You are a young mother with two children, a 10-year-old
daughter and a 7-year-old son. They
are the light of your life. You are
married, but your husband is unable to work due to his ongoing medical
treatment. Oh, yes, and you are a Syrian
refugee, having fled your country more than three years ago because of its
instability and the increasing frequency of air raids and bombs that were
literally hitting too close to home.
This is the life of Asmaa, who, along with her family,
resettled in Chicago last fall. It has
been a challenging experience for her and her husband, Mohammed, raising two
young children so far from home and family. The times have been good and bad, full of relief and sorrows that are
difficult to comprehend for those, like me, who don't know much more than what
we read in the headlines about such a troubled corner of the world.
Asmaa and Mohammed are considered the lucky ones. After leaving their home in Damascus when it
got too difficult for Mohammed to travel by roads into Jordan for his much
needed treatments, the family decided to leave Syria and live in Jordan to be
closer to medical care and no longer run the risk that Mohammed would be
stranded away from his family because of war conditions and impassable roads.
After registering with the Refugee Commission, relocation to Jordan proved
difficult to sustain: Mohammed was not allowed to work and the family had no
income. Restrictions also impeded
freedom of movement and other basics, due to the massive numbers of refugees
pouring into Jordan every day.
A fellow passenger tugged the hijab she was wearing right off her head.
After two and a half years, Asmaa and her family were one of
the very, very few Syrian families granted permission to resettle in
the United States. Chicago was to be their new
home, but it is a home unlike any other the family has ever known.
Initially, the family's transition was difficult. Language was a huge barrier, despite living
in a section of the city known for its Middle Eastern shops and
restaurants. They arrived just before
Eid, one of the holiest Muslim celebrations, and being away from home for the holiday was hard for everybody. They described feeling like strangers to
everyone around them.
Both children enrolled in the local school. It is clear that they are picking up English more quickly than their parents. Their little boy, just 7, had
difficulties being alone and separated from his parents and sister after
spending so many years together. By pure
luck, an administrator at his school was Lebanese American and provided a much
needed bridge for the boy, until he felt more comfortable moving through the
new school independently.
Not all adjustments have been as kind. In the early days after the family's move,
Asmaa was taking a local bus on errands. A fellow passenger tugged the hijab she was wearing right off her
head. A police report was filed, but no
one was ever charged with the crime. Now
Asmaa prefers to remain off public transportation, leaving her options limited
to the neighborhood she lives in.
Motherhood is a challenge no matter what, but mothering through a refugee experience leads to challenges most American moms will never experience or even understand.
With the help of a translator, the family is happy to share
their experiences, though it is clear so much of the U.S. and Chicago is still
very foreign to them. We met in a small
dance studio where weekly dance class is held free of charge for local Syrian
refugees. The family's older girl, in
particular, lights up as she dances with the other children. Her smile is bright and her eyes sparkle with
Both Asmaa and Mohammed agree that their children are
settling into their new lives well. They
have befriended some Algerian children from school and look forward to their
weekly dance classes. Their tears, once
so common, are less frequent now. Their pleas are easier to soothe. There are
no bombs dropping from the sky, and the children are learning to trust that they
When I ask Asmaa what her hopes are for her children, she
answers quickly through the translator, "A good education, to build a career,
achieve some advanced levels so they succeed." I tell her that my hopes are the same for my children. We smile together. She sometimes worries that American
traditions are so different from those she grew up with and
wonders how that will impact her children.
Asmaa's daughter's favorite things about her new home are
her trips to visit the beach at Lake Michigan's shore and weekly dance
class. She hopes to be a police woman
when she grows up. Asmaa's son, too,
enjoys the lake, but he prefers taking the train over dance class. He hopes to be a dentist when he grows
As we talk, mother to mother, though awkwardly with the help
of a translator, I smile to think that our children are the same age. We have much in common, Asmaa and I, and so
very many differences. Motherhood is a
challenge no matter what, but mothering through a refugee experience leads to
challenges most American moms will never experience or even understand. But like all mothers, Asmaa looks at her children
and hopes for something better for them. Surely there is common ground in that.