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Immigration, Refugee Resettlement and Rogers Park – Part Two


Cumar and Axlam – New Beginnings and the Challenges Ahead

The Road to Nairobi

Cumar and Axlam (not their real names) board a bus from Dadaab refugee camp to Nairobi, Kenya. The date is February 10, 2017, one day after a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco stayed the Trump administration’s immigration ban, finding that it was probably unconstitutional.
Despite having lived all or most of their lives in Kenya, this would mark Cumar and Axlam’s first visit to the Kenyan capital, a city that they had not previously been allowed to visit. If all went as planned, Nairobi would just be a brief stop on a much longer journey across the great Atlantic Ocean to America. America – as much a concept as a place – the culmination of a dream that millions share, but few can ever attain.
But, as Cumar and Axlam traveled through the Kenyan countryside to the capital, where they would land was far from certain. Just days before they got on the bus, they were told that their immigration status to the United States had been put on hold, pending the outcome of the Trump administration’s efforts to temporarily ban immigration and refugee resettlement – a ban that would be permanent for seven majority Muslim countries, including Somalia. The justification for the ban was that the vetting process was not sufficiently “extreme.” The reality is that refugees are put through what can only be described as an extremely rigorous vetting process that can last years and involve extensive interviews and background checks.
And so it was that Cumar and Axlam found themselves in the middle of the Maelstrom that the immigration ban had unleashed. Although Cumar had never set foot in Somalia, in the eyes of the law, he and his wife were both Somali. As such, both were subject to the ban should it be upheld by the courts. If this happened, Cumar and Axlam both knew that they would not realize their American dream for the foreseeable future.
For all these reasons, the bus ride to Nairobi was both exciting and nerve-wracking. They both knew full well that their journey to America could end before it ever began. As they boarded that bus to Nairobi, they could not know if they would board a plane to America… or a bus back to Dadaab.
Whatever the risks – whatever the odds – they had to move forward. They had worked too hard and dreamed too long of this day. To give up now would be worse than failure. So, with just a few personal possessions, they set their sights on Nairobi where they would still need to pass a medical examination and go through an orientation program to their new lives in America, the two final steps required before resettlement in the United States could occur.

On To America

Fortunately for Cumar and Axlam, the February 9th ruling proved to be decisive. President Trump decided not to appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court, perhaps sensing that his legal standing was uncertain. Instead, the President opted to issue a revised Executive Order in which he once again tried to temporarily bad immigration and refugee resettlement. While this version was not as harsh as the first one, it nevertheless raised many of the same constitutional concerns. Like the earlier version, this second attempt was stayed by the federal courts, and immigration and refugee resettlement could continue as before.
This second attempt at a travel ban occurred after Cumar and Axlam had successfully entered the United States. Having completed their medical exams and orientation class, they were allowed to leave Nairobi on February 13, flying first to Dubai and then on to Chicago. They arrived at O’Hare on the 15th. With their paperwork in order and RefugeeOne personnel waiting for them in the terminal, they were able to get through Immigration and Naturalization without further difficulties.
Let’s pause for a minute to imagine how it must have felt when Cumar and Axlam walked through the electronic doors just beyond baggage claim and out onto the concourse of the airport. Perhaps for the first time, they realized that they were now safely beyond the endless barriers and impediments that they had had to endure just to be allowed to set foot on American soil.
But imagine also the feeling of having succeeded at one “mission impossible,” only to find yourself at the beginning of a new one. Cumar and Axlam had some English skills (Cumar more than Axlam). They had strong advocates and mentors through RefugeeOne, and some limited government support for their first few months in their new country.
But, walking out onto that O’Hare Concourse, the hurdles that they would still have to overcome must have felt incredibly daunting. In a few short months, they needed to learn to function in a new language, a new culture, a new country and a new climate – remember, they arrived from Africa IN FEBRUARY! They would have to find jobs sufficient to pay rent and buy food. While the resettlement program run by RefugeeOne provides support for refugees until families become self-sufficient, the expectation is that self-sufficiency will happen within six months of arrival! After that, refugees are expected to find their own way in their adopted country.
Now imagine the situation in reverse. Imagine arriving in Nairobi from Chicago – having to learn Swahili, find a job and earn a living in Kenya. It seems impossible – yet this is exactly what refugees to this country are expected to do. It is nothing short of remarkable how quickly most of them succeed at this task.
Adding to the stress, Cumar and Axlam had left behind the only homes they had ever known, and all of their family members. Although they had a new apartment waiting for them, they had never seen it, did not know where it was, and knew next to nothing about the neighborhood and the city in which they were about to start their new lives.
This is what it’s like for refugees when they arrive in America. Cumar and Axlam actually had an easier time than many. They had not lived through the worst of the Somali civil war. They were able to get a high school education in Kenya, and they usually had enough to eat through the efforts of relief programs and foreign aid. Many refugees have suffered through all manner of traumas from wars to political repression to famine. Regardless of the hardships refugees have faced, once they arrive in the United States, they are expected to learn English, find jobs and integrate with society, a daunting task under the best of circumstances.

Rogers Park, Port of Entry

For Cumar and Axlam, the first stop after arriving at O’Hare was their new apartment in Rogers Park. The new arrivals were deeply moved when they got there and not only found it fully furnished, but even found the refrigerator fully stocked with food. The apartment is a two-bedroom unit with a full dining room. Cagan Management, an RPBG member, is the owner of the building. Cagan has a history of welcoming refugees to its properties and working with RefugeeOne to help settle new arrivals in Chicago.
Shortly after arriving in the United States, Cumar and Axlam obtained Social Security Numbers, State ID cards and Medical Benefits Cards from the state of Illinois. All of their paperwork is in order. They are legal immigrants to the country with refugee status and the right to live, work and go to school. Once they have lived in this country for a year, they may apply for Green Cards. Four more years after obtaining Green Cards, they may apply for citizenship.
This all assumes that Cumar and Axlam are able to do all of the other things expected of them, including learn the language, get jobs and earn their own living. Of course, they must also avoid any legal infractions that could disqualify them from citizenship or, worse, result in deportation.
The United States government gives each legal refugee initial aid of $1,125. RefugeeOne supplements this small amount of government aid by raising additional funds through a public-private partnership, often from a sponsoring American family. These funds are typically sufficient to pay for 6-months’ rent. With rare exceptions, refugees are expected to find jobs within this six-month period and become self-sufficient. While RefugeeOne has many contacts in the business community and provides support and counseling for new arrivals, the onus of responsibility is still squarely on the shoulders of the refugees. It is almost, if not quite, a sink-or-swim proposition.
Finding work is usually daunting. But for refugees, this is a much more difficult task. Many refugees do not (or barely) speak English. All refugees must quickly adapt to a new country and new culture that is almost always radically different from what they had previously known. Many refugees are still dealing with traumas suffered in their previous lives. Most refugees experience feelings of nostalgia for what they have left behind, and disorientation as they adapt to a new and radically different culture. All of these factors make finding and keeping work difficult. Yet this is the single most important thing refugees must do.
RefugeeOne has a relationship with Heartland Alliance which has developed two workforce development training programs to help new arrivals develop the skills they need to quickly find jobs that will enable them to pay rent and buy food when their sponsorship money runs out. These programs are in Hospitality and Services. Typically, refugees with limited English skills are directed to the Hospitality program where they learn to perform janitorial and room-service work in the city’s large hotel and tourism sector. The Service program targets restaurants and other service employers where some command of English is a requirement.
English proficiency is also a top priority with RefugeeOne. ESL (English as a Second Language) classes are of critical importance and are prioritized along with job training. RefugeeOne has three levels of ESL classes to help refugees with little or no English proficiency. RefugeeOne also works with Truman College in Uptown and a variety of other ESL providers for language instruction services for more proficient speakers. Finally, RefugeeOne has employment specialists who work with refugees on an individual basis to help them prepare resumes, practice their interviewing skills, and look for and find employment.
Almost as soon as they arrived in Chicago, Cumar and Axlam began taking English classes at Truman College. Cumar has a huge advantage in this quest, given his already proficient English language skills. Axlam also has a good command of English, although not yet at the same level as her husband.
Both Cumar and Axlam will be expected to get job training so that they can quickly find work. Both also plan to pursue their educations and earn college degrees. Cumar said he would like to go to Medical School and become a doctor, a lofty goal but one that might seem eminently attainable after all the incredible hurdles he has overcome.
When asked how he felt about the future, Cumar said he was optimistic and excited to have the opportunity to realize his full potential. Despite all the challenges of his new life in America, he knows very well that the opportunities available to him now far exceed what his options were had he stayed behind in Dadaab.
For Cumar and Axlam, the highest priority beyond daily survival is getting the rest of their families out of Dadaab and to the United States. Axlam is probably closest to realizing this dream since her other relatives were already on the path toward immigration to America. For Cumar, the challenge is greater since his mother and sisters will have to go through all the steps he has already taken. Cumar takes some comfort in knowing that, as a legal US resident, he will have additional ability to sponsor his mother and sister as they try to follow his path to the United States. Unless, of course, that changes…

New Challenges, New Fears

There is always the reality of a new administration in Washington DC that is much less receptive to refugee resettlement and immigration generally that past administrations have been. For Cumar and Axlam, they were able to overcome these challenges and get to the United States. What happens in the future is far less certain. It seems likely that, with Donald Trump in the White House, refugee resettlement will be more difficult, and perhaps impossible, for the people who live in Dadaab.
In the next issue of the Rogers Park Builders Group Newsletter, we will look more closely at refugee resettlement, and immigration generally, in Chicago. We will also examine the impact immigration has had on Rogers Park and Chicago, and what impact restrictions on immigration could bring.
Sadly, I will not be able to continue my conversation with Cumar or Axlam. They are aware of what is going on with immigration policy and fear additional public exposure in a country they have only begun to understand. Both have recently relocated to North Dakota where, once again, they will begin to build new lives in a new land.
The story of Cumar and Axlam is compelling – their fears are both rational and revealing of how the landscape has shifted since they arrived in this county. We wish them well, and hope for their continued success. We also hope their new neighbors in North Dakota will be as welcoming as RefugeeOne and the Rogers Park community was when they first arrived in America.


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