WEST RIDGE — Before coming to Chicago, life was not easy for Mustapha Faraj and his family: They escaped the Syrian war and lived in refugee camps for years.
But life in Chicago has also been tough: Without steady work bills have piled up for the family of six, who all live in a basement apartment, and they are close to losing gas and electricity.
And they face difficulties caring for their eldest child, 16-year-old Turkieh Faraj, who has cognitive and physical disabilities.
But Chicago has stepped up to help.
On Monday, Mohamed Danja, an Arabic and French teacher who works with Turkieh at Lane Tech College Prep, set up a GoFundMe page to support the family.
Danja's initial goal of $3,000 was met in a matter of hours and the money raised is now more than to $9,000, with many contributions coming from the Lane Tech community. Danja said the money raised will go toward paying at least $2,200 toward many of Faraj's overdue utility bills, rent and other payments, as well as helping with care of Turkieh.
"As a refugee, [I] never expected to find such great support," Faraj said Thursday, using Danja as a translator. "It makes [me] so happy and so accepted. ... [My] family is so excited, so happy about all that's happened."
Faraj said he is extremely grateful to everyone who contributed, but it was not easy accepting the money from others.
"Also [I] feel a little embarrassed, because it's not like [me] to ask for help," Faraj said. "[I] have always taken care of myself, am always hard-working."
Danja met the Faraj family after he was asked to be an interpreter for Turkieh, who is enrolled in Lane Tech's special education program.
He slowly got to know Faraj and allowed the father to open up about his traumatic experiences at his own pace over the last few months.
As he learned more, he realized it's been a long road for the Faraj family.
One of the main problems has been Faraj's difficulty in finding a job due to physical and mental health issues, such as a problem with his liver and his symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The family also speaks limited English, but Faraj is in the process of learning.
Prior to arriving for resettlement in the United States in the fall, Faraj had spent a month in a refugee camp before being sent to Jordan. He lived there for four years, unable to work.
Faraj lived in poverty until the Red Cross and United Nations were able to bring his family to Chicago through the Heartland Alliance.
Heartland helped Faraj, his wife and four young children find an apartment for $1,200 a month in West Ridge, as well as a job for Faraj at a plastic factory in the suburbs. But the 15-hour days and nature of the work exacerbated his health problems, forcing him to quit.
Fortunately, after the online fundraiser was launched, Danja said Faraj has received at least two "serious" job offers this week, and he is planning to interview for a food service position at O'Hare.
While his refugee status will last for three years, the assistance he receives from the government meant to help him resettle will soon run out. Faraj also was told recently the money he receives to help him pay for food each month is going to be reduced.
His wife, Samar, is also unable to work because she must be available to take Turkieh to frequent doctor's appointments.
The family has also been on high alert since a shooting in the neighborhood earlier this month left bullet marks in two of their home's doors. When police arrived to investigate, Danja said Faraj called him "doubly shocked" and in a panic over the shooting and fact that police were at his door.
He talked Faraj through the incident, but it's left his family shaken, Danja said.
Facing mounting financial problems and stress with new life in America, Danja said he was eventually able to convince Faraj to let him set up the GoFundMe page.
"We're very private people," Danja said. "He wants to show that he can provide for his family. He told me, 'I don't need the money, I just have to find a job. It is really hard for me to do" the GoFundMe.
"I told him, 'It's OK, you are in America now, it's OK to [accept] help.'"
Danja himself was helped by his wife when he first came to the United States — a fact he said he has no reason to feel ashamed of because it helped him finish his education and get back on his feet.
After an outpouring of support in such a short period of time, Danja said people's generosity has been "amazing" and has highlighted for him and Faraj both a "sense of community" and "family" at Lane Tech and in Chicago.
He said Faraj is aware of how much money has been raised and is thankful, but is even more moved by another gift: Danja's trust and friendship.
"He didn't show that much excitement, I was surprised," Danja said. "He said, 'You know what, Mohamed? I don't care much about the money, really what makes me happy and excited is that care you took of me.'"
"'You're really someone who cares about me, and that makes me happier than the money.' I think it gave him a sense of belonging."