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CHICAGO – Before their world collapsed around them, Mayada and her six children were living happily in Homs, Syria. The once tightknit family was torn apart the day a sniper murdered their father while he was walking home from work in 2011.
Eight-year-old Shahed still remembers the day vividly.
“I remember telling my dad that I want cake. And he said, ‘I’m not going to bring you cake now. Leave it until Sunday, because by then, I’ll get paid,” said Shahed, who was just 4 at the time. “Then, someone used his phone to call us. So my mom answered the phone and he told my mom that my dad was dead.”
Soon after, the family’s home was bombed. The blast knocked several of the children unconscious. Collapsed walls and ceiling in Wadad’s room buried her alive and the debris penetrated her body within inches of her heart. For Zainab, the explosion embedded shrapnel in her arm and leg – severely burning both. The two eldest daughters, 18-year-old Zainab and 14-year-old Wadad, still carry the shrapnel in their bodies. The younger girls and Mayada have scars on their heads. They all bear deep psychological scars.
“Even if we talk, nothing is going to get out of our hearts, because it’s very difficult days,” Wadad said. “So, it won’t be forgotten.”
In 2013, the family’s desperate journey to safety began. They fled from Homs to Damascus to a refugee camp in Lebanon before finding a safe haven in Chicago. The family applied for refugee status with the United Nations.
The family arrived in the Windy City in November 2014. And as one desperate journey ended, another one began. The family is struggling to adjust to life full of different difficulties – learning the language, finding jobs, paying the bills – all while trying to cope with the trauma they faced back home. The stress is taking a toll on the whole family, especially the kids.
“I want to tell the families, if they want to come here, don’t come,” said Zakaria, 12. “Because they’re not going to learn the language and there are a lot of difficulties. Let them die there rather than die here.”
There is some relief for refugees in Chicago. Hadia Zarzour is a professional counselor and a volunteer with the Syrian Community Network, a group dedicated to helping the 14 families resettled in Chicago. She says it’s difficult to put her emotions aside and focus on the family’s most basic, pressing needs.
“I know that they've witnessed, those traumatic events, seeing their dad killed, losing their home, losing their town, their friends, their family members and here we're talking about helping them with language, helping them finding jobs, helping them feel that they have their agency over their lives, because everything was taken away,” she said. “Nobody chooses to be a refugee. It's just forced on them.”