Chicago-based resettlement coordinator: Syrians immigrating to U.S. 'not coming from camps; they have higher education degrees'

With the American presidential elections in three weeks, Syrian refugee resettlement is one of the issues persistently dividing the two main candidates.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton proposes increasing America’s Syrian refugee intake from the current 10,000 to 65,000 refugees.

Donald Trump refers to Syrian immigration as “the great Trojan horse of our time,” calling for “extreme vetting” and stopping just short of previous calls for a wholesale ban on Muslims entering the United States.

The UN now counts 4.8 million globally registered Syrian refugees, of whom just more than 12,000 have resettled in the United States.

Suzanne Sahloul is the founder of the Chicago-based refugee resettlement organization Syrian Community Network (SCN). She works to ensure that newly arriving Syrian families have an easier time than her family did when they came to America in 1982.

“I remember coming here at the age of 10,” she  tells Syria Direct’s Justin Schuster.

“We were in shock throughout those first few years, like somebody had just slapped us across the face.”

Today, Sahloul works with the 120 Syrian families in the Chicago area, not only helping find them homes and jobs but reading and translating mail for adults who do not speak English, and assisting children with their homework.

The Syrians who are coming to the United States are often highly educated, highly skilled and accustomed to a certain way of life, Sahloul says.

“These are people who lived in cities, and even those who lived in rural areas had furnished homes,” Sahloul said, adding that Syrians in America “just want to rebuild their lives, and it’s certainly not easy to come here and do that.”

One of the biggest challenges for Syrians is finding jobs, says Sahloul.

“It’s difficult for them to accept a job like cleaning an office or working as a dishwasher in a restaurant, especially when they may have been the top pastry maker in Syria.”

The war, she says, has hit all Syrians.

It didn’t just hit the uneducated class. It hit doctors, engineers, pharmacists, bakers, musicians, artists and artisans who have had their skills passed down for generations.”

Q: A few years ago, I was volunteering with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, Connecticut where I was paired with a recently resettled Iraqi family. While the three young children faced their own challenges, they seemed to adapt to their new environment far quicker than their parents, both linguistically and culturally. What are the most prominent difficulties that Syrians—both young and old—face while resettling in Chicago?

When we started the Syrian Community Network in 2015, one of the first things that we noticed was that children—especially younger children—adjusted quickly while teenagers had a more difficult time.

I remember coming here at the age of 10. It’s something that my sisters and I still laugh about 34 years later. We were in shock throughout those first few years, like somebody had just slapped us across the face. At the time, my oldest sister was 16, and my other sister was 12, and I had the easiest time adjusting because I was able to quickly learn the language. My two older sisters had a very difficult time, which is what I see with families today who have teenagers.

Syrian high schools are very rigid. They’re conducted in a military style, and boys and girls are separated from 7th grade and up. You’re expected to be perfect because when you graduate, you take a national exam that will determine your profession for the rest of your life. Just imagine you are 18 years old and have to take this exam. Only the top 10 percent will become doctors, which is why you’ll see a lot of Syrian Americans as doctors. If you ask any of the families here in Chicago what they want their kids to be, the answer is always the same: a doctor.

The younger children adapt very well. There’s one boy, Abdul Hamid who is nine years old, who has become the go-to person for the new refugees. Abdul Hamid has been here for about a year and a half now, and he’s taken on a leadership role, helping the new kids as a tutor and translator. You’ll see this happen a lot with the children.

 Abdul Hamid, 9, in back, and his brother Osama in Chicago. Photo courtesy of SCN.

Q: Like Chicago, New Haven’s refugee community was remarkably rich in diversity with families coming from Iraq, Afghanistan, the DRC and elsewhere. Do you see Syrians facing a unique set of obstacles in acclimating to life in the United States compared to refugees of other nationalities and ethnicities?

What’s great about Chicago is that there are refugees from all over the world: Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and the DRC alongside established white and Jewish communities. It’s really nice for refugees to come to a neighborhood like this where they don’t feel like they’re the only ones who are different. Especially as a teenager, you already feel this way, and it’s hard. So it’s nice to meet other people who have experienced similar things.

But to your question, one of the biggest challenges for Syrians has to do with jobs. They’re coming to the United States with higher education degrees. It’s difficult for them to accept a job like cleaning an office or working as a dishwasher in a restaurant, especially when they may have been, for example, the top pastry maker in Syria.

But when the crisis hit, it hit everybody. It didn’t just hit the uneducated class. It hit doctors, engineers, pharmacists, bakers, musicians, artists and artisans who have had their skills passed down for generations. It’s difficult for people to accept low-paying jobs, especially when they feel like they can be doing a lot more. Our job is to tell them that your first job is not your last job, and that you will have to build your work history and your resume before you can advance.

Like Iraqi refugees, Syrians have very high standards, and it can be hard to please them. The resettlement agencies will find apartments and buy certain items, but oftentimes the Syrians won’t like them. These people aren’t coming from camps, and even if they are, they haven’t been in camps for 17 years. These are people coming who lived in cities, and even those who lived in rural areas had furnished homes.

Q: Without a doubt, it has been a nasty political year for the United States given the rhetoric on both the national and statewide level. What has been the pulse of Chicago this past year with regard to accepting Syrian refugees?

What’s unique about Chicago is that it’s a city of immigrants. That’s abundantly clear. Yes, of course, the United States is a country made up of immigrants, but even within that narrative, Chicago is unique.

I always refer back to this amazing person: Dr. Ed Silverman, who used to be the Illinois state refugee coordinator and was one of the early pioneers of the U.S. refugee program. He was instrumental in pushing ethnic groups to organize so that they can support their own communities. In Chicago, you’ll see a vibrant non-profit sector comprising not only resettlement agencies but also very strong junior partners—like the Syrian Community Network—because of Dr. Silverman’s leadership and encouragement for every ethnic group to organize. This, in addition to the pre-existing diversity of the area where the refugees are being placed, has led to a larger acceptance of refugees.

After Alan Kurdi’s picture was on television, we got a huge response from people asking to help, people saying, “we want the Syrian people to know that they’re not alone.”

Similarly, when the governor said all those things last year, we had a flood of inquiries. [Ed.: Last November, after the Paris terrorist attacks, Governor Bruce Rauner announced that Illinois would temporarily stop accepting Syrian refugees: “We must find a way to balance our tradition as a state welcoming of refugees while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens.”]

People were saying, “Please, let us help. We want to show the governor that we’re not like this.” Every Sunday I was going from church to church speaking with congregations that were offering to help and to donate.

The North Side’s established Jewish community has also been very supportive of refugee resettlement, particularly given their experience during World War II. They are actually some of the biggest supporters right now of Syrian refugee resettlement.

Q: How are Syrian refugees in Chicago responding when they do hear these anti-refugee comments, whether from Governor Rauner or from Donald Trump?

Of course when the governor made those comments, the Syrians were very upset. They would ask, “What did we do?” One of our main talking points is: Don’t blame the victim. They are escaping terrorism and war. They want to rebuild their lives, and it’s certainly not easy to come here and do that.

Also, anyone who wants to be a terrorist is not going to go through the refugee program. It takes forever. There are Congolese people who have just arrived and who were on the waiting list for 17 years. Imagine that. If I’m a terrorist, I’m not going to wait 17 years, and so it’s important to re-emphasize the rigor of the vetting process.

However, last November—when the governor made those comments—the city of Chicago responded by passing a resolution to welcome refugees into our city. Imagine that: You have a mayor and aldermen breaking with their governor. After the resolution, the mayor and aldermen planned a Thanksgiving dinner and invited more than 100 people.

The mayor and aldermen took off their sports jackets, rolled up their sleeves, put on their aprons and went to work serving every single refugee. No matter what we think about the mayor—and we have our issues in Chicago—this gesture, this symbolic gesture of welcome and breaking with the governor, was really huge. Even the refugees said, “Oh, our politicians in Syria kill us, but the politicians here are serving us food.”

The president determines the number of refugees, not the governor, not the mayor. Whether you’re a refugee or not, I think we’re all concerned about what will happen to immigrants, and everyone else all over the world, if Trump ends up becoming the president.

Q: One of the cornerstones of Secretary Clinton’s policy agenda is to increase the United States’ Syrian refugee quota from 10,000 people to “leading the world” by taking in a total of 65,000 Syrian refugees. Is this a strong enough position? What does the Syrian Community Network want to see from the next commander-in-chief?

My opinion—not that of the Syrian Community Network—is that I would like to see our commander-in-chief address the root cause of what’s happening. If you want to stop the refugee crisis, you need to go to the source. And if this doesn’t happen, this chaos will continue to go on, and it will be a disaster.

As for the Syrian Community Network’s position, of course 10,000 is not enough, especially when you compare this to the global population. You’re talking about five million people who have registered with the UNHCR, which doesn’t include the nearly two million people who are unregistered in host countries. Half of Syria’s pre-war population—22 million people—is now displaced, and so in terms of the scope of the problem, of course this is not enough. But we’ll take what we can get. It’s a step in the right direction.

When President Clinton intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, he not only addressed the root cause of the issue, he also opened the door to refugee resettlement. Today, Bosnians are one of the most successful refugee communities. They’ve integrated very well into American culture. They’ve opened businesses, and they’re entrepreneurs. They’re highly educated people and motivated to work.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your work or the refugee resettlement process?

We have 120 families in Chicago alone, which is close to 400 people altogether. We need to hire staff. One of the things that we’ve had issues with in Chicago is a housing crisis. We went basically from 25 families in Chicago from 2014 to June 2016, to quickly jumping to our current numbers.

It was all of a sudden, because President Obama wanted to increase the numbers, which is great, but because of that and all of the refuges coming in this summer, there was a housing crisis.

Some families ended up being put up in hotels because there weren’t enough apartments. Some landlords don’t want to rent to refugees because if you can get someone to rent with credit history, who is a little bit better off and who has a job and can do a background check, the landlords are choosing those types of clients over the refugee clients.

Q: Suzanne, I want to end on a final, upbeat note. With the Syrian refugees coming over to Chicago: Cubs or White Sox fans?

Most of the refugees live in the area where the Cubs play, so by default they have to be Cubs fans, but I think the real question is whether they are fans of Brazil or Argentina. Everyone in the world watches soccer, and Syrians are soccer fans through and through. You’re not a Syrian if you’re not a soccer fan.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.