“Refugees are us…”


“Refugees are us…”

Mentor's Perspective - Ryan Schuessler

I was not sure what to expect when I walked into the library to meet the Muhamed family in October 2016. Mustafa, Shaho, Lena, Muhamed, and Ronyar were sitting at a table, surrounded by other Syrian families waiting to meet the Americans who had signed up to “mentor” them. Like many, I was disturbed by the images beaming out of Syria, and had been trying to find a way to help when I heard SCN founder Suzanne Akhras speak in Chicago last year. I signed up.


The last six months have truly been life changing in ways I did not expect. I hesitate to call myself the Muhameds’ “mentor,” as they are teaching me so much.

muhammad family

This experience has not been without its challenges. It was awkward at first, sometimes in a funny way, oftentimes in a frustrating way. During that first meeting, SCN staff translated for us, which made it easy to make small talk, learn about each other, and make plans for tutoring in the weeks to come, and to go to the Art Institute the next day.


Without a translator, though, things were very difficult.


At first, we would often just sit and look at each other, unable to communicate without the help of Google Translate. Even getting “How are you?” across took several minutes. Sometimes we’d laugh, sometimes we’d sigh with exasperation. Aside from the language gap, there was a generational one as well: I’m closer in age to Lena than I am to Mustafa and Shaho. The kids seemed skeptical of this American who was bringing extra schoolwork, and at times I sensed they were embarrassed when I overestimated how much English they knew. I started having doubts when one of the kids cried during a visit, and I had no idea why.


It was easy to fall into the trap of wondering if I was actually helping them—I am not a teacher, after all, and am near worthless when they ask me for help with mmuhammad family2ath homework. Was this whole routine turning into something for me, not them? Was I making their experience worse? Was I inconveniencing them?


I’m still not sure I have the answers to those questions, but over the course my weekly visits to the Muhameds’ home I have seen this family adapt and grow in ways that continue to move me. All three kids are now speaking English with confidence. Lena is getting A’s on tests in school. Muhamed can read a short story faster than I can. Ronyar—who couldn’t write in any language when I met him—can now write the alphabet with ease, and my heart almost burst the day he was able to read a short passage with little help.


Throughout all of this, even when it was hard, the Muhamed family has been welcoming and warm. For people who are starting over, they are eager to give. Shaho always serves Syrian coffee with snacks. Mustafa is making my partner Joy and I a painting for our apartment. A few times, I’ve been invited to stay for a homemade Kurdish meal (something I now secretly hope for every time I walk through that door, if I’m being honest). When Joy and I make social visits, we are often sent home with a bag of rice, peppers, or flour, and Shaho taught Joy how to make Syrian coffee. We do not deserve their kindness.


I am humbled by their drive and sacrifices. Also a talented musician, artist, and scholar, Mustafa is now working at a factory with six other people on his block. Lena has become a reliable asset in explaining complicated English grammar to her brothers in their native Kurdish. Even though it is hard in ways I cannot imagine, I can see that Shaho and Mustafa have made a stable, loving home for their children despite the hardest of circumstances. I am proud to know them.


A great part of this has been seeing how others have stepped up to help. Of course, Lena, Muhamed, and Ronyar are progressing because of their teachers and classmates. When a new Kurdish restaurant opened in my neighborhood—The Gundis—the owners agreed to hire Mustafa to play music there, and continue to ask about the family often. When I mentioned my time with Muhameds to my own family, my 93-year-old grandmother in Missouri knitted them an afghan. When I brought the idea of inviting a group of Syrian families to the museum where I work, my coworkers eagerly stepped up to help.


When the President tried to shut down our country’s refugee resettlement program, I saw the Blue Line of the CTA fill with Chicagoans heading to the airport to send a message to the White House: “hell no.”


Refugees are us. When I speak with Mustafa and Shaho, I see the great-grandparents who I never met, who came to America from Yugoslavia more than a century ago, to give me a better life.


It is so easy for Americans to forget that the refugees and immigrants of our time are just like our own ancestors. Instead of stepping out of steerage onto Ellis Island, they are stepping out of airplanes all over this country. We owe it to our own immigrant ancestors—who we may have never met, but who sacrificed so much for us—to pay it forward.


The desire to help, but the uncertainty of how, can be overwhelming. But it is so easy to make a difference. You don’t have to commit to visiting a family every week. Start a collection at your church, synagogue, or mosque, or among your friends, to donate to organizations that are helping refugee families get settled. Reach out to those organizations and ask what items these families need. If you see prejudice or hear others scapegoating refugees, speak out.


But if you have the chance to get to know people like Mustafa, Shaho, Lena, Muhamed, and Ronyar, take it. You won’t regret it.

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