Resilient Syrians could use community support

Chicago Ideas Panelists
Four panelists speak at Chicago Ideas Week event “The State of the Syrian Refugee Crisis” moderated by WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef, left, on Oct. 18, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)

By Maryam Saleh

Wadad Elaly likely has much in common with her classmates at Sullivan High School. Her favorite subject is math, and  least favorite class is gym. She likes to draw, and hopes to someday be a doctor. And like many Chicago residents, she doesn’t much enjoy the weather.

But unlike many of those around her, the 15-year-old girl represents a group that is the subject of a polarized national conversation about American immigration policy.

She is a Syrian refugee.

The teenager spoke briefly about her transition to life in Chicago – where she was resettled nearly two years ago – at a panel discussion about Syrian refugees hosted by Chicago Ideas on Tuesday evening.

During a time of inflammatory political rhetoric, the event was meant to explain the “causes, realities and potential outcomes” of the Syrian refugee crisis, organizers said.

“I’m not sure that the average American can explain exactly what the intricacies are of how refugees are vetted and resettled in the United States, but it seems that every American has an opinion on whether it’s done correctly, or whether it’s right,” said Odette Yousef, a WBEZ reporter who moderated the “State of the Syrian Refugee Crisis” event.

The American public has been engaged in a contentious debate about refugee resettlement for the last year. Governors of thirty states called for a halt to U.S. resettlement of Syrians last November, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to deport Syrian refugees if he is elected. A recent survey by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs found that only 36 percent of Americans support accepting Syrian refugees into the United States.

Wadad, who was resettled to Chicago in January 2015, did not discuss the public debate surrounding her existence – and that of others like her – in America. Instead, she focused on the positive aspects of her journey and life here.

“In my school, I feel comfortable with teachers and talking to them. When Syrians are coming, and they don’t know anything, I try to go help them to know the school and learn the language, to be comfortable with teachers,” the soft-spoken teenager said.

She sat alongside experts and advocates who denounced political rhetoric that demonizes refugees and applauded the resilience of those fleeing violence in Syria.

“Despite the rhetoric in this campaign, there is a very quiet movement of Americans who want to resettle refugees, [who] have gone out of their way to volunteer, to take a stand,” said Deborah Amos, a NPR correspondent who has been reporting on refugees in America since June.

“They understand that refugee resettlement has a grand tradition in the United States, that we have been doing this for decades, and it is part of the American fabric,” added Amos, a veteran journalist in the Middle East.

The Syrian Community Network is a Chicago-based organization that does exactly that. The grassroots group was founded as Syrian refugees began arriving in the area almost two years ago, said Founder and Executive Director Suzanne Akhras Sahloul.

Refugee resettlement agencies receive federal funds to support refugees with necessities such as rent and job placement in their first three to six months. But Akhras Sahloul, a Syrian-American, said she quickly realized the government assistance was “just not enough.”

“We rallied the community so that we could support families, whether it’s through rent, or through mentorship, or through sending volunteers to their homes so they can help them with integration and learning English and making new friendships,” she said to the room packed with about 170 people.

Akhras Sahloul’s organization supports about 140 Syrian refugee families in the Chicago area, and she said she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the local community and coming from people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

As of last month, the U.S. has resettled about 14,000 refugees in the last five years, according to the U.S. Department of State. That is just a fraction of the 5 million Syrians who have fled their country since 2011.

Syrian refugee board at Chicago Ideas
As the panelists spoke, an artist created a visualization of the many topics that came up during the discussion on Syrian refugees. Oct. 31, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)

Becca Heller, who is the director and co-founder of the New York-based International Refugee Assistance Project, said she hopes to see America continue to expand its refugee resettlement program, regardless of who the next president is.

She worries that Congress will cut funding for refugees, and said she and others are thinking of alternative ways of supporting resettled individuals.

“A lot of us in the advocacy world are saying, ‘What are the channels to bypass the people who are saying ‘No,’ [to refugee resettlement,]” and get to the people who want to say ‘Yes,’” she said, suggesting that private sponsorship of refugees – as opposed to government support – might be an option.

Akhras Sahloul is also concerned about the anti-refugee sentiment, she hopes that Americans’ good-hearted nature will prevail.

“When we talk about Syrian refugees and we talk about deporting people who are of immigrant background, I just want you to take a look at Wadad,” she said, turning to face the shy teenager seated beside her. “Take a look at her face, her beautiful face. This is the face of a Syrian refugee, and one day she will be a doctor, or a teacher, or a counselor. We need to think about the kids.”

Photo at top: Four panelists speak at Chicago Ideas Week event “The State of the Syrian Refugee Crisis” moderated by WBEZ reporter Odette Yousef, left, on Oct. 18, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)