Zadie Ivaska (left) and Malak Alkareem, both 5th graders at Walker Elementary School, at the First Presbyterian Church’s “First Friends” picnic this past summer.  Photo by David Ivaska

Caryl Weinberg didn’t know what to expect when a representative from Syrian Christians for Peace asked if her Evanston church would host an iftar dinner for newly arrived Muslims last year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“But we said yes, of course,” Weinberg recalls.

Two weeks later, 150 refugees walked through the doors of the First Presbyterian Church to break the daily Ramadan fast over the sundown iftar meal. Pastor Younan Shiba, an Iraqi native (and former refugee) who has lived in Skokie for over a decade, along with a few other Arabic speakers, translated for the church members and for the guests, who mostly hailed from Iraq and Syria.

“It went really well,” Weinberg says, “although we didn’t speak Arabic and they mostly didn’t speak English.” Encouraged by success, and determined to continue connecting with these newly arrived Muslims, the congregation decided to host a Thanksgiving meal. Another hit, according to Weinberg, who says the congregation noticed that “clearly, these people loved being together in our community, even if they couldn’t communicate with us.”

Next, a group of interested church members paired up with nine of the Syrian families. “Our ‘First Friends’ project just happened organically,” Weinberg says, adding that, since the church is not officially sponsoring the families, they relate to each other as friends. “It’s been fun to see the relationships take off,” Weinberg says, pointing out photos of the “sister families” taken at different gatherings displayed on a bulletin board near the church office. “We tried to match up families with kids around the same age because they really get along.”

“First families” from the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston and Syria at the summer picnic. Photo by David Ivaska

It is clear that young people generally hold the key to helping their families make a positive transition to life here. This is in large part due to Evanston’s schools, which offer some of the most comprehensive programs for ESL (English as a Second Language) students in the area, according to experts I spoke with. Refugee parents, on the other hand, often need mentoring from the local community to acquire language skills, obtain financial assistance with housing, and familiarization with life in Evanston once the initial three-month period when they are supported by the refugee resettlement agencies has expired.

According to the United Nations, Illinois received 2,658 refugees – about 4% of the total refugees resettled in the United States – in 2015-2016. Exact numbers for Evanston are difficult to come by because, in addition to privacy issues, the information is diffused among various resettlement agencies. School districts do not report data based on family status. However, it is generally accepted that about 100 new students from legal refugee households attended Evanston schools last year. At Evanston Township High School, for example, there were 67 students enrolled in the bilingual program in 2016-2017, twice the number of students enrolled in past years.

• • • • •

It’s 3:40 pm and I’m shoehorned into a student desk in Patti Payne’s classroom at ETHS when a student in a lace head scarf, long, loose shirt, black jeans, and bulging backpack drifts in. “I’m hungry,” she says, in a comfortable way. Payne, who has been a bilingual education teacher at ETHS since 1988, tells the student about after-school meals offered in the cafeteria. “Do you want to go there?” Payne asks. “No,” the young woman replies, making a beeline for a file cabinet behind Payne’s desk. Opening the drawer, Payne asks the student if she wants a sweet or salty snack. “You should go to the cafeteria tomorrow,” Payne advises the girl, who is one of six new students from Chad, handing her a granola bar as requested. Sitting down next to me, Payne tells me she used to keep the snacks in another cabinet, “but the kids would be sneaking them all the time!”

At ETHS the simple motto “All Are Welcome Here” is taken seriously. The cluster of ESL class-rooms next to Payne’s serve as a welcoming transitional space for non-English speakers as they assimilate to their huge new high school. “It used
to be that most of my students came from Central Mexico and Haiti, with a few singletons from China, Korea and Romania,” Payne recalls. “Then, about six to eight years ago, we saw a decline in the Central Mexico population followed by our first seven kids from Iraq and then quickly students from Sudan, Chad, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Syria.” In a few years, the mostly bilingual program had become a multilingual melting pot of languages and cultures.

Payne’s ESL colleague, Jenny Neal, who coordinates the bilingual program, later explains that, since each refugee student’s situation has a number of variables, including the possibility of interrupted education, the ESL curriculum is designed for flexibility and fluidity in order to meet students at their own level and then allow them to advance as quickly as they are able, regardless of the time of year.

“What are you going to do with ten kids who have never had math, tell them they can’t work toward graduation?” Neal exclaims indignantly. “No way!”  Instead, the department added an ESL pre-algebra class. But ensuring a child’s academic success includes many variables. “Sometimes, unfortunately, these children have scars, and they need a venue to share their pain,” Neal explains. “We have wonderful social workers who have started a group for some refugee kids. We can also make connections within the community so their parents can receive services as well, if needed.”

Neal says that when she explains the comprehensive ETHS “All Are Welcome” ESL approach to other bilingual coordinators at area meetings, they “sometimes look at me like I come from Mars!” This is because at ETHS the welcome goes beyond academics. “We don’t just want your brain, you know,” she concludes. “We take a journey together until, along with academic skills, you are ready socially and emotionally and feel a valued part
of this new life and new community. It’s a beautiful thing.”

When siblings Samy and Alyce Matenga, who graduated from ETHS last year, arrived at O’Hare on December 10, 2013 after a 48-hour journey from Burundi, neither they nor their parents knew anything about Chicago. “It was so cold!” Samy recalls, when I met the siblings at First Slice Pie Café in September. “We had no idea it would be so cold.” But the greeters from their refugee resettlement agency had brought coats and had a small apartment in South Evanston ready for them.

The weather was the first of a seemingly endless series of initial surprises, they say. Like when they assumed the cashier at the Rogers Park Market could speak French. “He just laughed,” Samy recalls. The Matengas, who had fled to Burundi from Congo during a pause in the fighting three years before coming to Chicago, didn’t speak a word of English. 

If you ask the Matenga siblings, they will tell you their experience at ETHS transformed their lives. “At my school in Burundi, I had 60 kids in the same class and we never changed classrooms,” says Alyce, whose favorite subject at ETHS was English. Samy says that “back home” his teachers told him he wasn’t smart. “But when I came here, I had the opportunity to learn, so I focused a lot and I loved algebra.”

“At first,” Samy admits, “I was scared of the other students because, since I didn’t speak English, I wouldn’t know what to do if someone talked to me.” Soon, though, his naturally gregarious nature took over and he learned to show his class schedule to a random student in the hall when he was confused. Unlike at the Rogers Park Market, “no one ever laughed at me at ETHS,” Samy says, “they only encouraged me to do more.”

Both Samy and Alyce have taken the fall semester off before they begin Oakton Community College in January. Samy is working full time at Jewel and Alyce “cooks and cleans” and takes care of their 10-year-old brother while their parents work. Their father, who was a doctor back home, works as a packer at Federal-Mogul Corporation here. Their mother is a housekeeper at a hotel in Chicago. “I plan to become a doctor, like my dad,” Samy says. “My plan is to go to Oakton for a couple years and then transfer to Loyola or UIC.” Alyce has the same idea, but wants to become a physical therapist.

Even though the Matenga kids are on their way to achieving the American Dream, when I ask Samy what he misses most about home – thinking maybe he’ll say his friends, or a special kind of food – his eyes dim for the first time. “Everything,” he replies, without missing a beat. Then he adds, “but we are so happy to be here because back home is not a safe place and we can get a good education here.”

• • • • •

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, Younan Shiba, the Iraqi pastor from Skokie, takes me to visit the Alkareem family in their new house, not far from ETHS. Shiba met the Alkareems at the First Presbyterian Church’s Thanksgiving dinner for Syrian refugees last year, and has mentored them since then. He, along with another Arab-American friend, interpreted for us.

Ahmad, 39, and Kawthar, 33, meet us on the front porch and lead us through the empty living room to the adjoining dining room, where a huge teapot on a tray anchors the large table. As soon as we sit, Kawthar serves us tea in gold-trimmed glasses. The oak floors gleam, the walls are freshly painted white. The family’s former place was infested with bedbugs and they found this tidy two-bedroom house, which rents for $1,250 a month, with the help of a local friend, who also co-signed the lease. An informal network of friends and associations is helping with rent until the family gets on their feet financially. The two older girls – Amneh, 13, who goes to Chute Middle School and Malak, 11, who is at Walker Elementary – bunk in the semi-finished attic. Mohammad, 17, has his own bedroom downstairs and Retag, 2, sleeps in her parent’s room. Pink post-it notes (“Bathroom,” “Bedroom”) decorate doors and cabinets.

As Retag jumps in and out of our laps between affectionate hushings from her dad and mom, the Alkareeems share their story.

“We had lived in Amman, Jordan, for three years before we arrived at O’Hare on August 24, 2016,” Ahmad begins. “We chose Illinois because I have a friend who came here in 2015. I was shocked when we arrived because that’s when it sunk in. We couldn’t communicate and we owned nothing but the clothes on our backs and the contents of our backpacks. We were about to cry.”

Malak, whose bright blue hijab matches her cheery personality, had a different impression. “I liked everything!” she exclaims. “Now, my favorite thing about living here is school.” At Walker, she has a lot of American friends, she says, and her favorite classes are art and gym. Pastor Shiba tells me the children lacked educational opportunities and experienced discrimination as Syrian refugees in Jordan. “Here, I feel like I’m treated well,” says Malak. “When I don’t understand, the other kids try to explain. They are helpful!”

On his first day at ETHS last year, Mohammad says he was overwhelmed. He hadn’t been to school in five years. Since his parents were not allowed a work permit in Jordan, it fell on him to support the family. He didn’t understand much about high school and “couldn’t imagine” he would ever be able to learn. Now, as a sophomore, he says, “I feel good because I can speak English and there is also a teacher who speaks Arabic.” Outside of school, he rides his bike from Evanston to his job at McDonald’s in Chicago’s Devon Avenue neighborhood.

When I go into the spacious kitchen with Kawthar and Amneh to refill the teapot, they speak to me in halting English. In addition to taking an intensive ESL class for refugees in Chicago this summer, Kawthar has been practicing with her American friends from the church.
I feel like the nightly news is coming home to me in
this kitchen when Kawthar tells me they are from Homs. She is in touch with relatives who stayed behind, but says that Ahmad has lost track of some of his family in the chaos of the past few years. Kawthar has never worked outside the home, but says she loves cooking and shops on Devon Avenue.

Back at the table, Ahmad shows me pictures on his phone of Kawthar’s mouthwatering recent dishes, including…homemade pizza. “That was a new recipe, since we are here now,” he says proudly. Unfortunately, Ahmad has had trouble finding a stable job. “I would
like to work in construction, but we have different tech-
niques in Syria than here,” he says. His biggest chal-lenge, which goes along with finding a steady job, is learning English. Still, he knows he is getting better, and he can even joke about his first blunders. “When we first arrived,” he laughs, “someone asked me ‘how old are you?’ and I replied, ‘My name is Ahmad!’”

Although Ahmad and Kawthar will not be able to integrate until they learn more English – a work in progress via free ESL evening classes at ETHS – they are grateful for their new life. “Here, we are safe and we feel free,” Ahmad tells me. Kawthar says the opportunities for her children are the biggest blessing. Also, she is grateful for the way she is treated by the Americans she has met. “They treat us like family, and that is something we have not experienced in a long time.” Ahmad says, “We hope to integrate into the Evanston community and become productive citizens, ‘Inshallah’ (God willing).”

• • • • •

 “At the end of the day, refugee is a status, not who someone chooses to be,” says Zean Dunbar. As the daughter of Liberian refugees, she has first-hand knowledge of the topic. Dunbar is coordinator for the Center for Forced Migration Studies at Northwestern’s Buffett Institute for Global Studies, which looks at long-term issues around refugee resettlement. In other words, what happens after a refugee’s immediate needs – home, food, school – are met.

 “The second phase can be more complicated,” says Dunbar, “because now it is the people’s relationships to their neighbors, their jobs, and community connectors outside of their ethnic community, like libraries, schools, and medical providers, that make a real life for a new refugee.” Dunbar thinks that Evanston’s proclamation as an official Welcoming City in December 2016 shows that the community is ready to accept these people and help them integrate here.

When Ahmad Alkereem and family arrived in Illinois in 2016, they were unable to communicate and owned nothing but the clothes on their backs and the contents of their backpacks.  Photo by Ceil Miller Bouchet

After a major refugee influx in 2015-2016, when the Obama Administration allowed 110,000 people (including the Alkareem family) to settle in the United States, refugee arrivals have dropped by half under the Trump Administration and will most likely fall even further in 2018. But those who have already been resettled will continue to need support from their new communities.

“We are not seeing a lot of new refugee families, but we are seeing continued need and challenges after the initial federal assistance has ended,” says Savannah Clement, Housing Policy and Planning Analyst for the City of Evanston. “We recently heard of one family where the kids weren’t in school and another where a little girl was asking for money.” Clement says the City’s Health and Human Services is looking at ways to check in on these families to identify what they still need.

Clement, like all of those I spoke to for this article, identified the lack of affordable housing in Evanston as the main challenge in retaining refugee families in our community. Fortunately, Clement says, “there are a lot of great new community groups where residents are taking charge in mentoring these families because some still need help in the second phase of integrations with navigating transportation, getting kids to school, or grasping the basic life skills needed to live here.”

On November 18, the First Presbyterian Church will again host a Thanksgiving meal for their “First Friends” and others from the Muslim refugee community. Since last year, Caryl Weinberg has become close to the single mom of a Syrian family she befriended through the church’s outreach program. “Her husband and the rest of her family were killed by a bomb in Aleppo, their home town. So now she’s a 40-something single mom raising her four kids in a foreign country. Despite all that, she’s as sweet as can be,” Weinberg says. “She’s made steady, slow progress in English, but her kids are really fluent because they take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way. They are fearless.”

The mother, who Weinberg says owned a factory in Aleppo with her husband, works three jobs to make ends meet, including shifts at McDonald’s and doing sewing repairs at a wedding shop. Weinberg is in awe of this woman’s fortitude. “When I asked her if she would ever go back to Syria she said, ‘No, what would I go back to? My family is here. You are my family now.’”

Ceil Miller Bouchet is a writer in Evanston.