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

By Jack C. Doppelt | June 16th, 2010

Pictured is the bible Jorge's mother gave to him the night before he left Guatemala. Jorge keeps the bible and several framed photos of his father and brother on the dresser in his bedroom in Evanston.

[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.

Leon Lim working as a medic at Khao 'I' Dang in 1980. Photo courtesy of Leon Lim.

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:

Washington Post photo-The Healing, Feb. 20, 2010

  • 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 Salon.com’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”
  • Related stories on Immigrant Connect

    An American dream, permission pending

    Eugene Peba made it to America. Now he’s waiting to hear if he can stay.

    Getting by after Iraq with help from friends

    He traveled with a suitcase and handbag filled with clothes, pictures and his laptop to Chicago where he was received by his uncle. An officer welcomed him, saying, “you’ve done more for the United States than most people have.”

    Twelve years and out: The wrench of being denied asylum

    Until Nadia was forced to leave her life in America, I was unaware of the very thin line many immigrants walk—between two worlds and two different and often incompatible lives.

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

    “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

    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.”

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