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What It's Like to Start Completely Over As Refugees With Kids

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.

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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 joy.

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 are safe.

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.

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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 up.

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.

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Photograph by: Sheila Quirke

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