Since the Syria Crisis began in 2011, just over 15,000 Syrians have moved to the US. Syrian families make the journey to the US, and other countries around the world, driven by the desire of safety, and giving their children a future with opportunity.
Below are four stories of families – brave families – who have journeyed to the US to start a new life with the help of the Syrian Community Network, a Chicago-based Oxfam ally.
Ahmed Abizaid is a father of five. The day bullets from a sniper’s gun shattered his leg when he was leaving work in Dera’a, his life changed forever. The injury to his thigh was so severe that for the first 15 minutes he felt nothing, but racing through his mind were his wife and children and deep anxiety about what might become of them.
Afraid to go to the local hospital, his townspeople arranged to smuggle him into Jordan, avoiding guards at the border. His family followed him after two months. Five operations later, Abizaid now has steel plates in his leg to stabilize it and is hoping for continued medical care of the injury here.
“It took two years ‘til I could walk,” he said. “The first year I could not put my leg on the ground at all. There was no movement. Now I can walk 200 to 300 meters, and it wears me out.”
Now resettled in a suburb of Chicago, and with a new baby having arrived last summer, Abizaid, his wife, and their five children—one of whom is Sham—are learning to navigate in a whole new world.
And as he feels his way through all the uncertainties, there is one thing he never loses sight of: the future his children will have. For Abizaid, that is the best thing about being in America.
“My children will be educated,” he said. “My children’s future is the most important thing for me.”
And though school has only just started, they’re learning English quickly, especially his oldest daughter, who is 13.
“I ask her sometimes, ‘what is this?’ and she translates for me a little,” said Abizaid, sounding justifiably proud. “You know, it’s all new to her, too, but she’s learning.”
There are other satisfactions, too—things some Americans may take for granted since they haven’t experienced otherwise.
“We feel safe,” said Abizaid simply. “And what’s more important, I’m seeing the order here. The order in America is the best. . . I see it much better than what we have. For example, when I see a car stop for someone to cross the street; when I see my children walk to and from school and I’m not worried about them.”
It’s been a little more than a year since Batoul Taha and her family flew to Chicago and stepped from the plane into the welcoming arms of a group of volunteers from a local church who have helped ease the family into their new lives after fleeing the war in Syria.
“When I came to the states I always thought we will have some financial support, but actually it means way more when I found the emotional support,” said Taha, thinking back on all that the church volunteers and others have done for her and her family.
Among those meaningful gestures was the gift of a six-week summer class at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Taha focused on fashion design and illustration. The volunteers payed for her tuition and materials—at least those she didn’t scrounge from home, like the fabric pieces she used in a construction that focused on textures.
The church group had a hunch Taha and the art institute would be a good match. They had seen some of her drawings, Taha said—a skill her father, a calligrapher, had encouraged her to pursue when the family moved to Lebanon, before coming to Chicago.
“My father, he knows how to draw also, so he taught me how to draw,” said Taha, laughing at the memory of her early lessons with him. “One time, he said you should draw it in the middle of the page. I was drawing at the top of the paper.”
To help her, he bought Taha colored pencils and paper.
“I love the materials,” she said, describing the inspiration she gets from them. “Especially when I see the white paper I like it so much—without the lines. It gives you the way forward.”
When Feras Shawish and Rehab Alkadi resettled in Chicago after losing everything they had worked hard for in Syria, they knew it wouldn’t be easy. There was the isolation of being newcomers; the frustration of forestalled career dreams; and the day-to-day challenges of navigating in a new culture.
But for all the difficulty, there are moments of profound delight—proof that yes, they can make this work, that they will fit in. And the best part is, their little boy, who is now 4, will probably beat them to it.
The other day, said Shawish, their son came home from day care and announced, with an ease elusive for people whose native tongue doesn’t include the sound “p,” that he wanted a pink car. There it was: the perfect “p”, popped from the mouth of a child who a few short months before hadn’t spoken a word of English.
“We cannot pronounce pink,” said Shawish. “It’s not ‘p’, it’s ‘b’, like boy. . . I cannot pronounce pink like him. Oh my god, he speaks very good English.”
So, by the way, does Shawish, who gleaned much of what he knows from the mountain of medical textbooks and journals he pored over in Syria. Still, when your offspring surpasses you—and he’s only 4—well, that’s something to marvel at.
Strolling down the streets of Chicago in a gingham shirt and shorts in late summer, Samhar Assaf looks so at ease it’s as if he has lived in the Windy City his entire life. Chalk it up to the movies.
In his hometown of Homs, in Syria, Assaf spent many happy childhood hours watching big screen tales made in America. Anything starring Vin Diesel got a thumbs up, and cities with towering skylines almost started to feel like home.
So when Assaf, 20, landed in Chicago a few short months ago, it was no biggie. Not at first. But it didn’t take him long to figure out that Hollywood wasn’t telling the whole story about the USA.
“I thought life would be very easy—from the beginning,” he said. “Of course it was not easy from the beginning.”
But Assaf has a personal motto: “If I love it, I can do it.” And he has been throwing himself with determination into every challenge that presents itself—including gearing up to get his high school diploma in the US, despite the fact that he finished his studies before coming to the US. But without the papers to prove it, and with a determination to go to college, he was headed back to school to start his junior year in September.
Photos: Coco McCabe/Oxfam
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