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Refugees Struggle to Make Way on North Shore

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Our series Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders continues now with another visit to the Fahnbulleh family.

The fifteen Liberians arrived in Wilmette this winter after subsisting for five years in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.

The parents--Victoria and Lamin--have found jobs, along with their oldest daughter.

Their twelve other children are enrolled in North Shore schools.

It's a world away from their war-torn homeland.

But life in America is proving to be more complicated than they first thought.

Chicago Public Radio's Jason DeRose report.

In February, the Fahnbulleh's moved from a mud hut in West Africa to one of the most privileged communities in America--Chicago's North Shore.

Since then, they've found welcoming neighbors and top notch schools committed to their children's success.

WUYATTA & GILLIE: La Society. Why would they be wearing that? To dance. Just to dace?

It's Thursday at the Art Institute of Chicago's Africa gallery.

And fifteen year old Wuyatta Fahnbulleh is explaining to her teacher, Pat Gillie, how the head dresses in the glass case resemble what her parents wore back home in Liberia.

GILLIE: Do you want to walk down here and see what else looks familiar?

Thursdays are field trip days.

The four Fahnbulleh teenagers are taking summer classes at New Trier High School in Winnetka.

They enrolled there just four weeks before the end of the regular academic year, so summer school is helping them get a few extra credits.

WUYATTA: We practice math, English. We go to gym class.

Wyatta didn't go to school at all during her five years in the Gondama Refugee Camp.

And she attended school for only two or three years in Monrovia before her home was destroyed during Liberia's lengthy civil war.

When the Fahnbulleh's arrived at New Trier, multi-cultural studies coordinator Pat Gillie had to figure out how to find classes for four kids who had less than elementary educations.

GILLIE: So to do that we're basically individualizing a program for them. And having their day spent in the afternoons with English, in the mornings with math, with a sprinkling of science and having them interplay with the regular ESL students in the classroom setting.

Gillie and her staff found special curricula since even the lowest math class offered at New Trier was too advanced.

Also, she hired a one-on-one tutor for them.

SVESKA: And then you have to pick a state. But you don't have to pick it now if you want to think about it because I know its a big committment.

Anne Sveska spends her entire day working with Musu, Wuyatta, Souleman and Darbah.

She's just completed her master's degree in education and was a student teacher here at New Trier prior to becoming the Fahnbulleh's tutor.

For her, one major question drives her work.

SVESKA: Are we going to be able to make enough of an impact to carry them through, to want to finish school. It's a complicated situation when you have a girl who's 17 years old starting out as a freshman. And I can imagine you hit 19 and 20 and say, you know what, this is enough I need to go get a job.

Sveska knows few other schools would be willing to hire a full time tutor for four students.

SVESKA: The hardest part about working with them is that I can't get out of my mind what's going to happen to them next year.

Next year is a big question.

Imagine the Fahnbulleh's situation: they survived a civil war, walked a hundred miles to the border, and lived five years in a refugee camp.

Now, they're in the toney North Shore suburb of Wilmette and exposed to a life few Americans can afford. But the house is donated.

And the owners want it back.

It was never meant to be permanent.

The Fahnbullehs don't want to leave.

Fifteen year old Musu gets agitated when she thinks about packing.

MUSU: Because of the situation we have to move because we don't have our own way or we don't have the finance to pay for the rent, so I don't know what it's going to be like. But we really like this school.

The situation is this: Musu's mother Victoria is working for $11 an hour cleaning rooms at a downtown hotel.

Her father, Lamin, is working for $8 an hour washing dishes.

Musu says that doesn't even come close to making the rent in Wilmette for a house big enough for 15 people.

Their current house rents for $35-hundred a month.

MUSU: It's very hard because we are many.


Despite the uncertain housing situation and long train rides to jobs in the loop, Victoria and Lamin try to eat dinner with their kids whenever they can.

On this night, like most nights, its rice and chicken with peppers.

They often listen to Liberian music while preparing dinner.

Wuyatta cooks since she gets home from school earliest.

The family eats at three long folding tables set up in the living room.

After dinner, homework.

Lamin says he doesn't want to leave Wilmette.

And he especially does not want to move to the only place he thinks he can afford.

LAMIN: The South Side there are a lot of troubles and a lot of problems when you are having kid. And we have a lot of kid. That was my fear that I don't really want to be in that area because of my kid.

He's talking about crime and violence.

And he knows the schools aren't as good.

After all, New Trier is one of the best schools in all of Illinois.

And it would take him much longer to get to work.

Now, he can take the express purple line El all the way downtown.

But the real issues for Lamin are, ironically, race and culture.

LAMIN: Lot of black out there and there's problem all time causing. Yeah.

He says other refugees he's met in recent months have told him to avoid moving to the South Side.

African refugees don't easily integrate into African-American culture.

And Lamin says he doesn't want to.

As if the housing problem isn't stressful enough, Lamin's also concerned about his paperwork.

LAMIN: Everybody get their own ID, their Social Security.

It's only my own ID that get missing in the mail.

But everybody-all the fourteen-have it.

It's only me.

Lamin's federally issued photo work I-D got lost in the mail.

He can still work because his refugee papers are in order.

But without a photo I-D, he can't open a bank account.

So far now, others have to cash his paycheck for him.

That's quite blow for a proud man.

LAMIN: I don't know what's happening.

The situation looks pretty dire.

No I-D.

Soon, no house.

Very little money.

And long train rides to work.

But Lamin is determined to make this life in America work.

He says he has to keep his mind focused on the reason he came he came here.

LAMIN: Our major concern of here is our children education for future plan. Is not for us. What we are doing here we are doing for the children.

The Fahnbulleh's say they're not leaving the school

So now, the agency sponsoring them--Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministries--is trying to find affordable housing in the North Shore.

That's no easy task.

The Fahnbulleh's dilemma isn't unique to an African refugee family: figuring out how to afford to live in a good school district is the challenge of an American family.

I'm Jason DeRose Chicago Public Radio.

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