By Jay Bouchard
When her college campus was bombed in 2011, Salam Abdulrazzak wanted to remain in Syria and protest the Assad regime’s unwarranted cruelty. But at her parents insistence, she reluctantly left in January 2012 and sought refuge in the United States.
She thought her stay was temporary, but after more than four years in Chicago she is now an integral part of a stable Syrian community in the Chicago area.
On Tuesday, Abdulrazzak shared her story with high schooler Isabelle Gius as part of a StoryCorps interview organized by Latin High School English teacher Frank Tempone.
For the past five years, Tempone has taught an immigration literature course to high school juniors but recognized this year that something was missing.
“I started to think that it’s nice to have an immigration literature course, but there was nothing I could do to enrich their experience without giving them the opportunity to talk to immigrants,” Tempone said.
With this in mind, Tempone dedicated much of this semester to offering his students an authentic encounter with refugees and on Tuesday seven of his students interviewed members of the city’s Syrian community at StoryCorps’ studio.
“When we hear the word refugee, we assume it’s someone we don’t know,” Leah Benrubi, a student in Tempone’s class, reflected. “I didn’t realize that it’s so close to home and that opportunities exist to connect with the city’s refugee population.”
Benrubi interviewed Hadia Zarzour, a Syrian refugee who came to the United States in 2009 as a Fulbright Scholar and is now the case management coordinator for the Syrian Community Network.
Each of Tempone’s students conducted a 30-minute interview with a member of Chicago’s Syrian community. The audio recordings will be archived by StoryCorps at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and will potentially be aired on National Public Radio.
The United Nations reports that more than nine million Syrians have been displaced as a result of the civil war which broke out in 2011 and Chicago has received 27 Syrian refugee families, according to Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, executive director of the Syrian Community Network.
“I’m really glad the younger generation wants to know more about the Syrian crisis,” Abdulrazzak said after being interviewed. “There are a lot of similarities between us and the American students—we both care about the same issues, we’re both young and looking to our future hoping to make a difference.”
“When I tell people I’m from Syria, many just think of ISIS,” she said. “Now I know my voice is going to be heard and hopefully I shared some ideas with [Isabelle] that she didn’t think about before.”
One of Tuesday’s interviewees incidentally is a student at the Latin School. When Tempone began organizing the StoryCorps project, he did so with Sargon Yousef in mind. Yousef was born in Chicago and is the only Syrian American student studying at the Latin School.
As a result of the StoryCorps project, Yousef said he hopes “people will be more aware of how the situation in Syria also affects families here.”
Though his parents emigrated from Syria before he was born, Yousef said he and his parents are still worried about their relatives living through the civil war. When being interviewed by fellow student Sumina Regmi, he recalled the anguish his parents and siblings feel knowing that they have family in danger.
“I feel like when people think about [the war in Syria] they assume that the only people who are suffering are the ones who are there,” he said.
Tempone’s students spent more than a month prepping for the interviews. They researched the conflict in Syria and worked with Francesco De Salvatore of StoryCorps to sharpen their interviewing skills.
Latin High School juniors Michael Sarazen, Annika Johnson, Zara Khan, and Chris Barboi are also part of Tempone’s immigration literature course and conducted interviews on Tuesday.