First Person

Postcard from Chicago: Syrian refugees settle in to new lives

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As a writer at Oxfam, I get to meet and spend time with many of the people whose lives Oxfam supporters are helping to change. Here are some of them.

I was in Chicago a couple of months ago with my colleague, Ali. He’s from Syria, where war has torn that country apart and displaced about half its population. Nearly five million Syrians are now refugees. I’m sure you’ve been reading or hearing about all the horror there.

But that’s not what I want to tell you about.

I want to tell you about who we met in Chicago and why were there.

We met some of the most amazing people. Driven. Hard working. And doing so much for their kids.

One of them was Suzanne Akhras Sahloul. A total dynamo.

She’s the founder and executive director of a group called the Syrian Community Network. It’s based there in Chicago and is a close ally of ours. We care deeply about the same things—people’s dignity, essentially. And finding a way to make sure that the Syrian refugees who resettle here are welcomed and embraced.

That was a tall order this year as xenophobic and racist rhetoric poisoned so much of our public discourse. It’s our job to stand up—to refute lies. In addition to the life-saving support you help fund for refugees in places like Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, advocacy is a key part of the work you help us do. And that’s why we were in Chicago: to meet with Syrians who have newly settled in the US. To hear their stories and set the record straight.

Of all the trips I’ve taken for Oxfam—and I’ve been to some of the most troubled places on earth—this one, right in my back yard, was among the most heart-wrenching. And affirming.


Because of people I met—people like Feras Shawish and his wife Rehab Alkadi.

Feras had been a doctor in Syria. Rehab worked at Damascus University. Everything they had strived to build in their lives is now lost. Their careers. Their home. But here they are in Chicago, with their four-year-old son, determined to start again. You should have heard how proud Feras was when he told me how quickly his son is learning English. Especially the hardest part—the P!

And then there’s Batoul Taha. She was just shy of 18 when I met her. A church group had pooled their resources so Batoul could go to the Art Institute of Chicago for a summer program on fashion design and illustration. Her drawings—and her smile as she showed them off—would blow you away.

The chance to start over is no small thing. And that’s what I loved about Samhar Assaf—the way he threw himself into everything in front of him. He’s 20 and because he had no proof that he had actually finished high school, he was set to enroll as a junior this fall. Kids were telling him he was old enough to

be their dad. He just laughed. It seemed like nothing was going to get in the way of him fulfilling his dream to go to college.

Although it has been a divisive season politically, the steady support that people like you have provided has been critical to the lives of refugees—critical to the survival and dignity of people like Samhar.

Toward the end of the visit, when I was driving Samhar home to his family’s apartment, he was singing quietly to himself in the back seat of the car. It was so beautiful. After a little pleading, he let me record him.

That song—it’s a love song—has been playing softly in the background. I’ll turn it up so you can hear the rest. And thanks for listening. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+