Mayada Turkmani and her sister-in-law Nada Alfsh prepared dinner in the kitchen a little after five in the evening. Nada rinsed the dry rice thoroughly to remove any surface starch, while Mayada chopped some fasoolyeh, or green beans.
Zainab Elaly, 17 years old and Mayada’s eldest daughter of six, set the table and chased her younger siblings to tell them to come and eat. They gathered and waited until I sat at the table. Their uncle, Sobhe, 59, comforted me. “Don’t be shy,” he said.
“This is your home,” he said as he gestured me to the table.
Sobhe sat and asked his wife, Nada, to bring him his medicine. She brought him a bag that was adorned with Arabic calligraphy. It appeared to have fled with them from Syria. He took out his pills and thought to himself out loud, “This is for my high blood pressure. This I’m supposed to take before dinner. This one I took at…I think at 1:00 in the afternoon,” he said in Arabic.
Shahd, 7, unsatisfied with my empty plate, took her spoon and began to scoop rice onto my plate.
“Eat,” she said. “Stop being shy!”
Mayada scooped rice onto the plates of her children and we all began to eat.
“This is good,” Shahd said, showing off her broken English. “Do you like this?” she asked her sister Shaema, 4.
The family laughed and Zakarya, 11, teased her, “Do you think you are a professional English speaker now?” They continued to laugh.
“Ya allah, enough talking and finish your food!” his mother, Mayada, called out, urging them along to finish eating so they can finish their homework before bed.
This was one of my first encounters with the family from back in April.
The family has been in Illinois for nearly nine months, after moving from Tripoli, Lebanon, where they had taken refuge in 2012 from the war in Syria. The Syrian war has overwhelmingly left more than four million refugees.
Upon arrival, Mayada and her six children, her brother Sobhe and his wife Nada lived in a three-bedroom bungalow in Evanston. Communication with extended families has been unachievable, and many of the families have been scattered.
Mayada lost her husband four years ago, when the war was just beginning to erupt.
With very few memories of her father, Shahd held on to her last phone call she had with him.
“I asked him to bring me cake,” she recalled in Arabic. “And he told me I can’t right now.”
I said, “Please Baba, bring me cake…” Her voice began to tremble and she finished her sentence, “…when you come home.”
Mayada joined the conversation, “And later in that evening, he was killed.”
He was coming home from work and was waiting to cross the street. And as he was crossing, a bullet pierced his head.
I saw Zainab trying to hold in her tears, she recalled some memories of her father earlier that week.
“He was watching TV two days ago… and he saw someone die as a martyr and said, ‘Insha’Allah, I will die like him one day.’” She stopped to grasp some air and then continued, “His dream came true… he died as a martyr.”
As the war in Syria escalated, the conditions only worsened in Deir Balbah, a town outside of Homs.
Suddenly, their town became abandoned and people came to their homes to them to leave town.
“Get out of your homes,” they yelled. “No one stay,” Mayda recollected.
So she took her children and sought refuge.
“We did not expect this to happen,” her sister-in-law said, “We left our homes and said maybe a couple of days. And we will go back.”
But days turned to weeks. And more and more families followed suit and fled their city. Every time they moved, new refugees would warn them that the regime had took over the city and they were coming here next.
They moved again and eventually fled to the city of Damascus, where they weren’t expecting to see worse.
It was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. A few minutes before the adh’an, call to prayer, for Fajir was recited, their neighborhood was getting bombed to dust.
“I heard my mom yelling, “‘Wake up! They’re bombing us. They’re bombing!’” the eldest, Zeid, 18, recalled.
“There was a loud sound and red, red fire…as if there was a fire in the house,” Mayda said. “Less than five minutes later, there was smoke everywhere and I couldn’t see a thing.”
Zakarya and Shahd managed to escape before the bombing hit their home, but the others were injured.
Their sister Wadad, 13, remained inside the house.
“We went to go and get Wadad from inside but I couldn’t go get her,” Mayada told the story as tears ran down her face.
She grabbed a tissue and wiped her tears.
“No one would dare to go inside because they were scared another bomb would hit,” she said.
People from the town gathered and came to help, but Mayada said she refused to leave without her daughter.
“Either me and her die together, or me and her live together,” she told them.
Tears continued falling endlessly down her face.
Zeid went back inside the house to look for Wadad. He found her laying under a chair and picked her her up.
“When I picked up Wadad, she was dead. I thought she’s dead,” he said.
Wadad, Mayada, Zeid and the youngest Shaema were all injured and hospitalized.
Wadad was admitted to the hospital for three months where she underwent high-risk surgery. The rest were taken to a hospital located inside a home.
Secret hospitals are common in Syria because the regime does not want doctors to provide medical care to those who oppose the regime, according to Chicago-area critical care specialist Dr. Zaher Sahloul.
In addition to serving as a physician, he is the president of the Syrian American Medical Society and has risked his own life many times to provide medical care for civilians in Syria.
In an interview with NBC, Dr. Sahloul said, “The Syrian regime…they have no respect for ambulances or doctors.”
A New Home In Chicago
After more than 12 months of interviews with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Resettlement Support Center and different federal agencies including the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the family finally resettled here in the U.S.
The process was “exhaustive.” The family was asked about everything from “What do they plan to do when they come to the U.S.?” to “If your neighbor is Jewish, what would you do?” Zeid said.
I asked Zeid what he thought about governors blocking Syrian refugees from coming to the States.
“I did not wait patiently for one year and eight months to come to this country to be a terrorist,” he said.
“I’m escaping death. I’m escaping pain. People will never understand the things we’ve seen.”
When refugees arrive in the United States as legal residents, they are given many benefits including: Social Security and basic federal assistance like food stamps and Medicaid. The children can also enroll in public schools.
Refugees also receive a one-time grant from the federal government, between $950 and $1,200 per person. This financial assistance is meant to help them situate themselves for the first couple of months.
Refugees come to Illinois through a public-private partnership between the United States Department of State private agencies called voluntary agencies or “volags.” RefugeeOne is one of nine resettlement agencies that work with the State Department, which helped this family resettle in the States.
The resettlement agency helped pay the cost of their rent for the first three months in Evanston, which is $1,800 for the family. After three months, the family became responsible for paying half the rent. Many times families are responsible for rent and they are on their own without any savings, car and sometimes, without a job.
Last year, RefugeeOne helped 541 people become legal permanent residents and American citizens from 43 countries. These refugees are settled in certain locations because of family ties or simply because RefugeeOne has an office at that location where it is able to assist with jobs, schools and housing. It is local volunteers and community members who provide support to help the families adjust.
Suzanne Akhras and many other Syrian Americans who live in Chicago, have played this role for the family.
Akhras is the founder of Syrian Community Network, whose mission is “to empower Syrian refugees in achieving a seamless transition and relocation to the U.S. through connecting people to the right service and support networks.”
Akhras is able to assist these Syrian refugees because at one time in her life she was in a similar situation.
“I feel it when I am looking at their faces, I feel like I’m looking at myself because I came here as child when I was 10 years old and I can understand the struggles that they are going through,” she said.
“The first time we met them at RefugeeOne they felt…they seemed a little bit lost,” Akhras said. “The second time I saw them they were OK, but I think reality hit a little bit that, ‘Oh my gosh,’ it’s going to be very overwhelming just to learn the language and culture.”
The family was a part of RefugeeOne’s English Language Training Program where they attended classes four days a week. Akhras and a volunteer from RefugeeOne also visit them at home to provide more one-on-one assistance.
Akhras says the refugee families rely a lot on donations. From these donations, the family was given a television and computer.
“When we came here, it meant the world for us when we met a Syrian,” Sobhe said about when he first met Suzanne. “To me, Suzanne, is my sister and she is me daughter and she is my mom and now, she is my family.”
Start of a new life
In August, Sobhe and Nada moved to a studio. Because of medical conditions he is suffering from, Sobhe is unable to work. He is receiving governmental assistance.
Mayada and her family moved near her brother in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago.
None of the children attended classes since the start of the Syrian war. And because of this, education is valued and appreciated very much to the family. The youngest children are all enrolled in public schools.
The children all have hopes to achieve their dreams and to obtain their degree. Their biggest motivation? Their father.
“My husband…he only dreamt of his children growing and getting an education,” Mayada said. “His main concern was for all his children to get an education.”
Zeid and Zainab were enrolled in GED courses at Truman College. However, as the eldest boy, Zeid holds responsibility to support his family financially. He works for a Chicago Syrian delivering kitchenware to stores. But still, Zeid is making around $1500 a month, while rent costs $1300.
“I have to continue his dream and let my siblings…even if I don’t finish school…to let my siblings get an education. This is how he wants his children to be. I have to continue it, inshallah,” Zeid said.
Zainab met the love of her life in August through mutual friends. Her wedding was held on November 23. She hopes to continue her education.
“Here, I want to make all my dreams that I wasn’t able to accomplish a reality…to study, to achieve my dream that I couldn’t work for in Syria — to start my own beauty salon,” Zainab said.
The children believe that a life in America means “so much can be achieved.”
Nonetheless, going back to Syria one day is something they hope can happen soon.
“I would like to be a doctor so when I return to Syria to treat the children of my country,” Zakarya said. “Syria is my country and it will always be valuable to me.”
Family discussions are filled with laughter, but also filled with worries — worries of finances and having to pay for rent next month and onwards.
It is mid-December and Chicago is saying goodbye to double-digit temperatures. After a beautiful, hot summer for many there is excitement for the holiday season — but for the Elaly family, they only have clothes that are donated and must wait for some more to be donated.
“I’ll always miss Syria,” Sobhe said. “But right now, I’m happy here.”
Written by Noor Wazwaz. Noor is a journalist at NPR in Washington D.C. whose work tackles the intersections of national security, human rights and social justice. She holds an M.S. in Journalism with a concentration in multimedia journalism and a National Security Specialization from the Medill School of Journalism. She aims to raise consciousness on issues from a seldom-heard perspective and report on international locations not only when there is war or catastrophe. Twitter: @nfwazwaz
Images provided by author with family’s consent.
Feature Image: Left to right: Zakarya, Nada, her husband Sobhe, Mayada, Shaema in her lap, Zainab, Wadad and Shahd.