Syrian refugees find rare path to Chicago

Syrian refugee Fadi Adris, center, and his sons Abdel Hamid, rear, and Osama are adjusting to life in Chicago, where they live in a North Side apartment.
Syrian refugee Fadi Adris, center, and his sons Abdel Hamid, rear, and Osama are adjusting to life in Chicago, where they live in a North Side apartment. Chicago Tribune/TNS

For nearly four years, Fatima and Fadi Adris and their family have been fleeing the brutal civil war in their native Syria.

Before their world collapsed around them, they were living happily in Homs, the nation’s third-largest city, where they met, were married and had their first child. They made a good home for themselves. He worked as a painter. She went to school to learn English. But in 2011, that all ended.

“We were sitting in my house when ... it was destroyed over our heads,” said Fadi Adris, recalling the bomb that leveled the family home.

So began their desperate flight to safety. At once shocking and all too familiar, their harrowing story of bombings, executions and refugee camps before finding a safe haven in Chicago is just one of thousands coming out of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Middle East and Europe.

The three-generation family fled to Damascus, about 100 miles south, but within five months, the violence caught up to them and claimed the lives of Fatima Adris’ eldest brother, who was shot in the street, and her father, who also was gunned down.

“We were very, very afraid,” Fatima Adris said. “We hid in destroyed buildings. Whenever we would see a soldier, (my son Abdel Hamid) would hold me and shout, ‘Soldier!’”

The surviving relatives managed to escape by bus to Lebanon, where the once tightknit family was further fractured. Fatima Adris’ mother and two sisters found refuge in Turkey. Her two brothers circumvented the refugee process and took a boat to Hungary and eventually made their way to Germany. Her niece, whose father died, followed a college acceptance letter to France.

But the Adrises decided to wait, applying with the United Nations to be granted a permanent home. After three years, during which they had another child, Osama, the painstaking process paid off. They learned the United States had chosen them for resettlement. In March, the family arrived in Chicago.

The four-year civil war began in the 2011 as part of the Arab Spring with protests against the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Assad. As protests grew stronger, other parties stepped in, including secular and Islamic militias and eventually the Islamic State, and the country destabilized even further. The United Nations estimates that at least 250,000 people have been killed. More than 4 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Greece and Italy while about 7.6 million more displaced inside Syria itself.


As European leaders scramble to find a solution to the flood of migrants fleeing war-torn Syria, the U.S. response also has come under scrutiny. While the U.S. has provided about $4 billion in humanitarian aid – the most of any nation – human rights activists have criticized officials for not accepting more refugees.

So far in 2015, 94 refugees from Syria have been resettled in Illinois, 62 of them in Chicago, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center, operated by the U.S. State Department. That’s about three times the placements in all of last year, with 24 Syrian refugees resettled in Illinois, 18 of which were in Chicago. Those numbers, though, don’t include Syrians seeking asylum, a separate process.

State Department officials announced in August that the U.S. expects to resettle 5,000 to 8,000 additional refugees from Syria nationwide next year; on Thursday, President Barack Obama ordered his administration to accept at least 10,000 next year.

The United Nations began focusing on Syrian resettlement in 2013, as the brutality of the civil war showed no signs of dissipating, said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington.

The agency has made about 16,000 case referrals to the United States, but only roughly 1,500 have arrived here so far.

Placements are generally prioritized based on need, with torture victims, medical cases and protection concerns in the country of asylum ranking high.

“All refugees are at risk, but some are more at risk than others,” Yungk said. “Resettlement is a precious resource; we try to make the best use of the resettlement places offered.”

But Syrian Muslims figure low on the list of asylum seekers designated as being of “special humanitarian concern” when U.S. politicians consider applicants from among the world’s 60 million refugees because of fears that would-be terrorists from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, occupying much of northeastern Syria, might slip in among those trying to escape the violence, said Bill Frelick, director of the refugee rights program at Human Rights Watch.

“If there is even a whiff of a security concern, no consular officer or security officer (from the multitude of U.S. agencies vetting applicants) wants to be the one that has his name on the bottom of a form where someone turns out to have done something horrible,” Frelick said of the asylum-seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries in conflict. “There is every incentive to say no and very few incentives to say yes. This stigma of terrorism, the fear of a needle in the haystack, tends to hold the whole haystack back.”

The tragedy of that calculus, he added, is that “these refugees are the very people fleeing actors like ISIS. They are people who want no part of that world and those ideologies and want to come with their children to have a decent life where they won’t cower and live in fear.”

With the U.S. likely accepting more refugees, the local Syrian-American community is bracing for the influx. The newcomers will need help with everything from school enrollment to housing to emotional support, said Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder and CEO of the Karam Foundation, a Syrian-American nonprofit in Lake Forest.

“We hope that the war will end and people will stay in their homes and not become refugees or if they are refugees, that they'll be able to return to their homes,” she said. “But if the crisis continues, then we hope many more refugees can come to the United States.”

Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, 43, who moved to the Chicago area from Syria about 30 years ago, knows the Adrises’ pain. About a year ago, Akhras Sahloul’s cousin in Syria was killed by a sniper in front of her children. Around the same time, her sister-in-law’s home was destroyed during a bombing, forcing her to flee Syria. And recently, a cousin in his early 20s told relatives he wanted to take a boat from the Turkey refugee camp he was living in to seek asylum in Europe. Family members expressed their alarm and disapproval but haven’t heard whether he decided to take that risk.

Eager to help, Akhras Sahloul, who is Mohammed Sahloul’s wife, founded the nonprofit Syrian Community Network last year to assist refugee families settling in the Chicago area. From sending one refugee boy to summer camp in Wisconsin to delivering presents for the Muslim holiday Eid, she helps 12 Syrian families adjust to everyday life.

Akhras Sahloul helps a widowed mother of six who resettled on Chicago’s North Side in January. The woman, whose husband was fatally shot by a sniper, fled the ruins of her Damascus home with her children, ages 5 to 19, after an artillery shelling. Two of her daughters are being treated for shrapnel still in their bodies. Over time, Akhras Sahloul has tried to help them attain a sense of normalcy as they headed into their first year of school.

“I remember going through the same things myself,” said Akhras Sahloul, recalling when she moved at age 10 to the U.S. from Syria. “I didn’t know how to play baseball or what normal American kids did.”

The U.S. gives the resettlement agencies $1,875 for each refugee, which is supposed to go toward rent, utilities and other expenses. Akhras Sahloul coordinates with resettlement groups to find apartments where there are other Syrians or Middle Eastern communities on Chicago’s North Side. The resettlement groups furnish the apartment and ask for her help in choosing culturally appropriate food when they stock the family’s refrigerator and cupboards.

“We’re generally already in the hole by the time refugees land at O'Hare,” said Kim Snoddy, assistant director of development at RefugeeOne, the largest refugee resettlement organization in Illinois.

For that reason, they’ve called on charities and nonprofit’s like Akhras Sahloul’s to organize fundraising efforts. Right now, they are asking groups to organize coat drives before the weather turns. “We imagine people from Syria won’t have coats for Chicago, so we’re asking for coats, sweaters, boots and outerwear,” Snoddy said.

In addition to monetary support, the agencies see refugee families daily to teach them English, help them find jobs, provide mental health care and often pair them up with a mentor in the neighborhood.

“They take me to the lake, they take me to the park,” said Fatima Adris, the mother from Homs who escaped to Chicago. “I find everything beautiful here. We go walking, we go shopping. We don’t feel like we’re alone.”

Though the family has made friends with other refugees who can share memories of Syria and have created new ones with neighbors in Chicago, the distance from relatives still takes a toll on the Adrises.

“A child should know his grandmother,” said Fatima Adris, as a tear rolled down her cheek. “When I think about our family in Syria, I cry. But I tell myself, ‘I must be hard,' because I have to help them to be all right.”

As she spoke, she watched her husband play soccer with the children, now 9 and 2, in their cozy West Rogers Park apartment that was sparsely decorated with Christmas lights, a crocheted floor mat and other knickknacks in the windowsill. “Ball” is one of the English words Osama picked up quickly after he arrived. His brother, Abdel Hamid, is learning fast as well. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he quickly responds, “Doctor.”

“Just like your grandfather,” Adris said. “Just like your uncle.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Carol J. Williams contributed to this report.