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Future of Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois Uncertain


The journey from Syria to the sunlit living room in a modest, sparsely furnished north Chicago apartment has been a long and arduous one for Asmat Khalil Dado and his family. It began in 2011, in another living room, in a residential neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria. That’s when the war came home to Dado.

“There were planes that were dropping bombs, helicopters that were dropping barrel bombs every day,” Dado said, his fingers pointing to the sky. “We didn’t know when disaster would come.”

Disaster came in waves in Aleppo as opposition forces battled the heavily armed Syrian military for control of the restive city. A barrel bomb that landed not far from Dado’s home was the signal for him that it was time to move on.

So in 2011, the Dados fled from Syria and made their way to a refugee camp in Turkey. There, the dirt ground and flimsy tents became their temporary home as they searched for refuge. They applied for asylum through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Almost four years from the time they left Syria, the Dados resettled in the United States earlier this year, and as they just begin to adjust to a new life in Chicago’s metropolitan environment, their presence is under scrutiny in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

The state’s governor, Bruce Rauner, joined 31 other Republican governors after the attacks by announcing he was halting the resettlement of Syrian refugees like the Dado family in Illinois.

'Balance our tradition'

"Our nation and our state have a shared history of providing safe haven for those displaced by conflict, but the news surrounding the Paris terror attacks reminds us of the all too real security threats facing America," he stated in an official message.

"We must find a way to balance our tradition as a state welcoming of refugees while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens," said Rauner. "Therefore, the state of Illinois will temporarily suspend accepting new Syrian refugees and consider all of our legal options pending a full review of our country’s acceptance and security processes by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security."

For the trickle of Syrian refugees like Dado and his family who recently resettled in Illinois, the call to prevent more from seeking refuge in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long flight from war.

Dado "has a disabled daughter and three teenage children, and he’s really looking for a way for safety,” said Suzanne Akhras, executive director of the Syria Community Network. “He doesn’t want to feel unwelcome. We should really be welcoming these people who have lost everything and left everything" and have come to the U.S.

The organization Akhras heads is a nonprofit group that helps Syrian refugees integrate into new communities in Illinois. “A refugee is someone who is escaping terror and violence, and now they are going to come to their new country who doesn’t want them and doesn’t welcome them? That’s really disappointing,” she said.

While upset with Rauner’s decision, Akhras said she also thought the power to end refugee resettlement rested with the president of the United States.

“The governors really don’t have legal precedent to not welcome refugees into their state, so I don’t believe that they are able to push away refugees, but it gives a sense that you are not welcome,” she said.

'Immigrant-friendly' city

At least one Chicago city councilman agrees with Akhras.

“Many of us on the City Council have expressed the opinion that Governor Rauner has no legal authority to block Syrian refugees fleeing violence from being placed in Illinois,” Alderman Ed Burke said during a recent council meeting.

“It is our view that Chicago should continue its long and proud history of being one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the world," he said. "It is a metropolis that was built on generations of immigrants.”

In a largely symbolic move, the council rebuked Rauner, passing a nonbinding resolution declaring that the city remained a haven for refugees.

A concern, however, among advocates who support a ban on allowing more Syrian refugees to enter the country is the perceived lack of a strengthened vetting process.

When people sign up with the UNHCR "and they agree to come to the United States as refugees, it’s not like the next day they are on the plane,” Akhras said.

It took nearly three years of background checks and health assessments for the Dado family to receive final clearance from the U.S. State Department to resettle in Chicago.

That's an average wait time, according to Akhras, but "there are people who have been waiting 17 years to come to the United States as refugees, so the process is not as quick as we would like it.”

She said the vetting process "is very strict, and I think that we should trust the system that we built.”

Akhras added that all of those who already arrived as refugees in Chicago from Syria are the most in need of sanctuary and assistance.

“All of the refugees that come here to Chicago fall into the vulnerable category," she said. "Either they are single mothers with children, or they are ... here to seek treatment. They may have a sustained injury. We have one family that has cancer and tomorrow will be starting their chemotherapy.”

Meet a family

Akhras said the governor might have a different outlook on Syrian refugee resettlement if he met recent arrivals like the Dado family.

“Governor Rauner doesn’t even know any Syrian refugees," she said. "I wish he would get to know a family first.”

About 130 Syrian refugees like the Dados arrived in Illinois this year, and Akhras expected about 50 more before July — that is, until Rauner announced the temporary ban.

“This might affect them," she said. "It will probably slow down the process even more.”

While future resettlement is uncertain, Akhras said something positive had emerged.

“For every one hateful comment, we are getting a barrage of loving and supportive comments from average people, like you and me, who want to support refugees, who want to volunteer with us, who want to adopt a family,” she said.

The State Department said 169 refugees from Syria have resettled in Illinois since 2010.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.

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