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Want To Help Refugees? 'Don't Just Stay Angry' — Volunteer, Donate, Hire

By Patty Wetli | February 1, 2017 5:46am
 There are ways to help refugees who arrived in advance of the travel ban.
There are ways to help refugees who arrived in advance of the travel ban.
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NORTH CENTER — Activists who've spent years assisting refugees and immigrants said the recent outpouring of support for their cause has been overwhelming.

Rebecca Glenberg, a staff attorney in the Chicago office of the ACLU, said she'd never seen anything like the massive protests that took place at O'Hare over the weekend — "Certainly not at an airport," she said — following President Donald Trump's executive order banning travel by refugees and immigrants.

"It was a scene of really amazing demonstration ... to see such support for our American values," said Glenberg.

"We have been humbled how Chicago has stood shoulder to shoulder with us," said Melineh Kano, executive director of Uptown-based Refugee One, which has been resettling refugees since 1982.

The organization welcomed a Syrian family just hours before the travel ban took effect Friday but another young Syrian couple and their infant daughter, set to arrive Monday, weren't allowed to board their plane, Kano said.

The family, sponsored by a group of Lincoln Square moms, was sent back to a refugee camp in Turkey, where they would have to start from square one, having given away all of their possessions prior to vacating their hut in the camp, Kano said.

The fate of this family, along with that of hundreds of other U.S.-bound refugees and immigrants — not just from Syria — remains uncertain while the constitutionality of Trump's ban is debated in court.

In the meantime, there are ways for Chicagoans to help refugees who've already settled in the city, and to continue preparing for those who will be allowed to enter the country.

Kano and Glenberg took part in a panel discussion Monday night aimed at answering "what next" by connecting concerned Chicagoans with organizations working on behalf of refugees and immigrants.

The event was hosted by state Reps. Kelly Cassidy, Sara Feigenholtz and Ann Williams, Democrats whose districts cover North Side neighborhoods. Speakers also included Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network, and Becky Carroll, co-founder of the #StandWithAleppo campaign.

"If you want to do something, don't just stay angry," said Carroll. "Befriend Syrians, volunteer, give money. If we speak up, others will speak up. If we stay silent, others will."

For those who want to get involved, here are ways to get started:


• The Syrian Community Network works with agencies like Refugee One to help ease refugees' culture shock once they arrive in Chicago. The network matches Chicagoans with refugee families, creating a kind of mentoring relationship. Click here for more information.

• The ACLU has been contacted by more lawyers willing to volunteer than it can handle, Glenberg said.

"We're trying to figure out how to channel all that goodwill," she said.

She recommended that lawyers with immigration experience reach out to the National Immigrant Justice Center.


• Resettlement agencies like Refugee One, World Relief and Heartland Alliance receive scant funds from the U.S. State Department to serve clients — money that barely covers rent, Kano said.

Her organization maintains a calendar for in-kind donations that help refugees feel welcome and comfortable in their new home. The next drop-off period is Feb. 27-March 2, with a specific request for sheets, pillows and blankets. "Welcome kits" will also be accepted at that time.

• The Syrian Community Network is always in need of donated cars or the "gift of transportation," as Akhras Sahloul termed it.


Keep up the pressure on elected officials. Kano encouraged people to call members of Congress, particularly the Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, "next door to us in Wisconsin."

With "sanctuary" cities like Chicago being threatened with the loss of federal funds, constituents also need to keep local politicians, including aldermen, on their outreach list.


The Syrian Community Network is hosting a job fair for refugees in March. Interested employers, particularly those in the hospitality industry, should contact the organization.


"It's important to understand why we have a refugee crisis," Akhras Sahloul said.

The "Arab spring" democracy movement that sprung up in so many countries in late 2010 "turned into a very long winter" for Syria, as Bashar al-Assad crushed the revolt, Akhras Sahloul said.

Nearly 5 million Syrians have been officially registered as refugees with the United Nations, only 18,000 of which have been resettled in the U.S., compared with 600,000 in Germany and 60,000 in Canada, she said.

Another 1 million Syrians are stranded in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, small countries ill-equipped to deal with the influx of foreigners.

"The situation is very, very dire," said Akhras Sahloul, who recently returned from a visit to Jordan.

Though security concerns have been cited by the Trump Administration as the reasoning behind the ban on Syrian refugees, Akhras Sahloul noted that they've been entering the U.S. since 2011 without incident.

"It's hurtful for Syrians to be treated so badly and seen only in light of ISIS," particularly because Syria itself has historically welcomed refugees — from Armenians to Palestinians to Jews, she said.