Social Justice

Choir finds harmony, hope, healing from addiction

By Brendan Hickey

The members of the Harmony, Hope, & Healing choir all have something in common: They struggle with drug addiction and homelessness, they are enrolled or have completed a 12-step recovery program, and they all know Tina Villapando.
Kevin Tamila abused drugs for much of his life. After joining Harmony, Hope & Healing and completing his addiction recovery program 10 months ago, he continues to sing with the group.

“I can show the newcomers that [recovery] is possible,” Tamila said. “Staying with the group shows me and them that healing is a long process and I look forward to it.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had someone to love me,” said Debra Taylor, a member who has struggled with addiction, holds back tears. “Now when I sing, I’m singing Christ’s words. There isn’t anybody who can love you as much as He does. And that’s how I started to love myself again.

Harmony, Hope, & Healing is a nonprofit organization with the mission to help Chicagoans experiencing drug addiction and homelessness enter a sober, productive and meaningful life through the power of music. Villapando is one of two full-time employees that assists these Chicagoans in recovery.

The organization is most publicly known as a choir. The strict recovery and sobriety requirements lead to regular fluctuation in the choir’s size. Remarkably, it is not uncommon for failed singers to return for second and third attempts at the program.

“Even though we have all these performances, it’s not about that,” Villapando said. “It’s finding your voice when it’s been silenced in so many ways – whether it be by yourself, whether it be by others, whether it be by your circumstances.”

Villapando calls the choir as “the public face of Harmony, Hope & Healing,” because a large part of the nonprofit’s work happens behind closed doors. She has spent the majority of her tenure with the program helping women rediscover how to interact with their children after experiencing long periods of a drug-addicted lifestyle.

“Seeing parents reunite with their children and learning those parenting skills again sometimes is tough work and is sometimes a challenge,” Villapando said. “But when you get that moment when there’s bonding, it’s beautiful, and it’s through music and it’s through singing and using their voice in a positive way and you see them being with each other— those are beautiful moments.”

The program was founded by Marge Nykaza in 2000 and operated on a small scale until it was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2003. Nykaza was diagnosed with cancer shortly after employing Villapando as an intern, and left the organization largely in her control as she healed.

Nykaza remembers this period as a critical point for Harmony, Hope and Healing. “While I’m having all of these health issues and going forward with surgery, and chemo and radiation, she assisted me so that the work could continue. While personally it was one of my most difficult times, it was a great year for our program. She’s a blessing,” she said.

Villapando has now been with Harmony, Hope & Healing for five years and loves her new promotion and title: program director. She says she feel blessed to be part of the organization and that she learns from the people in the program every day. The choir members recognize how the organization has helped them, too.

“I am Harmony, Hope & Healing, and so are you,” said Amanda Brown Longe Asque, a singer with the program. “We are Harmony, Hope & Healing, and so is Tina Villapando.”

Photo at top: Harmony, Hope and Healing Choir rehearses before Sunday Mass at St. Josaphat Catholic Church in Lincoln Park.  (Brendan Hickey/MEDILL)

Chicagoland nonprofit saves dogs, helps veterans

By Brendan Hickey

Jonathan Cooper returned to his home in Chicago after two military tours in the Middle East alive but injured. His back was broken and his mobility severely limited. With the help of a cane he was able to walk but fell constantly, injuring himself further. His disability ruled his life until he met Mira.

Mira needed help, too. A pit bull, she had been abandoned and was living in an animal shelter. She is big and strong, even by pit bull standards. Noticing her remarkable size and calm temperament, Pits for Patriots, rescued her, putting her to work.

Pits for Patriots, a Chicago-based veteran-assistance program, matches veterans and first-responders with physical and mental limitations with pit bulls in shelters. Each dog is trained with a specific a specific veteran’s disabilities in mind.

The time-intensive training process has paid off for Cooper and Mira, as well as dozens of other veterans and dogs. Mira was specifically trained for Cooper because of her size and ability to support him because of his stabilization issues.

“Mira is there for basically anything that I need,” Cooper said.

Joe Malikowski, a trainer for Pits for Patriots, said: “With Jon’s bad back he can’t move very well. Mira can retrieve stuff if he drops it, open doors and cabinets, zip zippers, really anything.”

The nonprofit organized a special showing of “Project 22,” released in April, at Muvico Cinema in Rosemont where Cooper and Mira attended. The film follows two combat-wounded veterans on a 6,500-mile, cross-country motorcycle trip to raise awareness of a shocking reality: An average of 22 American veterans lose their lives to suicide each day.

“I see PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) related mental health issues every day, but the movie opened my eyes to so much more than I even knew. As soon as we seen it, we were like, ‘Absolutely. Yes. We got to get the word out about this,’” Malikowski said.

While Pits for Patriots trains dogs to assist with physical limitations, many also help veterans with mental health issues like the ones discussed in the film.

“A lot of times it’s just about having that comforting touch,” said Jan Petrella, a volunteer. “Like a paw on your leg, or his head in your lap, or a little nudge or something. Just enough for the person with PTSD to think ‘Oh wait, I’m here with my dog, everything is OK.’ ”

Malikowski added, “I’ve seen guys who come back from [from military service] and they can’t even leave their house to buy groceries. Then I’ll see this same guy get one of the dogs and he’s out and about again because he knows someone’s watching his back.”

“With this, it’s not even about raising money,” he said. “We’ve got the same goal as the movie –  trying to stop the 22 veterans a day from killing themselves in any way possible. Our way is just a little bit more specific.”

Screenings of the film are being organized around the country. To find one near you, check out the “Project 22” Facebook page.  Learn more about Pits for Patriots at their website.

Photo at Top: Veterans and Pits for Patriots volunteers after the showing of “Project 22.” (Brendan Hickey/MEDILL)

Empowered Fe Fes gives young women sense of disability pride and community

By Rebekah Frumkin

At 21, Alexis Smith already has the résumé of someone twice her age. She’s a poet, memoirist and activist working on a short film about inclusivity for people with disabilities. She also has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, for which she uses crutches 90 percent of the time and a power wheelchair the remaining 10 percent.

“Every time we talk about ourselves as being disabled, we’re not looking for sympathy,” Smith says. “There’s nothing to be sympathetic about.”
Continue reading

Politicians and donors support women’s rights at Planned Parenthood fundraiser

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

It’s been a rough year for Planned Parenthood. Not only have Republicans in Congress repeatedly tried to pass bills to suspend federal funding to the reproductive health services organization, but a Planned Parenthood clinic was also the object of a gunman attack in Colorado Springs, Colo. last November.

However, the mood was far from somber among the reproductive rights advocates who filled the dining rooms at City Winery on the Near West Side Thursday night. An estimated 600 donors, supporters and elected officials came together to raise funds for Planned Parenthood Illinois Action, the health organization’s political arm in the state, and celebrate the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Continue reading

Prominent Chicago resident runs for President of Sierra Leone and is charged with bigamy

By Bian Elkhatib and Meggie Morris

Almost 5,000 miles away from his home in Chicago, Sierra Leonean Alie Kabba awaits trial in Freetown.

He is charged with bigamy, but his supporters say the contrived charge is because he is running for President of his homeland.

Since arriving in the U.S. from Sierra Leone in 1991, Kabba has become a prominent community leader in the Chicago area. He is executive director of the United African Organization (UAO) and was the first African board president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).

Continue reading

Republican takeover proposal frustrates school officials

By Morgan Gilbard

The financial future of Chicago Public Schools already looked dire to those on the inside before Republican officials proposed a state takeover of the district last week. Now, many opponents see it as a vibrant political circus.

“Suggesting the state manage the affairs of Chicago Public Schools is like recommending a cocaine addict handle the affairs of an alcoholic,” said Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary and an outspoken critic of Illinois legislative leadership.

The Republican bill would disband the Chicago Board of Education, transfer district control to an independent party and possibly allow the district to file for bankruptcy in an attempt to close a $480 million deficit. Continue reading

New Malcolm X campus offers state-of-the-art healthcare training

By Branden Hampton

The state-of-the-art healthcare simulation labs at the new $251 million Malcolm X College campus will help better prepare students for careers in high-demand health science fields.

The simulation emergency room, ambulatory and trauma labs will allow faculty to replicate the vital signs and other physical responses of a critically ill patient, using a mannequin that must be correctly taken from the lab’s ambulance to virtual ER for urgent care, according to Daniel Okhilua, nursing lab manager at Malcolm X College.

Continue reading

Syrian family finds rare path to call Chicago home

By Kat Lonsdorf

Sitting in a modest apartment in Chicago’s northern Rogers Park neighborhood, Firas Jawish, 35, thought back on the 10 months he spent detained underground by the Assad regime in Syria.

“We had no idea if it was day or night,” he recalled.  “But usually the torture was in the mornings–so then we knew.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that it would have seemed like light conversation to a passerby.

The sparsely decorated apartment is the most reliable home Firas and his wife Rehab, 29, have had in more than three years.  For their 3-year-old son, Hasan, it’s the first permanent place he’s ever lived.

The young family moved to Chicago in late September, joining the more than 150 Syrian refugees that have resettled in Illinois since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011.

Before the war began—or at least before it came to them—the newly married couple lived near Damascus in the northern suburb of Harasta. Firas was an anesthesiologist working in two different ICUs.  Rehab, then pregnant, was going to school to become a textile mechanical engineer.

In 2012, as the unrest of the civil war began to spread, the Assad regime started weekly bombings in Harasta, forcing Firas and Rehab to leave their home and all their brand-new wedding gifts behind.  They moved in with family in a nearby suburb, taking only belongings they could carry.

Meanwhile, Firas coped with the bombings the only way he knew how—by helping injured civilians in his neighborhood when he wasn’t working at the hospital. It was this that eventually led to his detainment.

“Even if someone is injured and goes to the regime hospital, they will kill him there, or he will just disappear forever,” Firas recounted last week in Rogers Park, explaining that the government considered anyone trying to alleviate the situation an enemy.

The couple didn’t want any identifiable photos taken for fear of the safety of family members still in Syria, but they did allow audio.   Listen below to hear Firas describe his time in detention.

On the floor nearby, Hasan sat playing with a remote control car, oblivious to the dramatic tale unfolding in the living room.

Firas describes his time in underground detention. (Kat Lonsdorf/MEDILL)

When Firas was finally released in October 2013, he had been underground for 10 months.  Hasan was now walking and talking, but he didn’t recognize his father.

A few days later, the couple decided to leave, fearing that Firas would again be arrested.

With little savings left, they sold their car and got on a bus to the northern city of Aleppo.  From here, they took a bus to the Turkish border and then walked across, becoming part of the now 4.6 million Syrians who have fled the war-torn country.

They rented a room in Antakya, Turkey, a city about 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea toward Cyprus. Rehab worked for a Danish refugee organization, while Firas tried to run a clinic for other refugees out of their cramped home using the only medical equipment he brought with him: his stethoscope.

Each stop on the Jawish family’s journey from Damascus to Chicago. (Kat Lonsdorf/MEDILL)


The family applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in early 2014.

“After a while they asked us, ‘Would you like to go to the United States?'” Firas smiled big remembering, laughing a little.  “Well, yeah.  Sure, of course.  Who wouldn’t?”

The whole process took about two years.  There was a medical check, and a security check.  Many security checks, he said.  “They don’t tell you anything about how to travel, or when to travel,” Firas remembered.  “You’re just waiting.”

The family got 10-days notice that they would be moving to Chicago, a city Firas said he knew about from movies.

“But we didn’t know the weather,” he said.  “No one told us that it’s very cold.  And I didn’t hear about the Lake Michigan—it’s just like a sea, actually, but it’s a lake.  It’s very beautiful.”

Chicago’s large immigrant population, especially in Rogers Park, made resettling relatively smooth, the couple said. Their next door neighbors are Iraqi. Their local supermarket has recognizable products.

“Chicago is traditionally a welcoming hub for refugees from all over the world,” said Suzanne Akhras, executive director of the local aid organization Syrian Community Network.  She referenced the resolution passed unanimously by Chicago’s aldermen in reaction against an attempted ban on refugees by Gov. Bruce Rauner late last year.

Ending up in the United States is not a typical outcome for Syrian refugees.  The U.S. has only accepted 2,660 Syrian refugees since 2011, according to the most recent State Department numbers.  That’s much less than one percent of the total number of Syrian refugees seeking relief from the conflict.

Illinois Syrian Refugee Resettlement 2011-2015

The number of Syrian refugees resettled in Chicago, Illinois, and the United States as a whole per year since the civil war began in 2011. (Kat Lonsdorf/MEDILL)

“It’s not sufficient,” Akhras said of the United States’ resettlement efforts.  “Of course you can’t resettle everyone, we understand that, but why we’re not accepting more is beyond me.”

Instead, Congress introduced a bill late last year to make it harder for refugees from Syria and Iraq to come to the United States.  The bill already passed in the House without amendment in November, after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris left many U.S. lawmakers worried that ISIS was gearing up to infiltrate the country via an influx of Syrian refugees.  It headed to the Senate this week for a vote.

President Obama has said he will veto the bill if it comes across his desk.

“This legislation would introduce unnecessary and impractical requirements that would unacceptably hamper our efforts to assist some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” he said in a statement shortly after the bill was introduced.

For Rehab especially, the transition to a new life has been lonely, mainly because of the language barrier. But Firas just accepted a new job in data entry at a nearby clinic, and the couple is especially looking forward to Hasan’s future in America.

“We really find that American people are very nice people, and open-minded,” Firas said.  “A lot of American people here that we’ve met say, ‘We know you’ve been through very hard situations.’  We didn’t expect that.”

Photo at top: Pointing to a verse in the Qur’an that condemns violence, Firas explains that ISIS goes against the teachings of the religion. “They never represent Islam,” he said. Firas and Rehab don’t want photos taken that could identify them for fear of violence against family still in Syria. (Kat Lonsdorf/MEDILL)

Why Many Black Parents Talk to Their Children About the Police Today

By Misha Euceph

“Turn the radio down. Turn the radio down! They’re gonna take you to jail,” said 4-year-old, Max Manasseh.

“What? What do you mean turn the radio down?” asked Tamar Manasseh, his mother. They were on their way back from dropping off Max’s older sister, Avi, at school in Englewood, on the South Side of Chicago. Their car was stopped at a stoplight, right in front of a police car.

“The police. They’re gonna take you to jail,” said Max, again.

Tamar recalls that moment as the first time she knew her son was afraid of the police.
Continue reading

North Korean’s divine revelation brings him to Chicago

By Jenny Lee

On the northernmost headland of the world’s most reclusive country, North Korea, there stood young Jon Nam Kim’s home, overlooking a beautiful landscape of cliffs rising sheer from the East Sea and mountains brimming with larches, pines and pear trees.

Now thousands of miles away, his old stomping ground has become a place Kim prays for everyday and wistfully wishes to return at least once in his lifetime.

“It really was a wonderful place to live,” said Kim, who is among the 20 or so North Korean refugees resettled in a greater Chicago area that is also home to more than 63,000 South Koreans. “Not everything in my country is bad. Just the policies are.”
Continue reading