|Richard Farmer, center.|
"I was watching the news and feeling frustrated," said Farmer. "I felt, 'What can we do?'"
Since Syria erupted into bloody civil war in 2011, half the nation — more than 4 million people — have fled overseas. Germany has accepted 1.5 million in 2015 alone. The United States took in 1,800. President Obama's call for 10,000 more — the number Germany accepts every three days — was met with immediate resistance. Congress, generally paralyzed in the face of actual problems, passed SAFE two days after the bill was introduced and a week after terrorist attacks in Paris. More than half of the governors in the country, all Republicans save one, joined Rauner, despite lack of any legal authority, in vowing their states will not accept a single refugee until some impossible level of scrutiny is reached.
While politicians fan the flames of fear, ordinary Illinoisans are stepping up to fill the compassion gap.
"We had so many people signing up to volunteer since the governor's announcement, close to 100 people a day," said Kim Snoddy, assistant director of development at RefugeeOne, one of a major resettlement services in Chicago. "We had to shut down applications. We set up a wait list."
To be fair to politicians, not all are trying to block the doorway to this country. Sen. Dick Durbin sees what so many of his colleagues in government miss.
“These are children and families fleeing war and terrorism in their country with little more than the clothes on their backs," Durbin said Friday. "They come to America seeking safe refuge and a better life for their children — something every parent can relate to. I’ve heard directly from many Illinoisans who have volunteered to help Syrian refugees who have been resettled in our state. These stories of kindness and generosity show the best of who we are as Americans, welcoming new neighbors and lending a helping hand to help them get on their feet.”
|Kira Farmer, 9, helps out.|
Soon church members were collecting furniture and money, gathering books and knitting warm scarves, joined by like-minded neighbors in Hyde Park, some 60 people altogether.
"For Unitarian Universalist churches, which is broadly true for many churches, we have a really strong sense of the inherent worth and dignity of every person," said David Schwartz, senior co-minister. "It's not just some people are worthwhile and others aren't. There's a single human family, and we're connected, and by virtue of that we have an obligation to work in the world, to make it a better place. It was obviously the right thing to do. We had this opportunity to directly and tangibly help someone who truly needed help. So, of course, we stepped up."
A week ago Friday, Farmer supervised loading furniture, plus donations gathered by his church, into a moving truck and followed it to West Rogers Park, where a clean — well, cleanish — empty apartment awaited.
Why were the other volunteers there? Were they not afraid of facilitating the arrival of people Bruce Rauner's fears may be enemies of the state? Many came remembering their own debt to this country.
"My father was an immigrant, from Germany in 1927," said David Zoller. "It just seems natural to help immigrants out."
"There is so much anti-Muslim sentiment, and those who are most Islamophobic do not really know many—or any—Muslim people," said Kathryn Guelcher, an English teacher at Sandburg High School, stocking kitchen shelves with glassware.
"It's a chance to do something helpful for somebody who probably needs the help," said Mike Weeda, a retired software engineer.
Despite the furor over Syrian refugees, they are a small segment of the total. Catholic Charities has helped settle 600 refugees in the Chicago area in the past three years. Six were from Syria. The vast majority are from other places, like the Itará Giyé family — another fictitious name, at the request of RefugeeOne, to shield them from ISIS, Bruce Rauner, or anyone else who might come after them. They are Rohingya people, perhaps the most oppressed minority in the world, who fled Burma in 2001 and have been living in Malaysia. Their apartment was readied a week ago Saturday by members of the Church of the Beloved.
"People from all over the church have volunteered to help, to set up and move stuff in or give donations," said Lauren Schlabach, 22, a church member. "What an incredible opportunity, to welcome a family. Our crew is very excited."
They worked for hours moving furniture, including muscling a heavy wooden dresser up four flights of stairs. When they finished, they gathered in the living room, closed their eyes and prayed for the safety and success of the family.
Last Thursday morning, the Itará Giyé family arrived at O'Hare International Airports Terminal 5 after a long flight from Japan. The Church of the Beloved congregants met them with homemade signs and winter coats. The family had been eking out a marginal existence in Malaysia, where the temperature seldom goes below 70 degrees. Stepping outside was a surprise. "I am smoking!" exuded 12-year-old Najmul, fascinated with his frosty breath. They were driven to their new home. The wife, seeing her new kitchen for the first time, exclaimed, in Rohingya, "I can do many things with this."
That afternoon, the Al Homsi family arrived from Cairo, where they had been staying since fleeing Syria in March 2013. The agents of Gov. Rauner whom Kim Snoddy had worried might sweep in at the last second and bar the family from stepping off the plane did not materialize. Congress' enemies of the state consisted of a father, mother, a 16-year-old boy, and four girls, ages 10 through 7 months old.
"Welcome to America."
Wednesday: Talking with refugees