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Syrian Community Network provides support for refugee children

When Amanda James first visited the home of the 10-year-old girl she had been tutoring, she was surprised by the amount of food served on her plate. James said she quickly learned that food is an important part of Syrian culture. Her plate, full of food, was a way to welcome her into their home. 

“She put like 10 pounds of food on my plate,” James said. “That’s how they show their love, their love language is food.” 

James, vice president of correspondent banking at Bankers Bank, started volunteering with the Syrian Community Network in May as an afterschool tutor. 

SCN is an organization that provides assistance to Arabic speaking refugees in Chicago. Lauren West, development and communications director, said very few families are currently being let into the United States. Because of this, their focus is on helping the families already here. 

The organization offers case management services to help people access public benefits. They help people write job applications, prepare for the citizenship test, get access to medical care, etc. They also offer educational services, such as their after school tutoring program. 

West said many refugees arrive with bachelor’s and master’s degrees which aren’t recognized in the United States

“When refugees first arrive in the United States, it’s a little bit different from other systems, they’re not really given that much support for very long,” West said. “And so really the goal of resettlement agencies is to immediately find them employment. Whereas in some other countries, they have a system where they’re supported by the government for a year.”

According to ESSAI, the College of DuPage Anthology of Academic Writing Across the Curriculum, there are 169 Syrian refugees who have moved to Illinois since 2010, with most now living in Chicago. SCN has also helped immigrants from Iraq and the organization is preparing to help refugees from Afghanistan, West said.

West said , they anticipate 500 Afghans coming into Chicago over the next year. Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder and executive director of SCN, is leading an Afghan refugee task force whose main focus will be helping Afghan refugees resettle in Chicago. 

Because of the pandemic, West said SCN had to adapt to changes in employment possibilities.

“When COVID-19 hit, a lot of our clients were in hospitality industry positions, like back of house at restaurants, or I know of a family [where] the dad worked at Northwestern University at the cafeteria… Those jobs were some of the first to go,” West said.

SCN’s volunteer program is currently full, West said, but people who wish to help can organize drives and start fundraisers. 

Zak Witus, volunteer coordinator and community organizer, said there are currently 55 volunteers, with most working in the educational program. One of them is James, who said she heard about SCN from a friend and with the pandemic found herself able to volunteer. She now helps a fifth grader named Lila, whose parents fled Syria when she was a young girl. 

Tutors help students finish homework, work on any skills and provide a space for students to talk if they feel the need. James said she meets virtually with Lila twice a week for one-hour sessions, and said the student decides what they want to do during the session. 

“All of last school year, [Lila]  had her homework done by the time that we spoke,” James said. “And so we would work on skills, she would actually want to practice things, which was pretty amazing for a 10-year-old.”

James said Lila would ask to practice skills she felt she was struggling with, such as fractions, and James would help with homework Lila’s parents couldn’t help with. 

“It’s not like she really needs my help,” James said.  “The whole idea is that both her parents speak a little bit of English, but not well. And so when we tried to do homework in English, I think that’s pretty tough sometimes.”

James said she and Lila also share artwork at the beginning of their sessions and that sometimes during sessions Lila doesn’t need help with school, she just wants to talk. 

“We’ve also developed a friendship to the point where I think she kind of confided in me things that she’s maybe not comfortable talking about,” James said. 

West said many of their students struggle with bullying at school.

“Islamophobia and xenophobia is really high,” West said. “And a lot of our young kids, unfortunately, face the consequences of other American students or even some non-American students having prejudices against them.”

West said people she has spoken to often have the misconception that immigrants from the Middle East don’t want to be American. She said this is not true, and many refugees want to maintain their self-identity, but that doesn’t stop them from being American as well. 

“I think that it’s really important for us to celebrate the culture that they’re from, and the language that they speak and everything that they bring in terms of their diversity to us,” West said. “But that’s not to say that they never want to feel like they’re at home here either.”

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