Refugee family EC 021217
Local News

Flossmoor church helps Syrian refugee family settle in Chicago

  The Mahbani family in their new home. The refugee
  family from Syria arrived in the U.S. on Nov. 9. A
  group from Flossmoor Community Church is
  co-sponsoring the family, providing informal
  support to help them feel welcome and become
(Provided photo)

He’s 3, and he gets quite animated when he shows Denise Morris images of Spiderman. 

She doesn’t understand a word he says ― he’s speaking in Arabic ― but she recognizes the enthusiasm for superheroes that is common in youngsters his age, regardless of the language they speak.

The boy is the youngest child of a Syrian immigrant family co-sponsored by Flossmoor Community Church (FCC). Morris is the church elder who leads the committee charged with helping the family get established in this country.

The family of five also has a daughter in kindergarten and a son in third grade. The father is a carpenter by trade. Aside from the ordeal they’ve been through, they strike Morris as a typical family.

“The two older children play chess. I couldn’t play chess when I was 6 or 7 years old,” she said.

She noted that the family seems very glad to be in the U.S. and is working hard to settle in. 

They have some big challenges ahead of them, and that’s where the FCC group and Refugee One come into play.

Refugee One is a refugee aid agency FCC has been working with to help the family. The organization serves as the legal sponsor for refugees and provides support designed to help them become self-reliant within six to 12 months. Its services include help with immigration and citizenship issues to housing needs and job counseling. 

The agency helps refugees get into English classes almost as soon as they arrive. 

The church group serves as a kind of super welcoming committee. Their task is to help the family feel welcome and get comfortable in their new home, but they do much more than simply providing a gift basket.

The family arrived in the U.S. on Nov. 9, and FCC group members were there to pick them up from the airport. They prepared a hot meal for the family on their first night in their new home.

The church group also did a lot of work before the family arrived, raising money and collecting furnishings, food and household items so the home would be ready to go when the family arrived.

Morris said the effort received great support not only from the congregation but from the Homewood-Flossmoor community generally.

The $8,000 in donations the group raised will help subsidize rent costs for the first few months as the family works to master English and the father seeks employment. The money is not given directly to the family but is handled by Refugee One. 

Morris and other members of the committee visit the family of five every couple of weeks to help them learn the ways of city life in the U.S. The FCC group focuses on practical things, like helping the family understand the local climate, helping them navigate school schedules and events and familiarizing them with U.S. currency denominations.

Morris said one example was a note the oldest boy brought home from school. It included information about a holiday event at the school.

“They couldn’t read it. I was trying to explain to them that they were welcome to go to the school and what kind of clothes the kids could wear,” she said. “They didn’t know when school break started or how long it would be. It’s practical stuff.”

There are limits to how much the FCC folks can help with language skills. Morris said they depend on Google Translate, an online translation service, for most of their communication with the family.

“It works sometimes OK, but some words or phrases just don’t seem to work,” she said.

What could help more is the fact that the family is reaching out to other Arabic speakers in the area. People who speak their language but have been in the U.S.  longer will be able to help them pick up language skills more quickly.

That’s one of the reasons the family was settled in the city rather than in the South Suburbs closer to their co-sponsors, Morris said. Proximity to Refugee One services and other Arabic speakers make a city residence more practical.

But members of the FCC congregation have expressed interest in meeting the family and wonder if they can visit Flossmoor, Morris said. 

A Refugee One representative said such visits have occurred before.

“She said not to ask them until the relationship is established, and they feel comfortable saying no,” Morris said.

That was one message the group got during co-sponsor training. Morris said the local committee was briefed on a number of cultural and religious sensitivity issues. The goal is to help the family feel safe and welcome, so co-sponsors are told to avoid introducing difficult issues pertaining to religion or politics. 

FCC has been making an effort to help its congregation and the community learn more about the people the church is helping. Last year, the church hosted a program on Syrian history and culture. In January, it hosted a program on understanding Islam, and a church group visited a nearby mosque.

With much of the world focused on the President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim nations, including Syria, the issue of immigration policy is present, even if not directly addressed.

Morris said she did not broach the subject, but she believes the family is paying attention to the issue. Because they have already been admitted to the country, she doesn’t think they are in immediate danger of being affected by the adminstration’s efforts to further restrict immigration.

The caution regarding topics of conversation means the FCC group doesn’t know much about the family’s past. 

“They showed me where they lived in Syria. They said they don’t have family there any more,” she said. “Their town had fighting in it before they left, but I don’t know what they  experienced.”

Now that they are here, the tasks before them are fairly clear, if difficult, but getting here wasn’t easy.

Refugee One’s website notes that it typically takes 18 to 24 months to go through the visa screening process. The family left its hometown in 2013 and had been living in a refugee camp in Jordan since. 

They were cleared to travel to the U.S. in late September, but the FCC group got word that they were denied final permission at the last minute. 

Morris said they have no idea what caused the delay.

“It could be something as simple as a sick child,” she said.

The group was disappointed at the time but they hoped the situation would be resolved, and then in early November, they received word that the family had gotten clearance again.

The process of becoming a co-sponsor began almost a year ago. Morris said a congregation member, Mike Rogers, and Pastor Fred Lyon attended a presentation about sponsoring refugees. 

A few months later, they brought Refugee One representatives to FCC to talk about their work, and soon a committee was formed to pursue sponsorship. Morris said active participation in the committee varies from a few people to as many as 25.

She said the group specifically wanted to co-sponsor a Syrian family, and she thinks that’s because of the world attention to the Syrian diaspora over the past several years.

“I think people see the news reports. They see the images of those poor children in the paper,” she said. “There’s no way you can solve Middle East politics. There’s no way to get rid of religious extremism. This is one concrete way you can help someone. You’re trying to give them a chance.”

Morris said the experience has been rewarding so far. The group wants to see how successful its efforts are before committing to another co-sponsorship. But she would definitely recommend it to other local groups.

“I can’t imagine how many other families are out there that are in need,” she said. “The courage it must take to say ‘I’m going to do this.’ They’ve got a long road ahead of them. We’re hoping they get a good base.”

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