Saturday, August 29, 2009


By Amina Tahera
August 29, 2009

Imagine - you are a married person with children, going about your life and working as hard as you can with your spouse to provide for your family. Perhaps you are a journalism professor, an electrician, a teacher, human rights worker trainer or a doctor. You worry whether your children are studying hard enough to qualify for government-funded higher education. Off and on, you think about getting more exercise and eating healthier because your doctor warns you about taking better care of yourself, and though you know that any medical issues for you and your family are covered by the government's medical plan, you want to be there for your family. Now life is not perfect, there is a lot of corruption, injustices, violence and other problems in your society, but these challenges are just a part of what you expect in life. You are at least partially mentally prepared to deal with them. Overall, you feel that your life is relatively stable.

Then one day, it happens, completely outside of any expectation you might have had in life… War comes to your front door, family members are kidnapped or killed, and those who are left must escape. You find yourself a refugee and are given an option of going to another country. You arrive in the United States with the help of an agency - grateful, but emotionally and physically injured by your experiences. You somehow gather the courage to decide you will start again from the generously-given little that you have, determined to build a better life for you and your children. Still, you have to learn a new language, adjust to your new cultural and social surroundings and help your children do the same. You have to learn how to navigate this new bureaucracy that you are unfamiliar with, all the while providing for your family and caring for them as they each need you, your love and support in a time that is difficult for them as well. Hope is one of the few things you somehow have to carry an abundance of. Most of all, you want and desperately need the means and opportunities for yourself and your loved ones to earn their keep, obtain the education they need to build a better life, and meet the needs of basic everyday life.

You are an Iraqi refugee, now trying to build a life for yourself in the US. Taking it one day at a time, you are hoping the best for you and your family for the years to come. But this is not fiction, it has happened to many. Here are some of their stories……

Ahlam is now a single mother, living in a 1 bedroom apartment with her 13 year old son Abdullah, and her 11 year old daughter Ruqayya. With help from others, she recently founded the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, in hopes that she and other refugees can help each other connect with people, resources and opportunities that will help them settle into this new life more effectively. She now struggles to meet their needs for rent, utilities and basic necessities. Though they receive food stamps, she cannot stretch them enough to buy the fresh fruits and vegetables required for her son who suffers from Hepatitis A and C. She herself has to deal with the challenges of having only 1 working kidney. Both her children work very hard in school. They truly value and cherish any opportunity to learn and improve. Ruqayya is somewhat precocious but serious for her age and she proudly shows me how she learned to count to ten in French after being shown just once three weeks ago. Abdullah is protective of his mother and clearly cares greatly for her and though he has been through a lot, he is trying hard to adapt to this new life. Not only are they learning in school, but they have to learn about the rules for living in Chicago, like not opening the apartment door right away when someone knocks. The few job opportunities Ahlam has found all involve long commutes to far out suburbs and leaving her children for the day and some of the evening – this is especially hard for her since she sees how much her children need her during this crucial adjustment period. As a single parent, she faces that additional challenge of not having a partner to share the responsibilities of childcare and earning money. Paying monthly rent, utilities and CTA card expenses are always a problem. She hopes that through the network she is forming, she will be able to facilitate this struggle for herself as well as other refugees. God-willing as things get better and more stable for her and her family, she dreams of her children reaching their full potential and being successful in the studies and ambitions for the future.

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