By Sophie Kobylinski, Medill, Immigrant Connect

After a long week of work at the Kraft Heinz Company in Chicago, 25-year-old Marcelle Hana looks forward to her monthly visit to Ambrosia Cafe, a hookah bar in Lincoln Park. She meets her friends to unwind and catch up on their busy lives in the city. Smoking hookah reminds them of home.

“These activities are a nice throwback. They remind me of the little things,” Hana told me.

Jusoor paves the way for hundreds

Hana and her friends are members of the first cohort of Syrian students brought to the United States in 2012 to complete university education through the organization Jusoor. The 15 students attended Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago on full scholarship.

Founded in June of 2011 by Syrian expatriates, Jusoor provides mentorship and funding to qualified Syrian students who are unable to finish their studies in Syria. Following the outbreak of civil war in 2011, the pursuit of higher education was no longer feasible for many students in Syria. Government restrictions and violence prevented them from finishing their studies. Students were forced to look elsewhere in search of a more favorable academic climate.

The founders of Jusoor recognized this need. Partnering with universities around the world, the organization helps sponsor the education of capable students selected through a competitive application process. Jusoor and its partnering American universities also help students obtain the necessary visas to travel to the United States. Those selected are the fortunate few with strong educational backgrounds in Syria.

“I got lucky to be a part of Jusoor and all the opportunities it has given me,” Hana said.

Hana is one of 634 Jusoor scholarship recipients since 2012. Hana is glad to have resettled in Chicago. She joins a diverse community of Syrian immigrants in the city, a demographic  composed of both recent refugees and established Syrian American residents who moved to the United States 20 to 30 years ago. 

Adjusting isn’t easy and could use a bridge to the past and future

Grateful for the opportunity to continue her studies in the United States, Hana has had to adjust to life in a new country. The support of her fellow Syrian students was an important initial comfort.

“The first year I met so many people from Chicago, but to be completely honest, I was seeing the Syrians more of the time because I felt like they reminded me of home. We speak the same language,” Hana told me.

Hana with her sorority sisters in 2015

Her Syrian friends remain a source of comfort today. Hana’s life at IIT helped her develop an identity beyond that of a Syrian immigrant.  Gradually, Hana distinguished herself and explored other groups on campus. She joined the Kappa Phi Delta sorority and befriended students from a myriad of backgrounds. The exposure helped Hana feel comfortable with her emerging identity on campus.

“I used to identify only as a Syrian woman, she told me. “I definitely try to branch out and learn more, explore, grow, and build my personality. I did evolve a lot from then.”

Hana graduated from IIT in December of 2016.  She now lives as any young Chicago resident, balancing work as Associate Manager in IT Marketing and Digital Innovation at Kraft Heinz, with nights out downtown with friends.

“I will always say I’m from Syria. That will never change, but I definitely feel like I belong here, in Chicago, in the U.S. I’m not leaving anytime soon.”

The environment at IIT was essential to Hana’s adjustment to the United States. The welcoming atmosphere on campus gave her the confidence to pursue individualism while maintaining a connection to her roots.  During her time on campus she founded a Syrian club in hopes of exposing the rest of campus to Syrian culture. Hana says the students were receptive and excited to learn.

Megan Mozina, former manager of the Illinois Tech Syrian Student Initiative, credits other student organizations for the support felt by Hana and other incoming Syrian students.

“The African Student Organization (ASO) intentionally reached out to them which was very powerful. They welcomed our Syrians in an amazing way,” Mozina told me.

The ASO was one of many campus organizations that reached out to the Syrian students to help them adjust to life at IIT.  Students from all backgrounds bonded over pickup soccer games and a mutual interest in technology and innovation. Mozina says the balance of support from both students of similar backgrounds and the general campus community provided the ideal environment for adjustment.

For Jusoor students at universities like IIT, the campus atmosphere helps encourage personal growth.  With a support system behind them, students are free to pursue individual identities and find their place in American society.

“Overall I feel like they are close when they first come for a little while, and then they open up so quickly and integrate themselves, and even distance themselves from the Syrian community a little bit,” said Malek Abdulsamad, a real estate consultant in Chicago and Syrian immigrant himself.

Click on the image to listen to episodes of The Podcast by Chicago in Arabic

As a volunteer at Jusoor, Absulsamad has witnessed firsthand the development of immigrant students after completing their college degrees. Abdulsamad highlights stories of immigrant leaders in the city on The Podcast by Chicago in Arabic, a media platform he cofounded with Anwar Jebran in efforts to connect Arabic speaking immigrants and refugees to Chicago news.

He emphasized the drive the students have toward professional advancement in the United States after college.

Young Syrians get excited over access to opportunities unavailable in Syria

“When you come from the Syrian culture where you live at home and you’re under family control, once you leave you’re so eager to distance yourself and be on your own,” Abdulsamad said. “We are dealing with the more privileged society. They are super motivated, super educated and capable and want to do it.”

Kinan Alhalabi, a Syrian-born radiology resident at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, says the student motivation for integration into the broader community stems from excitement over access to opportunities unavailable in Syria.

“Even though [the Syrian American] community might be very open minded, they [the Jusoor students] are in a new city and want to explore,” he told me. Alhalabi believes the new opportunities inspire the students to seek independent identities. Especially women.

“What happens to females in particular when they come to the U.S., they think, ‘Okay, if I can work hard for myself and I can be compensated and treated to the same level as men. Nobody is going to give me crap based on being a female. I’m going to work hard, work on myself, prove myself, and be successful.’ This idea isn’t appreciated in Syria,” Alhalabi told me.

Abdulsamad has also noticed a heightened drive among female Syrian students.

“For men it’s a little bit easier [in Syria]. Society is more tolerant of men spreading their wings outside of the family. Society wise, there are just things you cannot do as a single woman living in Syria,” he told me.

Marcelle Hana believes student adjustment and success post university has more to do with personality and familial experience than gender.

“I would absolutely say it’s because of someone’s personality and the way you want to grow. It’s about your long term goals.  If you’re really stuck to an idea of having a significant other or parents back home, for some people it’s so hard thinking ‘Okay, my life is still there and whatever I do here, I’m not 100% settled,’” she told me.

For students who still think of Syria as home, the idea of distance from the Syrian American community is daunting.  Rather than pursuing independent personas, these students prioritize connection to home.

Syrian refugees have it even harder

For refugees, adjustment is even harder.  Without the supportive environment of a college campus or academia as a unifier, refugees put greater reliance on the support of the established Syrian American community. Refugee families, in particular, carry more responsibilities than students. They count on the Syrian American community that immigrated in previous generations for support during the transition of resettlement.

Hadia Zarzour, Vice President of the Syrian Community Network in Chicago and a licensed clinical professional counselor who works with refugees in the city, says the intention to be integrated into the Syrian American community isn’t always enough. It’s up to those already established to help the new arrivals.

“If they want to blend in the bigger Syrian American community, they need a door to do that,” Zarzour told me.

Many established Syrian immigrants donate generous sums to organizations tasked to aid refugee or immigrant resettlement, but find it more difficult to provide the emotional support many are looking for. The varying educational background of refugees and immigrants complicates the task.

Heba Kalaji, a 28-year-old refugee who came to the United States in October of 2017, says she has found little emotional support through Chicago organizations.

“I tried to get services, therapy, etc., but was on a waiting list and never got a chance to benefit from those,” Kalaji told me.  “It’s pretty lonely.”

Young Syrians look to elders for support they’re not getting

“We need to educate the bigger community. It’s not just the financial support. Even when they want to support, they don’t know how,” Zarzour said. She emphasized the importance of highlighting the skills of immigrants, giving them confidence to become contributing members of society.

Hussam Bachour, Manager of Supply Chain Systems at the University of Chicago Medical Center, has felt this encouragement by the Syrian American community and hopes new arrivals will share the same experience.

“When they come from the same country, they know what I need to work on and build on. Their advice and social life was very helpful,” he told me. “I was lucky to have that kind of support from previous Syrian immigrants,”

Zarzour says immigrating as a student carries less responsibility and helps avoid the stereotyping experienced by refugees.

“The students don’t have the responsibility of family. They just have to study. People usually praise and compliment and feel excited about people getting into education, so it improves their self-esteem. Others, the [refugee] label is effecting them.” Zarzour said, adding that it’s more difficult for Syrian refugees to integrate into American society.

Hussam Bachour at 2016 master’s graduation ceremony (Courtesy of the Quinlan School of Business Facebook site)

Bachour agrees that academic environments foster easier transitions for foreign-born arrivals. Emigrating from Syria in 2013, Bachour attended Loyola University in Chicago.

“I believe being a student from the start of your immigration helps a lot,” he told me. “It gives you, in a structured way, in your mind, you feel like you are climbing the ladder and it makes you feel like you belong to a community.”

Bachour is thankful for the support he felt while settling into life in the U.S.

“The American community was more than a source of comfort, especially the Loyola community. All of them are non-Syrians, local American citizens, and they have given me all the support that I needed to succeed,” he said. ”Without the Loyola community, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

As new waves of Syrian immigrants come to the United States, albeit in smaller numbers than previous generations due to the Trump Administration’s immigration and refugee policies, they find their place in the Syrian American community and American society.  In 2018, only 62 Syrian refugees were allowed into the United States, as opposed to 12,587 in 2017. Those arriving today are among the few let through the tightened policies.

To Zarzour, the key to supporting the new arrivals is not looking from a lens of pity but rather highlighting their strengths. Zarzour believes the immigrant or refugee experience adds to these strengths.

“When we support them with helping with adjustment at the beginning, and they have the agency back over their life, they would surprise us in the way they can grow because of this trauma,” she told me.

Marcelle Hana agrees that immigration provides a special set of experiences and opportunity for personal growth.

“I feel very, very lucky to be born in the middle east and experiencing how people lived back home, and then moving to the U.S.,” Hana told me. “You have to keep evolving and growing if you are an immigrant and you have to see things from other people’s perspectives and eyes,”

“It was a really tough but interesting and fruitful journey and I am very grateful,” said Hussam Bachour of his resettlement. “If you come to this country with a positive mind and gratitude in your heart, it can give you everything you’ve asked for and more.”

Hadia Zarzour is hopeful that the Syrian American community will continue to support new arrivals and learn how to be of more emotional assistance to refugees who have the hardest time with re-adjustment.

With the proper support behind them, immigrants and refugees can become strong contributing members to the city of Chicago.  In 2016, immigrants made up over one-third of Chicago’s entrepreneurs, according to the report, “New Americans and a New Direction: The Role of Immigrants in Reviving the Great Lakes Region,” issued by the New American Economy Research Fund.

Today, as war continues in Syria, immigrants and refugees in the United States strive to find their place in American society.

“We are the lucky ones who emigrated from a country that is suffering. There are so many people like us [who] didn’t have the opportunity,” Hussam Bachour said.

“Those families that came in the beginning and are supporting the families coming now, it’s beautiful,” Hadia Zarzour said.  “In the end, eventually they will be able to succeed and find their way. For people inside Syria, it is almost hopeless for them.”