What Hollywood left out: For this movie fan from Syria, making it in America isn’t as easy as it looked

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

But this refugee still has faith that aspirations can carry him far in his new home. His personal motto? ‘If I love it, I can do it.’

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.”

Though they have now  found a new home, through the summer Assaf was living in a third-floor walk-up with his parents and two siblings. The three kids—his sister is 21 and his younger brother is 11—all shared one bedroom. Though he longed for a little privacy, it was not the crowding that got to Assaf most. It was watching his father, who had a stroke and now has a heart condition, struggle up and down those three flights. The apartment, which came plagued by vermin and costs $975 a month, was also far from basic services: The grocery store, for instance, was a two-bus schlep away.

Almost since the first day, Assaf had been on the lookout for a better place he could help his family move to. But rents are high—between $1,000 and $1,300 a month—and there’s another problem that’s new to them all: credit.

“Every time I find an apartment, they ask us for a credit check,” recalled Assaf, who spoke a bit of English but also relied on the help of an interpreter. No one in his family has had a chance to build up a credit history. But that’s not going to stymie Assaf for long.

Energetic and determined to embrace the challenges before him, he has been reaching out to banks to find out exactly what he needs to do to start building that history so he can help ease the way for his family. For them, the road to safety has been long and arduous.

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

On the move

Assaf recalls his old life in Syria with yearning. His father sold cars and car parts, earning enough to provide his family with a comfortable living. There was private school for Assaf, a big house with bedrooms for each child, and an expansive backyard with a pool and plantings.

But when the war came, that life vanished. Completely.

“My dad—he lost everything he had,” said Assaf.

First, the family fled to Lebanon where they stayed for just 20 days.  Then, at the urging of relatives in Egypt, the family decided to give that country a try. They stayed for a few unsettled years.

It was there that Assaf finished high school and learned from an Egyptian friend how to make wooden furniture—a skill he found he really liked. Together with his father, Assaf opened a small business but they weren’t able to make a go of it, and when word came that the family had been accepted for resettlement in the US, they decided to go.

“It was a strange feeling,” recalled Assaf. “We could barely believe the news. . . It’s not easy for anyone to come to America.”

Part of the family

When the family stepped off the plane in Chicago, there in the airport ready to greet them with open arms—and an open mind—was a young volunteer not much older than Assaf. A married university student, he has guided Assaf and his family through many of the cultural complexities that can so easily snag newcomers.

“Now we consider him a member of our family,” said Assaf.

In exchange for all the guidance the volunteer has given—including help with the oddities of English colloquialisms, rules of the road for drivers, and tips on American manners—Assaf is teaching him Arabic.

“He’s a brother,” said Assaf simply.

Help of the most essential kind has also come from the Syrian Community Network, or SCN. A Chicago-based group that supports newly arrived Syrian refugees, it has worked with more than 90 families around the city since the crisis began. The organization recently helped Assaf's father find a job in a sweets shop.

And determined to see the family more comfortably settled, a staffer at SCN called dozens of landlords to help locate a new apartment. But when they finally found one, the owner asked for a deposit as soon as possible. The request almost derailed the deal--unitl SCN stepped in.

"Samhar called me and I happened to be nearby," said Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, SCN's executive director and founder. "And you know, I never carry SCN checks with me for fear of losing them, but I had a check with me and SCN paid for their deposit on the spot."

School of life

Assaf has dreams for his future. He’d like to go to college someday and possibly become a police officer, or join the marines. But college requires a high school diploma, and without the papers to prove he already graduated, Assaf was headed back to class—as a high school junior. At 20.

To get acclimated, he spent a couple of months in summer school, cheerfully tolerating the ribbing of fellow students who said he was old enough to be a dad so why on earth was he in school with them?

In fact, Assaf  has been shouldering plenty of dad-like responsibilities: Along with scouting for a new place for his family to live, he was the only one among them last summer working full-time. He had a job as a chef in an Arabic restaurant—a skill he learned from his mother.

Assaf takes it all in stride.

“I’m not going to be upset,” he said. “They remain my family.”

And as a member of that little family trying to make its way in America, Assaf is holding tight to something else he learned years ago from the big screen about his new home here.

“Anything you aspire to, you can do it,” said Assaf. “This is a country where you can do anything.”

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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