As Hakam walked his two boys to school last week, he reflected on how much he enjoys brisk Chicago mornings compared to the weather in his native Syria. Next to him, 5-year old Yousef skipped and walked backward, while 9-year old Anas carried a soccer ball he and friends use during recess.
WBEZ agreed not to use the family’s last name because of concerns about repercussions against relatives still in Syria.
Through a translator, Hakam talked about how his kids have adjusted to life here.
“They’ve been doing well on their report cards,” he beamed, “and yesterday mothers were invited to the school, and a teacher said the boys are doing excellent.”
The question of whether Syrian refugees are adequately screened before coming to the U.S. remains hotly debated. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is one of many who say the vetting process isn’t strong enough to weed out potential terrorists. But about 200 Syrian refugees have already moved to this state, most within the last two years. Of all the people discussing the vetting process, they are the ones with first-hand experience getting through it.
Hakam and his family have been in the U.S. for eight months, but their journey started more than three years ago. He remembers the exact date they left their hometown of Hama, in central-west Syria: May 5th, 2012.
The previous summer, Hama had been an epicenter of anti-government protests. Hakam says what followed was horror. The Assad regime cracked down, with bloody attacks and a siege of the city.
“It was a very bad situation,” he remembered. “They were arresting the young. They went to homes to arrest young men, and if they couldn’t find them they would take women instead. It was very scary.”
Hakam said he and his wife didn’t want to leave, but felt they had no choice.
“It became unpredictable and unbearable, and I didn’t want to lose a family member,” he said.
At that point, the group that calls itself ISIS had not yet involved itself in Syria’s civil war. Hakam thought within a month things would calm down, so they traveled Jordan to wait it out. They ended up spending three years there.
When they finally got to Chicago, a local resettlement agency found them a spare one-bedroom apartment near Devon Avenue. The walls of their home are bare. The furniture is donated, and the kids’ bunk bed is in the dining room. But for Hakam and his wife, Duaa, their morning Turkish coffee ritual is a familiar comfort.
As we sit down to sip the strong, cardamom-scented brew, they tell me that hope finally came when they learned they could apply for refugee status. It took two-and-a-half years to get through the vetting process. They said they think it’s impossible for someone to get through if he or she is hiding something.
“In Jordan they did all the vetting, down to the tiniest details,” said Duaa. “Sometimes the interviews lasted all day. They asked about everything between when we were born until we got there, like where you lived in Syria, where you went to school, when you were married and details about my husband. It was really thorough.”
“The last interview was under oath with the Americans,” Hakam added. “It lasted from 7 a.m. until 6 at night.”
The truth is, the alarm some Americans feel about Syrian refugees hasn’t really touched their family.
“When we arrived, we found everything was arranged for us,” Duaa said. “They prepared our apartment, helped us get our IDs, and they registered our kids with the schools.”
A doctor in the local Syrian community donated an old car and that same network has helped the family pay the rent. That’s let them focus on the things they really need to build a life here, like learning English.
At Heartland Alliance, the refugee resettlement agency that facilitated their move to Chicago, Duaa and Hakam take ESL class four times a week. Duaa, generally soft-spoken, is quick to pick up grammar and eager to practice vocabulary.
Hakam says he’s hoping to master English quickly, too, so he can get a job. Then, maybe things can finally return to normal for this family. They say the most important thing is that they feel safe. And while suspicion about Syrian refugees and Muslims in the U.S. is a reality right now, Duaa said it hasn’t been a part of their American experience so far.
“What we love most here is that there is no discrimination between people,” she said. “We felt discriminated against when we were in Jordan - like when we walked on the streets, people would say, ‘those are Syrians, look what the Syrians are doing.’ But here we feel normal. Everybody minds their own business.”
Duaa said her biggest worry now is for her parents and siblings still in Syria. She said she wishes they could escape to safety, too.