Mentor Spotlight

Meet Congregation Beth Am

Tim and Marcia Thomsen, part of a volunteer group made up of 10 friends from the Congregation Beth Am temple in Buffalo Grove, took on the commitment of “adopting” a refugee family through the Syrian Community Network in December 2016. In the wake of the political climate from the year’s presidential election, Tim and Marcia felt compelled to do something to resist Trump’s anti-immigration agenda, but didn’t know exactly what. When their congregation’s Rabbi, Lisa Bellows, had connected Tim and Marcia with SCN and its adoption program, they were enthusiastic to join in but had little idea of what it actually meant to “adopt” a newly arrived refugee family in America.

Near the end of February 2017, the Thomsens and fellow congregant, Deb Cohen, went to the Northtown Branch of the Chicago Public Library where they would meet their assigned refugee family. As they entered the room and saw all of the different families and mentors, they felt a sense of nervousness in not knowing which family they would be assigned to.

They were introduced to the Al Atrash family, a family of six who had been living in Skokie for only 7 months prior. They sat down together with a translator and spoke for a while, making formal introductions and learning how the Beth Am volunteers could help. They learned that paying rent, maintaining food stamps and other monetary benefits, were the immediate concerns of the family, but obtaining employment, learning English, and securing childcare for the two youngest boys were also very important.

A week after the initial meeting, the Beth Am team of volunteers organized themselves into smaller committees to tackle different roles in assisting the family. Volunteers would take up various responsibilities such as collecting clothing and furniture, teaching English, socializing with the children, finding jobs for the parents, and making sure the family kept their government benefits.

The Al Atrash family came to Chicago in August of 2016 from a Jordanian refugee housing resettlement. The family had fled Syria in the midst of the war and it’s intense violence. After waiting three years through the UN/US vetting process, the family was placed in the Chicago area. Working with the refugee resettlement agency RefugeeOne, the family was able to access benefits from the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) and find a place to live in Skokie, IL. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the refugee resettlement process in the US, RefugeeOne could only assist the family with rent for the first 6 months. After this time, the Al Atrash family was expected to have all the resources available to become fully self-sufficient in American society. However, having little to no English fluency and other challenges, the Al Atrash family was worried and felt ill-equipped to find employment, retain their governmental benefits, and pay rent.

Soon after the Al Atrash family had been paired up with the Beth Am team, congregants Rachel Leiner and Beth Nudelman collected and deliverd hundreds of articles of clothing and toys to the family. Concurrently, Tim was assigned the role of seeking employment for the family. He soon found out that Ahmad, the Al Atrash father, had been a skilled denim tailor in Syria. Ahmad contracted polio in his early childhood and is confined to a wheelchair. When he arrived in the U.S., Ahmad faced the daunting task of having to choose whether to rely on his monthly disability payments, which were not even enough to cover his rent, or find a job and risk losing this steady source of money. One option was to have Hanna, the Al Atrash mother, work for the family instead. But, Hanna has been struggling to recover from PTSD since she left Syria and did not feel she could work long hours away from home.

After seeing a TV promotion for a denim manufacturing startup, Dearborn Denim and Apparel, Tim contacted the owner and arranged for him to meet Ahmad, who was hired on-the-spot given his skill and proficiency in making jeans. Ahmad has since worked part time at the denim factory and is happy he is making an income, but has to make a hour and a half commute to work each way via the “L” train. Tim is now focused on how to pay for Ahmad’s commute to work, and find a better transportation option for him so he could continue on this path to self-sufficiency. This becomes especially vital as Dearborn Denim is hoping to continue growing, and has asked Ahmad to begin working full time.

Several months into mentoring the family, the Beth Am team learned that there was a group of “angels” from Lake Forest who were also supporting the Al Atrash family. Since their arrival to Chicago, the Lake Forest Facebook Community had donated winter coats, boots, an iPad with English-language software, bicycles for the children and many other monetary gifts to sustain the family including an industrial sewing machine to enable Ahmad to work from home prior to securing the job at Dearborn Denim. Very quickly after discovering one another, the Beth Am and Lake Forest groups joined forces and coordinated efforts in support of the Al Atrash family.

One of the many ways they are working together is to raise funds to keep the family in their Skokie apartment another year until they become self-sustaining. The group recently launched a successful GoFundMe effort by leveraging the combined talents of congregants Rachel Leiner, Randi Frank, Raymond Benson and the Lake Forest leaders and donors.

As weeks went by, the volunteer group began to take on additional roles in assisting the Al Atrash family, meeting the family 2 to 3 times a week on an individual basis. The Sisler family, Jill and Bren, along with their sons Jesse and Alec, meet with the family nearly every Saturday to teach English or take the family on an outing to the park or the zoo. Other congregants take the family to various medical appointments as needed, and Ahmad to physical therapy once a week, in hopes that he will be able to stand up straight one day.

One of the biggest struggles the group has faced in their adoption so far has been dealing with the bureaucracy in the different departments of government, in an attempt to keep the family’s benefits like disability approval and food stamps which the family depends on. But, even the smallest of victories have been a rewarding part of the experience. Everyone is excited when the system finally works after many worrisome moments. But, the most rewarding part has been the relationships built between the volunteers and the Al Atrash family. The Al Atrash family has been grateful for their new friends for all they have done, having been extremely worried about the future before they had been assigned these mentors. And the volunteers are grateful as well, watching the family grow and progress in ways they could not have imagined.

There is no question the experience of volunteer family adoption is an integral part of the resettlement process. Organizations, like RefugeeOne and SCN, are only able to provide so many resources for their respective families, that they are limited in how much they can actually ease the transition of settling in the U.S.. Volunteers bridge this gap by understanding the individual needs of the family and what should be done, building relationships with the families, gaining a unique perspective of the family’s wants and needs. It is a highly rewarding opportunity but it is not shy of difficulty. Understanding the needs of the family, and knowing that the volunteer’s role is to help families maneuver through American society so they can one day be self-sufficient, is a task that can be overwhelming if endured alone, and should be taken on in different ways depending on the family’s individual needs.

Tim and Marcia had no idea what they were getting into when they registered for family adoption, but dove in with two feet. Their group has raised enough money on their GoFundMe page to cover the Al Atrash family’s rent for the next six months, and continue looking for donations to help pay for extracurricular activities for the children. They continue to work hard in making sure the family is receiving all of the benefits they deserve, looking for a cheaper place in Skokie to live that is wheelchair accessible to ease the financial worry, and practicing English with Ahmad, Hanna, and their children.

If you, your family, or group of friends are interested in volunteering with Syrian Community Network and want to make a positive impact on a newly arrived refugee family, click here to find out more. Again, our volunteers are one of the most important parts of SCN’s operation in making the resettlement process for families as painless as possible.

If you would like to donate to the Al Atrash family’s GoFundMe page, click here:

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