale.

The street was mostly quiet as we drove past, and I remember thinking this: That child must belong to wise parents, parents who understand the dreams of little girls and give them the freedom to explore their imaginations.

Her name, it turns out, is Sham. And her family is from Syria.

That shouldn’t surprise you. Or anyone.

She was as full of spunk as any 3-year-old loved by parents who are doing everything in their power to ensure the safety of their children and give them a future with opportunity.

That sounds familiar, doesn’t it, that desire to work hard for your family? That longing to see your children thrive? That willingness to take the greatest of chances and start a new life, from scratch, in a place almost unbearably far from home? That’s the drive and daring that built America—a nation of immigrants.

Sham’s family is one of the lucky few that has been admitted for resettlement in the US. Since the crisis in Syria started, just over 15,000 Syrians have moved to the US—a fraction of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees seeking safety from the carnage in their country.

Below are the stories of just some of them—brave ones, who have journeyed here against great odds and with the help of the Syrian Community Network, a Chicago-based Oxfam ally, are building new lives for themselves.

Ahmed Abizaid, with two of his five children, is working to build a new life for himself and his family in a Chicago suburb after fleeing the violence in Syria. Photo by Coco McCabe

Father of five looks to the future

The day bullets from a sniper’s gun shattered Ahmed Abizaid’s leg when he was leaving work in Dera’a, his life changed forever. The injury to his thigh was so severe that for the first 15 minutes he felt nothing, but racing through his mind were his wife and children and deep anxiety about what might become of them.

Afraid to go to the local hospital, his townspeople arranged to smuggle him into Jordan, avoiding guards at the border. His family followed him after two months. Five operations later, Abizaid now has steel plates in his leg to stabilize it and is hoping for continued medical care of the injury here.

“It took two years ‘til I could walk,” he said. “The first year I could not put my leg on the ground at all. There was no movement. Now I can walk 200 to 300 meters, and it wears me out.”

Now resettled in a suburb of Chicago, and with a new baby having arrived last summer, Abizaid, his wife, and their five children—one of whom is Sham—are learning to navigate in a whole new world.

And as he feels his way through all the uncertainties, there is one thing he never loses sight of: the future his children will have. For Abizaid, that is the best thing about being in America.

“My children will be educated,” he said. “My children’s future is the most important thing for me.”

And though school has only just started, they’re learning English quickly, especially his oldest daughter, who is 13.

“I ask her sometimes, ‘what is this?’ and she translates for me a little,” said Abizaid, sounding justifiably proud. “You know, it’s all new to her, too, but she’s learning.”

There are other satisfactions, too—things some Americans may take for granted since they haven’t experienced otherwise.

“We feel safe,” said Abizaid simply. “And what’s more important, I’m seeing the order here. The order in America is the best. . . .I see it much better than what we have. For example, when I see a car stop for someone to cross the street; when I see my children walk to and from school and I’m not worried about them.”

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

What she did on her summer vacation

It’s been a little more than a year since Batoul 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.

Among those meaningful gestures was the gift of a six-week summer class at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Taha focused on fashion design and illustration. The volunteers payed 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.”

Syrian refugees Rehab Alkadi and her husband, Feras Shawish, stand outside their new home—a ground-floor apartment in Chicago—that they share with their 4-year-old son. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

P is for pink and perseverance

When Feras Shawish and Rehab Alkadi resettled in Chicago after losing everything they had worked hard for in Syria, they knew it wouldn’t be easy. There was the isolation of being newcomers; the frustration of forestalled career dreams; and the day-to-day challenges of navigating in a new culture.

But for all the difficulty, there are moments of profound delight—proof that yes, they can make this work, that they will fit in. And the best part is, their little boy, who is now 4, will probably beat them to it.

The other day, said Shawish, their son came home from day care and announced, with an ease elusive for people whose native tongue doesn’t include the sound “p,” that he wanted a pink car. There it was: the perfect “p”, popped from the mouth of a child who a few short months before hadn’t spoken a word of English.

“We cannot pronounce pink,” said Shawish. “It’s not ‘p’, it’s ‘b’, like boy. . . I cannot pronounce pink like him. Oh my god, he speaks very good English.”

So, by the way, does Shawish, who gleaned much of what he knows from the mountain of medical textbooks and journals he pored over in Syria. Still, when your offspring surpasses you—and he’s only 4—well, that’s something to marvel at.

Summer school and a full-time job kept Samhar Assaf busy in the first few months after his family arrived in Chicago through a resettlement program for Syrian refugees. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Hollywood movie fan makes his way in the USA

Strolling down the streets of Chicago in a gingham shirt and shorts in late summer, Samhar Assaf looks so at ease it’s as if he has lived in the Windy City his entire life. Chalk it up to the movies.

In his hometown of Homs, in Syria, Assaf spent many happy childhood hours watching big screen tales made in America. Anything starring Vin Diesel got a thumbs up, and cities with towering skylines almost started to feel like home.

So when Assaf, 20, landed in Chicago a few short months ago, it was no biggie. Not at first. But it didn’t take him long to figure out that Hollywood wasn’t telling the whole story about the USA.

“I thought life would be very easy—from the beginning,” he said. “Of course it was not easy from the beginning.”

But Assaf has a personal motto: “If I love it, I can do it.” And he has been throwing himself with determination into every challenge that presents itself—including gearing up to get his high school diploma in the US, despite the fact that he finished his studies before coming to the US. But without the papers to prove it, and with a determination to go to college, he was headed back to school to start his junior year in September.


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