After initial euphoria, Syrian refugees grieve for life they left behind



Baraa, Abdulmajeed and Sham Haj Khalaf sit in the living room of their Skokie, Ill. home on July 23, 2017. The family emigrated as refugees from Syria. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Three months ago, members of the Haj Khalaf family sat happily on the couch in their Skokie, Illinois, apartment, overjoyed to finally be free from the dangers of war in Syria, and reunited after months apart.

But these days, 19-year-old Aya Haj Khalaf avoids her parents as much as possible in their tiny one-bedroom home, for fear that even the slightest mention of the homeland they fled in 2012 will bring her mother, father and older siblings to tears again.

“It’s really hard for me to see them that way … to the point where I don’t sit with them that much, even when I don’t have to work,” Aya Haj Khalaf said through an interpreter. “If I keep thinking of Syria and if I keep looking backward, I will not move forward anymore.”


The family’s experience demonstrates how complex the process of resettlement and assimilation can be for refugee families. When the initial euphoria and gratitude for safety sink in, so, too, does the reality of having to start over in a foreign country, far from the backdrop of cherished memories.

In the ongoing journey of settling into a new country, members of the Haj Khalaf family have split into two directions. The youngest two siblings, Aya and Uday, 15, are enjoying their new American lives — making friends, exploring Chicago neighborhoods and planning for the future. But their parents and older siblings are overcome by a grief and homesickness so intense they find it hard to eat, sleep or even go outdoors in their new city — regardless of how grateful they are to be in the U.S.

“We feel so bad now because we had really big dreams when we were in Syria, and now everything is gone,” Khaled Haj Khalaf, the family’s 46-year-old patriarch, said through an interpreter.

Sue Horgan, director of education and outreach at Exodus World Service, which mobilizes volunteers to help refugees in the Chicago area, said it is not uncommon for young people to acclimate more quickly than the older members of their family.

To help bridge the emotional gap, she and other advocates work to support refugees by offering resources, friendship and practical guidance as the newcomers sort out the complicated range of emotions felt differently by each family member in the weeks, months and years after their arrival.

“If we think empathetically about their life now and what they’ve been through and what they had before the war started, there’s every good reason that they’re facing some hurdles with their emotions,” Horgan said. “We try to help them see that you overcome it. … It’s a process.”

At RefugeeOne, the nonprofit that sponsored the Haj Khalaf family’s relocation, administrators have more than doubled its staff of therapists in the past 18 months to help accommodate the many refugees struggling with emotional adjustment.


For many refugees, the heartache seems to hit just as nonprofit organizations begin to pull back, in the interest of helping families learn how to get by on their own.

While RefugeeOne does not make it a practice to scale back on financial or other assistance for a family still in dire need, it does encourage its staff and volunteers to taper off gift-giving and assistance with utilities and other expenses as early as two months into a refugee’s resettlement.

“On one hand, it seems stern to have policies that have a plan to make them self-sufficient. But that’s ultimately what helps refugees not only get by but thrive,” said Jims Porter, communications coordinator for RefugeeOne.

Khaled Haj Khalaf was caught off guard by the sadness that took hold about eight months after his relocation in the U.S.

In an interview in April, he spoke about the positive changes his family had seen since living in America. After nearly five years in a Turkish refugee camp, he, his wife and three youngest children were living in an apartment furnished by volunteers from a sponsoring church in Evanston.

Thanks to the efforts of RefugeeOne, the Evanston church and another sponsoring group of Lincoln Square residents, the family was reunited at O’Hare airport in February with Haj Khalaf’s eldest daughter, Baraa, her husband and toddler. The younger family had been stuck in limbo by an executive order banning refugees from the war-torn country.

Haj Khalaf began working part time as a pastry chef, making Syrian treats at a popular takeout restaurant. He joked that he was trying hard to keep up with the smiles he saw regularly on Americans’ faces.

But as time went on, Haj Khalaf said he and his wife learned that distance and nostalgia can confuse a person’s memory. Suddenly, when they remembered Syria, they didn’t automatically think of the traumas that left them no choice but to leave — the airstrikes, murdered relatives and oppression that made them afraid to speak freely.

They remembered only happy times. His brother’s wedding. The birth of his son. Teaching his children to write their names — adding “Dr.” in front of them because they all had high hopes for the future — on a wipe-off board in their beloved home in Aleppo.

“I expected that when I came here, I would forget everything about home and Syria and my people,” Haj Khalaf said. “Now I remember the happiest moments.”

Fattoum Bakir, his wife, said that while she knows she should be grateful that her family is all in one place and alive, she can’t help but feel sad when she sees her son-in-law, an economist with a college degree and experience in his field, leave for work each morning at a factory where he assembles chairs.

Or when Aya and Mohamad, her children who used to practice writing “Dr.” before their names, pack lunches for their second-shift jobs at a food packaging company.

“My son was really good at school,” the mother said through an interpreter.

Syrians who have arrived in the U.S. in the past two years face a particularly challenging adjustment, RefugeeOne’s Porter said. Many Syrians who have relocated recently — while the war in Syria still rages — were able to do so because they were well-educated or gainfully employed, with the means for such applications. But now that they are here, the language barrier makes it difficult for them to return to their former careers.

Haj Khalaf, whose entry to the U.S. was expedited because of heart problems, said he continues to work once every two weeks at the bakery. He’d like to work more but was told that to receive Social Security disability benefits, for which he has applied, he could not, he said.

As refugees, each member of the family arrived in the U.S. as a legal permanent resident with access to public benefits including Medicare and Medicaid. They have the option to apply for green cards one year after their arrival. The members of the Haj Khalaf family who arrived in September have already begun the medical screenings and green-card paperwork.

In the meantime, Haj Khalaf said he and his wife boost their spirits by spending afternoons on the lawn outside their apartment, playing music by their favorite singer, Fairuz, and sipping Syrian coffee — just as they used to do in their native country.

“We go back in time,” Haj Khalaf said. “It feels like we are home.”

Tough as the adjustment may seem at times, most refugees weather the difficulties and live happily in the U.S. over time, Porter said. “You get to really develop a sense of pride in your own ability to overcome challenges and be resilient and to provide for yourself,” he said.

Aya Haj Khalaf said she is determined to be one of the success stories.

After several tries, she recently earned her driver’s license, for which she smiled enthusiastically in the photo. She has made a close friend at work, a young woman from Ecuador who has similar dreams of someday going to college and pursuing a career.

For now, she has learned to tread carefully in conversations at home, only bringing up subjects that do not touch on the past. She hopes it won’t always be this difficult.

“We are here now and not there anymore. This is the reality,” she said. “This is our life here now.”


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