One family, Majid Chakmark and his wife, Shadan Jaikry, became refugees because they dared to assist the Americans in rebuilding during the long-running war in Iraq.
From Syria, a country that has become a proxy battleground between a brutal regime, rebels, ISIS and regional and world powers, families there included Nour Al-natour, a widowed mother, with her two young kids. Her husband was killed in the six-year civil war that has left more than 300,000 dead.
Daysi Funes, the co-founder of a Northeast Side community organization that assists a predominantly Latin American refugee and immigrant population was there, she herself having escaped from El Salvador after 15 of her school friends were murdered for political activism during that country’s 12-year civil war.
They were refugees and immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central America.
And they had gathered Tuesday, under the Chicago Community Trust’s On The Table initiative, to share stories about their refugee experience, a conversation I was privileged to moderate.
About 20 gathered at Palette Chicago restaurant, with several adults bringing their very young children.
And as the strangers broke bread together, the commonality in their stories forged instant friendships. The theme: their desire to shed light on realities that forced them here as refugees.
Only once was the latest development affecting their world mentioned: That just a day before, a U.S. Appeals Court had begun hearing arguments in litigation over President Donald Trump’s revised Executive Order banning refugees and immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries.
The three-judge panel was hearing a challenge by the state of Hawaii — supported by several states submitting amicus briefs, including Illinois, asserting the ban has its base in religious hostility.
At issue is the 90-day suspension of entry from #Iran, #Libya, #Somalia, #Sudan, #Syria and #Yemen.
The revised order removed the original’s complete ban on Syrian refugees, and deleted the references to religion. But like the original rejected by an appeals court in February, the order suspends the refugee program for 120 days and reduces to 50,000 from 120,000 the annual number of refugees.
Also at the dinner was Kongit Girma, from Ethiopia, who immigrated here to join a sister who had been granted political asylum. The sister had worked for an international aid organization, and thus was targeted by Ethiopia’s brutal military regime during its 17-year civil war spawning genocide.
Another woman from Colombia, Patricia Bakle, had fled her own country after being targeted for political activism. Members of her family had been killed during the decades-old conflict between that country’s government, paramilitary groups, crime syndicates and left-wing guerrillas.
Each person here spoke of massacres, of terror; doors being banged on in the middle of the night; people dragged from homes; neighbors disappearing.
Each person here spoke of bombings, destroyed homes, of poverty and hunger.
Each spoke of losing loved ones, of treks through dangerous terrain, relief in safe harbor, despair for those left behind.
And each spoke of the struggles to assimilate in a new land.
This diverse group was among the nearly 100,000 folks throughout the metropolitan area participating in the Trust’s fourth annual On The Table, a yearly forum designed to elevate civic engagement, foster new relationships and inspire collaborative action — through mealtime conversations.
So this dinner was one of 5,800 that took place around topics and around tables on Tuesday.
As a refugee whose family escaped the Nigerian-Biafran War in 1969, my story is not much different than their stories. I may as well have been writing about them in my recent book, “Escape From Nigeria: A Memoir of Faith, Love and War,” about miracles that saved my family from the massacres and famine that killed 2 million during a war ranked the fifth-worst genocide of the 20th century.
While not a refugee, Lawrence Benito, CEO of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, who attended the dinner, related to the others’ struggles to reconcile their now dual identity, as he shared the story of his own Filipino immigrant parents.
Individuals at the dinner had been facilitated by the Syrian Community Network, an organization that aids in resettlement of Syrian refugees; Centro Romero, which serves Latin American refugees and immigrants; United African Organization, which assists African immigrants and refugees; and Arab-American Action Network, aiding Arab immigrants.
On this particular evening, however, those around the table identified not by these organizations representing different global regions, but as individuals, as families, refugees, immigrants, who have found safe harbor from the storm.