Safe in Chicago but never far from their flight

Ataee family
Elaheh Ataee (left) and Mahla Ataee (right) discuss difficulties of their situation in a Mexican restaurant Nov. 10 in Chicago (Fariba Pajooh/MEDILL)

By Fariba Pajooh

When Soghra Ataee and her four children go grocery shopping in Chicago, they melt into the crowd. Their tortuous 7,500-mile, 15-year journey to get here from Afghanistan is their private secret.

But the memory of that trip never escapes them.

“I have been like a stray cat, picking my children up in my teeth and trying to find a safe place to spend the night,” said Soghra, 49, who single-handedly began to shepherd her children Farhad 19, Elyas 17, Elahe, 16, Mahle, 12, out of Afghanistan in 2001.

“Now we are in the United States, and my hope is for them to find their dreams.”

After struggling to survive as refugees in first in Iran and then Turkey, the family arrived in Chicago in early October. A refugee organization found a two-bedroom apartment for them in Edgewater.

With only a few sets of clothes, a $1,000 food card from the U.S. government, some savings from their jobs in Turkey and hope for the future, they began their American lives. They also receive benefits from the U.S. government for six months as refugees.

Elahe was born in Mashhad City, Iran, but her parents were from northern Afghanistan. Soghra and her husband Nazerhosseyn came to Iran in 2001 when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. Nazerhosseyn was killed in a Taliban-triggered explosion in Kabul in 2004 when he returned to his home country of Afghanistan.

Alone with her four children, Soghra stayed in Mashad. Mahla, the youngest girl, was in preschool. Elahe and her brothers worked odd jobs and went to school, while their mother worked as a farm hand.

Elahe, who has the best English skills in the family, spoke about their experience in Mashad.

“We all worked except for my younger sister. Even so, the cost of living was increasing every day, and my mother was very worried. One day one of our friends who smuggled refugees into Sweden talked with my mother. He encouraged her to migrate illegally to Sweden.”

Soghra scraped together some savings and took back the security deposit on her apartment, so she could pay the smuggler $2,500 to bring the whole family to Turkey. To get to Sweden, the family would have to go to Turkey first, then Greece, Italy, Germany and finally to Sweden. Heading to Turkey with the smuggler, they spent two weeks in northwestern Iran and travelled on horseback to the Turkish border.

“The Turkish smugglers brought us to Istanbul, where we were waiting in a Turkish family’s house for one month. After that, the smugglers gave us an illegal passport and brought us with 40 people in a large truck to the border between Turkey and Greece.”

They were close to the border, but the Turkish police attacked and arrested them, and returned them to a refugee camp in Istanbul. Two weeks later, they tried to go to Greece with the smugglers, through a forest. Before arriving at the border, they were attacked and shot at by the police and they scattered.

Elahe shifted in her chair and her eyebrows moved together as she continued.

“We lost our 12-year-old brother, Elyas, because he started to run away with a group of men, and we could not find him in the chaos. We went back to the same refugee camp in Istanbul. My mother worried about my brother. We didn’t know where he was but thought he was in Greece. My mom decided to buy a map of Greece and to become her own smuggler. “

Guided only by a paper map, the Ataee family, now with only 3 children, ages 6, 11 and 13 and their mother, started their three-day journey towards the border. On the first day, they took a bus for 175 miles to Edirne. The second and third days, they walked for 23 miles in the cold, sleeping in gas stations at night. When they got to the border, this time the police bought them some food and told them to contact the United Nations, which they had never heard of.

“The police paid for us to take a bus back to Ankara, where we met with UN staff people and applied for refugee status,” Elahe continued.

From that point, the family lived for five years in Kayseri, a large city in Central Anatolia.

“My mother and older brother found a job, and my sister and I started going to school. We studied English and Turkish and became trilingual. After 6 months and a long search, another refugee from Afghanistan went to Greece and found my brother.”

Their lives had become normal for the first time in many years.

“One day after school, I came home and my brother told me: ‘We are going to America.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Her brother replied, “No I am serious. If you don’t believe me, you can check our UN code on the website.”

Why did the family chose Chicago?

Elahe said they had some Afghan friends who had moved here the year before and wanted to be near them.

Less than a month in her new home, Elahe is already looking ahead.

“My dream is to get a scholarship to go to Oxford or Harvard,” she said, “and to be a doctor and have people ask, ‘Do you know Dr. Elahe?’ I want to be famous like Dr. Mehmet Oz – maybe more famous than him. This is my dream – I want to have a good job in Chicago and a good life. I know have a very difficult way in front of me.”

Ataee Family
Elaheh Ataee with her mother in front of their home in Edgewater, Nov. 11 , in Chicago. (Fariba Pajooh/MEDILL)

Elahe will be a junior and Mahla an eighth grader in the Chicago public schools. Farhad and Elyas have part time jobs and are adjusting to American life. Farhad is trying to find a job and Elyas is going to school.

Soghra, dressed in western clothes and wearing a hijab or shawl that modestly covers her hair, weighs in on how she sees her children settling here, safe and stable after many years as refugees.

“I want health for my children, and after that I want them to achieve their dreams. I hope my daughters can be doctors and my son can become a pilot.”

Suddenly she becomes very quiet, and then adds,

“I cannot tell you the difficult days I passed. I don’t want anything for myself. I don’t have any dreams for myself. My only dreams are for my children – and I pray for them every day.”

The story of the Ataee family is more common than many Americans might realize.

Amber Johnson, a social worker who works with refugees, says their immediate needs include housing, learning to use public transit and where to buy food and understanding laws that are often different from those in the countries they came from.

Most refugees coming to Chicago today are from Burma, Rwanda, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan, Johnson said. “We help them buy and use a Ventra card for the train and to understand how to use technology such as going online at the library, or how to check their bank account. Some of these people were living in tents, so the culture shock is intense.

“Of course, learning English is the most important step to independence. If they know English, they can solve problems by themselves.”

There’s little time to adjust because refugees must soon find work. “It is mandatory for the refugees to find employment six months after arrival or to be placed on disability. They are no longer supported by the (immigration) agency,” she said.

Many refugees face challenges when trying to apply for jobs, due to poor English skills or lack of educational or professional experience in the United States.

But after only one month living the United States, Elahe thinks of herself as an American.

“Now America is my land and I want to stay here. I hope that other families like mine can get the same help to come here. In the future, I want to give back to America what it has given to my family.” she said.

Photo at top:Elaheh Ataee (left) and Mahla Ataee (right) discuss difficulties of their situation in a Mexican restaurant Nov. 10 in Chicago (Fariba Pajooh/MEDILL)