Suzanne Akhras is the founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network, a non-profit group that helps Syrian refugees assimilate into the U.S. The organization has offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and San Diego. There, Syrian refugees can learn English, get financial help, drop off their kids for after-school programs, and most importantly, feel like part of a community.

“Nobody asks to be a refugee, nobody wants to leave their home country. Nobody wants to leave their belongings in the middle of the night. People don’t go on boats, risking to be drowned unless the water is safer than land. We need to associate — put empathy — and associate the word refugee with empathy, with support, with help,” Akhras said.

“Chicago can be a lonely place. It’s a great city, but it can be a lonely place when you don’t know anyone,” she added.

Akhras was born in Syria to a Syrian father and a Canadian mother. They all moved to Chicago in 1982 after an uprising against the Syrian government led to violent clashes and massacres of civilians. When Akhras arrived in the U.S., she was only 10 and spoke no English.

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