Look up: The power of support and love to refugees in Chicago


Mytam V

By Simone Brenner, A&E Editor

It is so easy to get caught up in your own life and your own problems. We live in a world where we’re submerged in our Facebook profiles, Snapchatting friends and texting group chats about plans. Have you noticed the single mother with children struggling to understand the person at the counter? The family walking in the cold without proper coats? When have you looked up and seen what was going on in your city, in the world?

According to the 2016 Illinois Refugee Program’s annual report, More than 126,000 refugees from 86 countries have resettled in Illinois. These people aren’t just coming to America with a life set up for them. Moving across the world to a new city with no family, job, or place to live is extremely challenging.

I remember clearly as a child meeting my father’s friend Jok, a refugee from who had fled the war in the South Sudan. Jok was one of the lost boys of Sudan, a group of 20,000 children separated from their families because of the war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese Government, according to UNICEF. Before coming to Chicago he had lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya for over a decade. At 19, Jok came to Chicago with the U.S. refugee resettlement program scarred from the violence and harsh conditions he had encountered. He had no money, education or means to support himself.

My heart broke for this young man. What had he done to be put in this place? To have witnessed such violence and unrest in his home?

Because of the volunteers Jok met in Chicago, he was able to acclimate to American culture, find a job, get an education and fund an organization focused on improving conditions in the hometown that he fled as a child.

Refugees aren’t just a “problem” that the government has to deal with. Refugees are people. People in need of comfort, advice and service. They need the help of people just like you or your family in the community. Without a support system, the transition to a new country can seem impossible. People underestimate what love and support can do for a person in need.

Cindy Harris, a volunteer for Heartland Alliance understands how far mentoring can go for a refugee family. Harris got involved four years ago working with a recent refugee from Iraq with two small girls.

“She said that it would be a six month project,” Harris said. “That was four years ago — I’m still doing this. Once you spend six months with somebody like that, you don’t want to walk away from them, you’re involved.”

Each week Harris spends two to three hours with the family. At the beginning of their time together, Harris played with the girls but at the same time tried to teach their mother English so she could get a job. Now, the mother has a job and the two children can now speak English well.

Although Harris’s objectives were to mentor the family by getting the mother a job and the children into school, she noticed that there was a lot more going on with them.

“Their biggest problem besides not having enough money is their loneliness,” Harris said. “My mentee comes from a family of 9 brothers and sisters, who all stayed in Iraq. They’re such a close family, so I actually was their only family for the first year.”

Starting from scratch in a new country can be very hard on a family financially. Harris said her mentee’s family lives in a tiny rundown apartment with rats. Sometimes she is concerned for their safety because of the conditions they live in and the safety of their neighborhood. Because of her English limitations, the mother works at a thrift store hanging and sorting hundreds of clothing items for hours at a time.

“It makes me feel exceedingly wealthy,” Harris said. “When I come home I think: Why was I  born here? Why were my two friends born in such dangerous places? Why are they separated from their families? I think a lot about how I drive a nice car and have a nice home and I think about the fairness in the world.”

There is a misconception with giving back. You don’t need to donate thousands of dollars to an organization to make a difference in someone’s life. Mentorship and friendship can help push a refugee family through a rough time and enable them to stay on their feet emotionally and financially.

There are many refugee organizations in Chicago working to bring refugees out of unsafe environments and into safe and accepting communities.

One of these is RefugeeOne, the largest full-service resettlement agency in Chicago. The organization offers resettlement services, English language training, workforce development, wellness services, women and youth programs, and immigration services, according to their website.

Jims Porter, the communications and policy coordinator at RefugeeOne, said that the organization’s primary goal is for refugees to become self reliant within the first six to nine months of their arrival.

Porter believes in the importance of helping refugees transition and become independent because of the opportunities it can bring them.

“Refugees contribute to the fabric of our city in more ways than you can imagine,” Porter said in an email interview. “In addition to bringing diversity and culture, refugees also bring with them hard work, determination, and motivation to succeed.”

Volunteering with refugees is not only beneficial to the family you are serving, but it also changes your perspective on the world. There are so many terrible things going on in different countries that most of us either don’t know, or don’t think about. Sometimes it takes talking with someone who has lived through those traumas to understand the true depth of these global conflicts.

“I think it’s important to educate ourselves about refugees and the conflicts they are fleeing,” Porter said. “Many people fear refugees and immigrants due to a lack of knowledge about who they are and where they come from.”

No matter the neighborhood you live in or the car you drive, there will always be people in need around you. Look up. See your city. See the refugees. Make an effort to understand them and their stories. Whether it’s making a donation, getting involved with organizations like RefugeeOne, or just taking 10 minutes out of your day to research the conflicts that people in Chicago are fleeing from, you will be making a difference. Don’t underestimate the power of love and support to those in need.   

“I have two very close friends — family friends,” Harris said. “A Syrian family and an Iraqi family. It makes me realize that Chicago is so much bigger than my neighborhood, so much bigger than downtown. It’s loaded with stories of people who’ve come out of suffering, or far away. I love seeing the hidden parts of Chicago and knowing I’m a part of that.”