Social Justice

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.
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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.”
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Would Jesus really do that?: Experts weigh in on Wheaton College controversy

By Jasmine M. Ellis

Whose God is it anyway?

As a Christian, Dr. Larycia Hawkins thought she was doing what Jesus would do when she posted a photo of herself in December wearing a hijab head covering on Facebook in solidarity with Muslims worldwide.

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of The Book,” she said in the status. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Little did Hawkins know she was setting off a theological firestorm and set the stage for her potential firing by suggesting the religions worship the same God. Officials at the west suburban university suspended her and moved to revoke her tenure to fire her.
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Feeling the heat, Chicago Police counter criticism, highlight ‘good works’

By Thomas Vogel

De-escalating a domestic dispute in Englewood. A drug bust in the Harrison District. A South Side foot chase to catch a carjacker. These are just a few of the instances the Chicago Police Department recognized Tuesday morning at its monthly Commendation Ceremony.

Designed to emphasize positive instances of crime fighting, the event offered the department a way to counterbalance the negative attitude many Chicagoans have adopted toward the nation’s second-largest police force following several embarrassing incidents.
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CHA approves homeless families program, bonus for new CEO

By Harry Huggins

The leadership of the Chicago Housing Authority approved a new voucher program for homeless families, as well as actions to expand the agency’s public housing stock during its first board meeting Tuesday. After the board announced a $10,000 bonus for new acting Chief Executive Officer, Eugene Jones Jr., CHA residents voiced their support for the man who took charge of the troubled agency last year in June.

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City Colleges plans to consolidate programs sparks complaints

By Branden Hampton

After numerous complaints from students and faculty, the City Colleges of Chicago has postponed the consolidation of all of its child development programs at a single campus on the North Side.

The consolidation will now take place in the fall of 2018 instead of fall 2016, according to Jennifer Alexander, the faculty council president at Richard J. Daley College in West Lawn and one of the vocal opponents of the consolidation. CCC’s child development programs are now located at six of the seven campuses and the original plan was to move all of them to Harry S. Truman College in the Uptown neighborhood.

Alexander added that she was glad CCC made the decision to postpone the move, but the potential negative impact on students was “still unacceptable.” The decision was made by the Board of Trustees in December 2015. Continue reading

Chicago Police still don’t have overdose reversing Naloxone

By Jack Adams

Cook County Police Chief John Roberts’ son died of a heroin overdose in 2009, and ever since then he’s been saving other heroin addicts from the same fate.

“All my life I’ve been trained to first and foremost save lives,” said Roberts.

After his son’s death, Roberts said he went through a paradigm shift.

“Ever since then I’ve been looking at the entire drug problem in our nation at a different angle,” he said.

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Abortion advocates react to bill to defund Planned Parenthood, express concerns for future

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

Advocates for women’s reproductive freedom welcomed President Barack Obama’s veto last week on a House of Representatives bill that would repeal the Affordable Care Act and suspend federal funding to Planned Parenthood. But the veto is hardly enough to provide a respite in the fight for women’s reproductive rights, according to some abortion activists in Illinois.

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Demonstrators take over Loop to march for women’s reproductive rights

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

Frigid temperatures Sunday caused an expanding crowd of pro-choice marchers to bundle up more than usual on an otherwise clear afternoon at Federal Plaza. Abortion activists with Feminist Uprising to Resist Inequality and Exploitation, a local group also called FURIE, braved below-zero wind chills to march through the Loop, and protest the Chicago chapter of pro-life advocates, who gathered just on the opposite side of the street for the March for Life.

“The majority of Americans are pro-choice,” Mallory Harwardt, FURIE organizer, told the crowd as it assembled in front of the Federal Courthouse before the march. “It’s time we stopped acting like we are the silent majority.”

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