Fewer than 10 miles away from Northwestern is a community of refugee families who fled a civil war more than 6,000 miles across the world.
A growing population of Syrian refugees, virtually invisible to the Northwestern student body, lives in Rogers Park, and throughout the Chicago metropolitan area. A small group of Northwestern undergraduates has sought them out through the Chicago-based Syrian Community Network (SCN), hoping to help.
One of these students is Weinberg senior Ameer Al-Khudari. For him, the ongoing civil war in Syria is very personal, as his family immigrated from Syria to the Chicago suburbs in 1971, and the war has displaced a number of his extended family members within the country.
As refugees from his family’s home country have continued to establish new roots nearby, it felt natural for him to join the SCN, where he now interns.
“Being an American citizen has proven to be an immense privilege and it’s part of why I feel the need to help in whatever way I can,” he says.
Al-Khudari has helped connect a handful of Northwestern students with one of the SCN’s newest programs, in which volunteers partner with families to make their adjustment to the United States more comfortable.
The SCN launched in 2014 to help arriving refugees resettle in the United States. According to SCN Vice President Hadia Zarzour, the organization provides an environment where refugee families can connect with each other and different communities in Chicago. These social interactions can help refugees’ adjust after the trauma they experience, she says.
“Helping them through their basic needs like social interactions will help them feel like a part of the community,” Zarzour says.
Jack Cavanaugh, McCormick senior, has gone to Rogers Park to spend time with one family and help them grow accustomed to conversational English.
He says that helping refugee families is important to him because he wants to combat widespread anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. He opposes Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s efforts to stop Syrian migrants from entering the state.
“It’s really heartbreaking to me that we alienate people who have already been through so much and dehumanize them to such an unbelievable extent,” Cavanaugh says.
Colleen Cassingham, Weinberg senior and another volunteer with SCN, says she looks forward to going every week, particularly after she discovered a dance class for Syrian children run through another SCN program. Two children from the family she works with attend the class, which incorporates English into their dances, giving them vocabulary words like “zip, jump, and skip” to practice.
“One little boy in my family was so exuberant and was totally performing,” she says. “It was so cute.”
At the beginning of April, Northwestern Interfaith Advocates put on a concert to benefit Syrian refugees featuring music from all around the world, and plan to continue hosting the concert annually.
Tahera Ahmad, the director of Interfaith Engagement, says she thinks dialogue about the conflict has been increasing.
“Northwestern students are really concerned about social justice issues and I think many of them are focusing on right here in Chicago,” says Ahmad. “Because there’s a lot more conversation at the national and global level, there are more faculty and staff that are creating those opportunities and students are also initiating those opportunities.”
But volunteering with SCN itself hasn’t gained much recognition on campus, as only a handful of undergraduates currently work with them. Including graduate students, Al-Khudari says there are under 10 Syrians on campus. When there are refugee-focused events, he says, they tend not to be student-run because there is no centralized organization focused on the Syrian refugee crisis on campus.
For Cassingham, though, it’s important to know about the opportunity to help in the first place. She says her friends never discuss the refugee crisis. She was excited, then, when another student reached out to her over Facebook to ask how they could get involved with the SCN.
“I feel like it would be better if it was in our consciousness more,” Cassingham says. “It’s really invisible. I just wish that people even knew that there are students here that are doing this.”