This community network helps Syrian refugees feel like they have ‘a second family’

Suzanne Akhras Sahloul is the founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network which helps refugee families settle into new lives in Chicago. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

In Chicago, a group of Syrian Americans are marshalling community resources to ensure that families from war-torn Syria can make a new home for themselves in the city and its suburbs.

Syrians are legendary for their hospitality, but Suzanne Akhras Sahloul has taken the art of the warm welcome to a whole new level.

For the founder and executive director of Chicago’s Syrian Community Network, that spirit of generosity is not just about good manners. It’s about survival. It’s about helping families from war-ravaged Syria find their footing, settle into new homes and jobs, and begin to build—from scratch—lives as rich and full and accomplished as those they left behind.

“We consider them a second family,” says Rehab Alkadi, who moved to Chicago 11 months ago with her husband, Feras Shawish, and their young son.

“I’ve always been interested in refugee work,” says Sahloul, who was born in Syria but moved with her family to the US in the 1980s when she was 10. As a mother raising her own family in a suburb of Chicago, she began working with Iraqi refugees on a small scale when it became abundantly clear to her how much was missing from their lives.

 “There was never any community welcome or a sense of wanting these people to come into our city,” said Sahloul. “No one reached out to them. No one supported them.” 

Lessons from a mentor

Fast forward to 2013 and there it was again—that feeling that not enough was being done to help. This time, the families in need were Syrian, and Sahloul, who was working at the time with the Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS, found herself appointed its refugee resettlement coordinator. Oxfam has been among the groups calling for an expansion of the US refugee resettlement program to help the record number of families fleeing violence and persecution around the world.

Quickly, Sahloul immersed herself in learning all she could about the process—how did the resettlement agencies work; who had influence; what did other ethnic groups do for their people—and found a mentor in a former Illinois refugee state coordinator, Edwin Silverman, whose ideas have helped shape the refugee program nationwide, said Sahloul.

“He told me, ‘Look, you know, your community is the only community that will do this. Don’t look for anyone else to do the work’,” she recalled. “No one will care as you (the Syrian community) will care. No one else will have the cultural understanding, the linguistic knowledge . . . the bandwidth basically to deal with whatever trauma or issues that they are coming with.”

Sahloul embraced the challenge.

Recognizing that SAMS was running a global operation and wouldn’t be able to concentrate on refugee issues in Chicago, Sahloul decided to take the plunge, leave SAMS, and pour all her energy into the immediate needs around her.

 She pulled a group of like-minded people together and in January 2015, they were called on to help their first family, knowing that other families would soon follow. They also settled on their organization’s name: the Syrian Community Network.

“Syrian just to distinguish ourselves—what type of ethnic group we are,” said Sahloul. “Community because we know we can’t do this without the community’s support. And networks: It’s all of our networks coming together to support the refugees.”

Its mission is essential.

“We want to resettle people with dignity,” says Sahloul, simply.

That can mean scrambling to help locate places for families to live and providing them with rent support. It can mean working with them to get cars, find jobs, and meet other community members. In short, it’s everything a good friend in a foreign place might do to make you feel welcome, at home, and ready for a new day. 

Today, the network, a close ally of Oxfam’s, has helped 92 families, and the number is growing. As the Obama administration was gearing up to meet its commitment of helping to resettle 10,000 Syrians this fiscal year, the Syrian Community Network in one month alone—June—found itself working with 30 new families who had arrived from Syria via Jordan.

Family members collect water from a tap in the Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan, where tens of thousands of refugees from Syria are now living. Many of the Syrians who have recently resettled in Chicago came to the US by way of Jordan. Photo by Sam Tarling/Oxfam

The true meaning of Ramadan

That crazy-busy period also happened to coincide with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month—a slower time of contemplation and fasting. For members of the Syrian Community Network, however, the month was anything but slow. The surge taxed the resettlement agencies, which in turn looked to Sahloul’s group for ideas and support. 

“They were calling us all the time,” said Sahloul, who has a staff of five part-timers while working as a volunteer full-time herself. “Can you do this? Can you do that? And then the families were calling us all the time.”

The biggest challenge was housing. There simply wasn’t enough of it—or enough that landlords were willing to rent to refugees. About eight families wound up in motels.

“That was really heartbreaking,” said Sahloul, “because it’s Ramadan. You want to sit down and cook meals . . . and you’re fasting all day and then on top of it you’re in a motel.”

Despite the emotional rollercoaster—and the non-stop pace—Sahloul now looks back on that time as a period that truly was reflective of the holy month.

“When I think about it, in hindsight, Ramadan is about service,” she said. “By serving others, this is part of worship. And that’s the better part.”

 ‘You know you have to roll your sleeves up’

Sahloul traces some of her drive back to her parents, both of whom were deeply involved in their community. She remembers very clearly the work her father, who is Syrian and a structural engineer, did for their mosque after its basement flooded following a great deal of rain. Foundations were his expertise.

On this particular occasion she watched him, waist deep in sewer water, directing workers on where to pour new concrete to stop the flooding.

“He told them after he finished 'the basement will never flood again.' And true to this day, the basement never flooded,” said Sahloul, adding her father remained active in the life of the mosque as it grew dramatically over the years, often doing the dirty work that no one else wanted to do. “You see that as a child and you know you have to roll your sleeves up.”

Sahloul’s father was also one of the founders of the first private Muslim school in Chicago—the same school, housed in the mosque, Sahloul attended through high school. Her mother, who is Canadian by birth, served as the volunteer secretary there every day for 11 years.

“She was the face of the school,” said Sahloul. “All the girls loved her.”

Today, Sahloul has slipped into her parents’ shoes—refashioning them for her high-energy, no-time-to-waste style, as she and the Syrian Community Network shore up the foundations of newcomer’s lives and encourage all of Chicago to be the face of warm acceptance and new beginnings. 

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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