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P is for pink—and for perseverance: A Syrian family settles in Chicago

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

In 11 short months, Feras Shawish and Rehab Alkadi have begun to build a new home for themselves, complete with American friends and a busy day care schedule.

Feras Shawish and Rehab Alkadi lost everything when they fled the war in Syria--their careers, the home they had newly furnished following their marriage, the future they were building together for their infant son. Everything.

An anesthesiologist in an intensive care unit, Shawish had earned the top score among his peers on their board certifications and Alkadi, who had studied textile mechanical engineering, had a job at Damascus University in the office for mechanical workers.

Today, the couple and their son, who is now 4, are living on the ground floor of an apartment building in Chicago where they were resettled just 11 months ago. 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.

Shawish and Alkadi don’t pretend that starting from scratch is easy. It’s not: There’s 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 will probably beat them to it.

Shortly after their son was born, Rehab Alkadi and her husband Feras Shawish posed for this picture with him in Syria. It’s one of the few treasured possessions the family brought with them. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

‘He speaks very good English’

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.

Especially as Arabic was all he knew, a reality that worried Alkadi terribly when she first sent him to daycare so she herself could attend language classes.

“The first month was hard to me and hard to him” she said. “He always told me, ‘Please, leave me home. I will stay alone.’ But I couldn’t do anything. I had to go.”

The perseverance paid off—for both of them. Very quickly, their son took to his teacher, made friends, and embraced his preschool. And Alkadi has already worked her way through six out of eight levels in the English program in which she is enrolled along with students from 16 other countries including Iraq, Russia, Turkey, and China.

Alkadi, who had no English at all when she arrived but now speaks nearly as well as her husband, never wastes an opportunity to learn more.

“I turn my life to English,” she said. “Watch TV in English. Read newspapers in English. . .  Facebook in English—everything.”

Her secret, said Shawish, is a little black book in which she records tips about sentence structure and words.

“She has everything in that black book,” he said. “And she didn’t allow anyone to touch that black book.”

‘Equality of opportunities’

While Alkadi studies—with a goal of learning enough to enroll in college and pursue, possibly, a degree in math—Shawish has been working as a receptionist booking medical appointments in a clinic.

During the first week on the job—but no longer, he said—it rankled him that here he was, a highly trained doctor, now resigned to scheduling patient visits. A lesser man might have let the unfairness of that consume him. Not Shawish. Tall and lanky with a kind face and ready smile, he knows his current circumstances have nothing at all to do with his capabilities.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “It’s not under my control to lose my job, to lose my country, to lose my everything.”

But it is under his control to determine what happens next, and that’s one of the things Shawish likes best about the US—“the equality of opportunities,” he said.

“When it comes to work, everyone is equal here. Back in Syria, no, we’re not equal,” said Shawish. “If you have connections with the government, you will work, you will get the best job, the best everything. If you don’t have connections, then you have to bribe, to pay, to get the job.”

Shawish is glad to be working. He’s not practicing medicine yet—that will have to wait until he can pass the board requirements in this country—but for now he’s got something almost as important: his dignity, earned call by call at the receptionist’s desk.

“I’m making a living for my family,” he said. 

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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