Chicago welcomes Syrian refugees


The Howard Area Community Center is located at 7648 N Paulina St. in the noth side of Chicago.


As an estimated 4.1 million Syrians flee their country’s civil war, the U.S. is preparing to accommodate thousands of the displaced Syrians, many of whom will find shelter in Chicago.

 On Sept. 10, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees within the next year. 

Displaced Syrians will find new homes in cities across the country,

including Chicago. 

The U.S. joined several European nations, including Germany, Sweden, France and Spain, in welcoming Syrians who were fleeing from the country’s civil war.

John Barcanic, executive director of World Relief Chicago, a local organization at 3507 W. Lawrence Ave. that helps refugees resettle across the world, said increased involvement by the U.S. in the Syrian refugee crisis is important because of the country’s ability to accommodate more refugees.

“When you have leaders of Germany and the United Kingdom promising much larger numbers than the United States—which has more resources than those smaller European countries—I think we have the ability to help a lot more,” Barcanic said.

Suzanne Akhras, founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network, a Chicago-based non-profit organization that helps Syrians transition into the U.S., said the network is currently providing assistance to 14 Syrian refugee families.

“[Social service agencies] refer to us for cultural understanding and awareness, because it’s hard for them to serve [Syrian refugees] when they don’t understand the culture and language, so we also act as a bridge between the resettlement groups and the clients,”

Akhras said.

One family, consisting of a single mother and her six children, was displaced several times in Syria after a sniper killed the father. They eventually made it to Lebanon and, after a lengthy process, were able to come to the U.S., Akhras said.

“All the kids are very eager to learn and work hard,” Akhras said. “They are doing very well and attending school. One of the daughters, who is 14, sustained injuries from the time when she was in Syria and there was shrapnel in her body.”

Akhras added that the organization connected her to a summer program where she did very well.

Barcanic said World Relief Chicago is currently helping 15 Syrian refugees settle. The organization helps them by providing fully furnished apartments, usually located in the Albany Park or Rogers Park neighborhoods, and offering cultural adjustment case management, employment counseling and medical services. 

 “Right now, that group of people [is] not willing to talk to the press, and we have to honor their desires,” Barcanic said.

After refugees are settled, they can reach out to resources like The Howard Area Community Center, which offers English classes and employment services aimed at helping refugees find jobs.

“Most of the time they are entry-level jobs, but at least it’s getting them a start and getting them an employment history, so they are better able to get jobs in the future,” said Shannon Callahan, director of Education and Employment at the center. 

“The longer they can stay engaged in classes like ours, the more likely they’re going to improve their skills so they can get better jobs in the future,” Callahan said.

The center currently has 125 students from countries like Iraq, Haiti and Egypt. Early childhood education is provided to 40 children, and students and families are given access to a food pantry, dental clinic, employment center and programs for youth,

Callahan said.

Currently, the center is working without adequate funding because the state budget has yet to be passed, Callahan said.

“Starting in a few weeks, we will be reducing the hours we offer to students and staff time and we’re not sure what the next steps will be,” Callahan said.

Chicagoans looking to lend a hand in the refugee crisis can visit the Syrian Community Network’s GoFundMe page or volunteer at the HACC.

World Relief Chicago will also host its annual Ride for Refuge bike ride and walk, in Elgin, Illinois, on Oct. 3 to raise money for refugees.