Ali Allami can only talk to his brother by using an instant messenger program on his computer. Here he looks on while his 12-year-old son Haydar chats with Allami’s brother.

The United States resettles more refugees each year — about 80,000 – more than all other nations combined. As one of America’s historic ports of entry, Chicago extends its broad shoulders to embrace them. The refugees arrive at O’Hare airport, the majority from Iraq or Burma or Bhutan or Congo or Somalia – storm centers in the world that Chicagoans may know little about. Most of the refugees know little of Chicago, and often find out their resettlement destination only weeks before boarding the plane. They arrive, battered by persecution back home and sequestered for years typically in refugee camps or urban settings where they can’t work legally and where their hopes for a semblance of stability are faint. Yet, for those arriving in Chicago, they’ve made it. But what next?

A network of resettlement agencies greets them, finds them housing, and provides them with a stipend that is to last 90 days. Mostly, the refugees are on their own and the challenges of daily life come quickly. Here are a dozen stories of how refugees are weaving their way into Chicago’s fabric. Among them are three stories, each told from a different perspective from members of the same family, and a story about one small business that seeks out refugees to hire. We are grateful as always for the cooperation of the resettlement agencies, in particular, the Golden Door Coalition, Refugee Assistance Programs (RAP), RefugeeOne, Upwardly Global and Uruk Human Services.

Wamidh Jawad: Missing community in a city of strangers by Kirk Vaclavik

Wamidh Jawad fled from Iraq in 2006. In the US for only a year among millions of strangers in Chicago, Jawad tries to recreate the community he once had.

Emilio and Kale: Two roads out of Cuba by Anna Radoff

Emilio and his partner Kale arrived in the US from Cuba through two very different routes. Reunited, they are free from persecution for their sexual orientation.

Martin Shlaymoon: Resettlement made easy with a family of 60 by Jaclyn Skurie

After his mother received threats, Martin Shlaymoon and his family left their home in Iraq under rough circumstances. But with 60 family members already in Chicago, Shlaymoon was able to lean on his loved ones and build a place for himself in the U.S.

Emmanuel Eklou: Togo didn’t prepare him to be a dad by Jen Lazuta

When Emmanuel Eklou fled Togo with his wife and two young children, he never imagined that one of the hardest parts of resettlement would be learning to be an “American” dad.

A family’s saga from three different vantage points —

  • Nada Alkadar struggles to keep the nonprofit Uruk Human Services afloat for Iraqis in Chicago, and stay above water herself.
  • Ahmed Alrais spent most of his young adult years traveling to different countries. When he returned to his birthplace, Iraq, his life was threatened, and now he finds himself trying to settle into Chicago.
  • At 17, Shahad Alrais fled Iraq with her family. Despite her hardships, she’s now a typical American college student, in love with Chicago.

Ali Allami: The safety to make Kimad Temin by Stephen Boyle

For Iraqi refugee Ali Allami, freedom of religion means that for the first time since 2003, he doesn’t have to worry about what foods he eats.

Nor Shahid: From one prison to another, a refugee struggles to find peace in freedom by Lauren Lindstrom

After leaving war-torn Iraqi, Nor searches for peace, control and job success in the United States. Unable to find it, she is considering returning home despite the danger.

Mustafa Albustani: Doctor first and foremost by Alice Li

Mustafa Albustani is a doctor first and foremost. He’s also an Iraqi refugee determined to be reunited with the people who need him most – his patients.

Ali Laqab: In the U.S., there are no 10 million Saddams by Madeleine May and Alex Kane Rudansky

Duraid Kassam immigrated to the United States to escape the threat of Saddam Hussein’s violent regime. When a top government official killed his father in Iraq, Kassam was forced to reconcile his desire for revenge with his new peaceful life in America.

Jordan Wood & Davis Imperial Cleaners: It’s all in the refugee family by Ryan Connelly Holmes

One employer has found a place for refugees looking for work. Jordan Wood of the family-run Davis Imperial Cleaners has hired 17 refugees so far, and is one happy customer.

Finding triumph for Chicago’s refugees

By Jack C. Doppelt | January 28th, 2012

Immigrant Connect and RefugeeLives present the first installment of our 2012 refugee stories. Please visit our companion site – Shifting Diasporas in the Arab World – for the special feature on Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in Jordan. In Dec. 2011, at a time when the Arab Spring was reshaping the contours of the Middle East and when U.S. troops were withdrawing from Iraq, Northwestern University students from the U.S. and Qatar converged on Amman to report on their lives and expectations.

Here are the stories we wrote on refugees resettling here in Chicago:

An American dream, permission pending by Karen Chen, Emily Jan, Adam Sege and Priyanka Tilve [Hear the interview featuring this story on WBEZ’s Worldview: Nigerian refugee fights for a life and his marriage in the U.S. It aired on Jan. 31, 2012.]

Nigerian Ogoni refugee facing imminent deportation who’s trying to make ends meet working in a nursing home and taking courses as he hopes that his marriage to an American woman will allow him to stay in Chicago.

Ahlam Mahmoud’s mission: Easing the Iraqi struggle by Jake Rosner

Despite her traumatic past – from being kidnapped in Iraq, to being held in Syrian jail, to going through a difficult transition to American life – Ahlam takes deep pride in her experiences and her connection to the Iraqi community.

A full stop: Iraqi Sandy Younan’s resettlement by Anca Ulea

Sandy Younan, a 24-year-old Iraqi refugee, was forced to leave her home in Baghdad and take responsibility of her mother at the age of 20, after receiving a threatening letter. She fled first for Syria, and now lives in Skokie, where she works, goes to school, and takes care of her mother, who developed high blood pressure and cholesterol from the stress of seeing her children in danger.

Hayder Al-Suhail: Cancer-free far from Iraqi home by Alyssa Clough

Iraqi, who was resettled in Chicago because of his testicular cancer, is now cancer-free thanks to free medical care. He has a wide support system and is grateful for his opportunity, though he worries about his brothers back in Iraq, one of whom translates for the U.S. military.

Turning frustration into a future: Maysam Sarfean’s mission by Priya Krishnakumar

Iraqi man, who worked as an electrical engineer for the AP in Baghdad and now works a survivor job at Dunkin Donuts, finds ways to keep from getting frustrated.

Lessons in discrimination: Mariya’s memories of Baghdad

Iraqi Christian refugee who left Baghdad for Syria and then the U.S. after her five kids had to deal with pressure in school, and the trauma of having two family members killed.

Getting by after Iraq with help from friends – Sarmad (Sam) Al Khalidi by Jasmyne McDonald

35-year-old Iraqi translator, resettled in Chicago, stays in touch with U.S. soldiers and with family back home in Baghdad, as troops are withdrawn from Iraq.

The end of an era: Russian refugee Victoria Shelegina beats the clock by Janalynn Pugh

Professional Russian Jewish refugees from Moscow who decided to seek resettlement in the U.S. because their daughter was beginning to be indoctrinated in the school system in Moscow.

Abdulkarim Lazim’s painful silver lining by Julia Anaya

Death of his wife and youngest son of malaria in Kakuma paved the way for this Darfurian refugee and his other two kids to be resettled in the U.S.

Adjusting in the U.S.: Ahlam Al-Gertani’s puzzle by Heba Hasan

Iraqi woman, caught in the midst of changed American policy, is puzzled by life in the U.S.

Sweet home Chicago: Darfur’s Hashim Bakhit’s first month by Katie Gronendyke

Recent Sudanese refugee Hashim Bakhit loves the safety, stability, and education that his new country offers for his family, but is homesick for the country he was forced to flee five years ago because of his non-Arab ethnicity.

A lifetime in 24 years: Salimah binti Nor Islam leaves Burma behind by Ashley Balcerzak

24-yr-old Burmese woman, who at risk of being sold into slave trade in Malaysia, agreed to an arranged marriage. Her husband’s need for brain surgery paved the way for the family to be resettled in Chicago, where her life isn’t what she hoped it would be.


Cities throughout the world celebrated World Refugee Day over one weekend in mid-June. The celebrations recognized the lives of the millions of people who are displaced from their homes, countries and comforts merely by being in the dreadfully wrong place at the wrong time. In Chicago, hundreds gathered at Loyola University along the Lake Michigan shore to see for themselves how a community of peoples from lands far from America’s Midwest can break new ground for their families and children.

We tell the stories of 14 of them – Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese, Iranian and Somali – who now live and make ends meet in Chicago. These stories are part of an ongoing series that has exposed Northwestern University students to the world’s refugees. Click below to read the most recent group of stories, and go to Immigrant Connect reports from Jordan, Namibia, Malawi refugee settings, RefugeeLives and Safe haven from trauma and torture: World’s refugees resettle in Chicago to read and view others.

Audio slideshow: Hear refugees who have resettled in Chicago talk about their experiences, from the persecution they experienced back home – in Iraq, Burma, Bhutan or Iran – to their times in refugee camps to their resettlement in Chicago. Many of the photos feature refugees in the Dzaleka camp in Malawi, in the Osire camp in Namibia and in Amman and Chicago. Read, see and hear more on Immigrant Connect and on RefugeeLives, both products of Northwestern University and the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Thanks for their support to AT&T and the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies.

Ring Thang Cangmah: Burmese refugee and the waterfalls of Montana by Jeremy Intal and Maria Salazar

“The DVD will perfectly explain,” Ring Tang Cangmah says, eyes still fixed on the television as it changes from the soccer game to the start of a Burmese gospel music video. “This,” he says, “is why I want to go to Montana. It reminds [me] of Bungtla in my Chin State.”

Alham Hasan: Kidnapping, kidney failure and one woman’s life as a refugee by Anna Bisaro

After the kidnappers stole Alham Hasan’s husband’s car and held him in captivity, they called his uncle to secure the ransom. “It was like having a funeral without the body,” Hasan says.

Sai Khon: Warrior of peace for the Shan people by Hayley MacMillen

The swords on his arm seem to clash with his easygoing nature, but it is clear that Sai Khon has a mission. “I have to do something to protect our people, to protect our heritage. I want to let the world know: This is what’s going on in Burma.”

Raad Al Shimmry: Seven days in captivity lead to a new life by Annie Chang

Raad Al Shimmry says he is content being able to sleep through the night with the comfort of knowing that, in this country, nothing as horrible as what he has already experienced will ever happen to him again. “Month by month, it will be better,” he says.

Sadeq Khatami: A Baha’i family with a secret to freedom by Katherine Jacobsen

“Everyone makes their own religion,” says Sadeq Khatami, an Iranian refugee who fled his homeland with his wife, Farzaha, and daughter Lale, after the family converted to Baha’i. Khatami weaves two stories while he speaks of his quick exit: one that he tells his parents, of being one of the few Iranians to win a green card to the United States. The other story, Khatami’s reality, is about his search for religious freedom and struggles with negotiating a new culture in the United States.

Se See Lia: Finding a way through oppression and debt by Katie Chen

Se See Lia sees a way through it. She always has. “I’m free to come and go to every state,” she says. “When in camp, just live in the camp. Some lady told me, ‘have you been to Bangkok?’ I just heard about Bangkok, but never been because no paper to go. But now, free to travel, free to visit.”

Yashoda Dulal: A mother preserving Nepalese culture by Stephanie Novak

The idea of not celebrating in the camps was unheard of. “We had to celebrate in the camps no matter how hard it was because the children looked forward to it,” Yashoda Dulal reminisces.

Hrayer Dekris Nahabet: Disabled refugee, patriotic volunteer by Zoe Fox

Hrayer Dekris Nahabet pulls on his purple linen shirt, drawing attention to the word embroidered in white capital letters, VOLUNTEER. “Anyone wearing this is a volunteer,” the 64-year-old Iraqi native explains with pride.

Phe Tu Lun: Burmese refugee redefines his role as a father by Alexandra Sifferlin

After 18 years living in a refugee camp in Burma, Phe Tu Lun brought his wife and six children to the United States to escape the violence and create a new life. In Chicago, Phe Tu Lun is able to provide for his family in ways he’s always dreamed of.

Indra Rai: Allergic to the word refugee by Katie Prentiss

Indra Rai describes herself as many things, including funny, friendly and cooperative. But she would never call herself a refugee, even though she has technically been one since she was six years old. “If someone says ‘you’re refugee,’ no, I don’t accept that,” she says. “That’s not by my birth. I don’t want to be refugee.”

Hasta Bhattarai: Finding hope after 16 years without a future by Claire Thompson

After being expelled from his native Bhutan at 18, Hasta Bhattarai spent the first 16 years of his adult life in a refugee camp with no concrete hopes for the future. Now that he’s in Chicago, the possibilities seem endless.

Shakor Ahmed: Searching for religious fulfillment from Iraq to Chicago by Lorraine Ma

The congregation around Shakor Ahmed sings along with the organist, all chorusing “shine, Jesus, shine.” “It is not easy to change my beliefs. I am now 48 years,” Ahmed says.

Khadga Darnal: Staying connected with Nepali culture through YouTube by Miranda Viglietti

The 64-year-old Bhutanese refugee uses the computer to connect with his Nepali culture. Even though Khadga Darnal can’t read or write in either Bhutanese or English, his 8-year-old grandson Divas taught him how to find Nepali films and music on

Refugee life for three Iraqis in Chicago by Katie Prentiss

Listen as Haya Hussein, a family caseworker for Arab American Family Services, translates the problems of three Iraqi refugees.

Safe haven from trauma and torture: World’s refugees resettle in Chicago

By Jack C. Doppelt | June 16th, 2010

[See Immigrant Connect reports from Jordan, Namibia, Malawi refugee settings or visit RefugeeLives]

The Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti has refocused attention on the world’s trauma victims. They are far too many to count, and the aftershocks to them, their families, and the world around them are immeasurable, yet numbingly real and lasting.  Notwithstanding the personal devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, most catastrophic events have occurred outside the United States, and remain a comforting step removed from daily American life.

But just as America prides itself on being a land of immigrants, its beacon is picking up the plight of refugees from around the world, in relatively modest numbers each year. Over time, though, the numbers have grown and the stories of trauma and torture are surfacing closer to home, all our homes. According to the Washington Post, “there are an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people in this country who had survived torture in their homelands.”

Chicago has always been a beacon to the world’s immigrants, and now it is training its light on and spreading its welcome mat for refugees who fled home for the safety and dignity of a place they barely knew. We feature the remarkable and harrowing stories of eight refugees – from Cambodia, Guatemala, Sudan, Burma, Iraq, Palestine, Ethiopia and Tibet.

We have countless questions about refugees. Many seem simple, though the answers are elusive and surprising. Others we’ve never thought about, yet the answers are eye-opening. Here are an array of questions, and stories that bring the answers to life:

In the process of sharing the stories of Chicago’s refugees, we pay tribute to these stories that illuminate the plight of refugees around the world:

·  Not alone: Shoutout to London’s Refugee Communities History Project

·  Finding work: Shoutout to Julia Rose’s Refugee Job Fair

·  Hiba’s story: Shoutout to Jennifer Utz’s “Iraqi Refugee Stories”

·  Camp closing: Shoutout to Al Jazeera’s “Leaving al-Tanf”

·  Exodus into Turkey: Shoutout to AP’s “Dissident Iranians take refuge in Turkey”

·  After the hype: Shoutout to’s Lost in America

·  Sanctuary denied: Shoutout to the Canwest News Service’s “Home to Haiti”

·  Counting on Clee: Shoutout to Chicago Tribune’s “Voice of his People”

·  Camp songs: Shoutout to NPR’s “The Refugee All Stars”

·  Camp photos: Shoutout to CNN’s Palestinian child refugees document their lives

·  Lhotsampas welcome: Shoutout to Misha Cohen’s “From Bhutan to the Bronx”

·  Killing dreams: Shoutout to Kitry Krause’s Cambodian Nightmare

·  Korean refugees under wraps: Shoutout to Tom O’Neill’s “Escape from North Korea”

·  Somali reunion: Shoutout to the New York Times’ “A California Reckoning in a Case of Abuses Abroad”

·  Camp joy: Shoutout to Art for Refugees in Transition

·  College students wanted: Shoutout to PAIR

·  Questions of identity: Shoutout to CNN’s “Census: Who Am I?”

·  The healing power of Maryland: Shoutout to Phil Zabriskie’s “The Healing”