Helping refugees resettle in Chicago

May 1, 2014

Refugee Youth Success Story: Panaporn

Like many refugee youth, Panaporn’s schooling was interrupted multiple times. But with hard work, dedication, and some help from RefugeeOne’s Youth Program, Panaporn has been able to excel in her education and build a strong foundation for her future.

Panaporn was born in Thailand. Before she was born, her family had fled conflict in Burma/Myanmar between the government and ethnic-based groups. After 13 years of living in Thailand, Panaporn relocated to a refugee camp on the border, leading to a wave of changes in her life. Panaporn had spent all of her young life living in Thailand with Thai people. She was now living with refugees from Burma, a country she only knew about through stories from her elders. She had to make new friends, learn a new culture, and speak a new language.

Because of this change, Panaporn had to start afresh in school. So at 13, she entered 3rd grade. She says, “I was taller than everyone in the class.” However, Panaporn progressed through school quickly, eventually skipping ahead to 9th grade.

After working so hard to catch up to her peers in school, Panaporn again had to interrupt her education. Her father lost his job, and with her mother ill at home, Panaporn had little choice but to drop out of school and begin working as a teacher and interpreter in order to help support her sick mother and younger brother.

When Panaporn was 15, her family was resettled to Chicago in search of greater opportunities, but once again uprooting her life and her education. She had to start all over for a second time – making new friends, learning a new culture, and speaking a new language. But this time, Panaporn had the support of RefugeeOne’s Youth Program. RefugeeOne helped Panaporn to enroll in school, “catch up” to the level of her American peers, engage with other refugees who shared similar stories, and apply for financial aid.  Thanks to her hard work, along with the support of RefugeeOne’s Youth Program, Panaporn recently graduated high school and is excited to attend Northeastern Illinois University in the fall.

Panaporn is proud to be the first member of her family to attend college. Her goal is to become a social worker one day so that she can help other refugees like herself. She says, “I feel like they (refugees) are my brothers or sisters… I can feel how hurt they are so I want to help them.”

Thanks to donors, RefugeeOne’s Youth Program is able to support many refugee youth like Panaporn. Through after-school tutoring and mentoring programs, along with parent education and school advocacy, RefugeeOne supports over 200 youth per year as they strive to learn English and succeed in a new educational system and culture.

Despite Panaporn’s many life changes, one thing that has remained consistent is her passion for music. Panaporn is a talented singer/songwriter who has written and performed songs in many languages. Click the link below to hear her beautiful performance at RefugeeOne’s gala.


Jan 28, 2014

Caught in a Civil War- A Journey from Somalia

Said, Hodan and Family
Said, Hodan and Family

Said and his wife Hodan are from Somalia, a society made up of hundreds of different clans. They enjoyed relative peace in their country after British and Italian troops withdrew and created the Somali Republic. Then civil war broke out in 1991, splitting the country along clan lines. Both Said and Hodan, who did not yet know each other, were trapped in strongholds of rival clans.

As violence increased and hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed, Said and Hodan became increasingly fearful for their lives. They knew their families’ lives were at risk based simply on the clan they were born into. Each made their way into the neighboring country of Djibouti, though Hodan was forced to say goodbye to her daughter in Somalia. It was in a Djibouti refugee camp that Said and Hodan met and eventually married.

As a couple, they began a new life in Djibouti, working hard at low-wage jobs, restricted to a small area of the city, and unable to ever become citizens. Later, they started a family. They didn’t want their plight to be their children’s fate, so when they learned refugee children could never enroll in school they had no choice but to apply to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for relocation to a third country. After 17 years in Djibouti, they were selected to be resettled in the U.S.  

They arrived in Chicago in November 2012.  Although the month was warm by Chicago standards, to the family of six sub-Saharan Africans, it was bitterly cold. Said arrived dressed in a t-shirt. “I froze,” he said.

They vividly remember the – literally – warm welcome they received from RefugeeOne.  Their case manager was at the airport with winter coats, gloves and hats. He drove them to their apartment which Hodan recalls as being “huge”; her fear was they were going to be crowded into a very small living space. Both parents smiled as they remembered arriving at the apartment and finding a warm meal ready for them after all the hours on the plane and passing through customs.

It was here that they faced their first challenges as refugees. In Djibouti, there are very few multi-level buildings and these were restricted to the wealthiest parts of the city. They needed to learn to work the elevator, the gas oven, the hot and cold running water and the dishwasher.

Their neighborhood, too, was strange. “It was a totally new mix of people we’d never seen before,” said Hodan. While they were familiar with Americans and Europeans, they had never lived alongside Asians, Hispanics or “men with long hair, ponytails, and braids.”

As they settled in, they were brought to the RefugeeOne office where they started English classes, enrolled in RefugeeOne’s Employment program, and accessed other in-house services to help the entire family adjust to life in the U.S. Hodan’s language skills, along with her work experience in Djibouti, led to her first job cleaning hotel rooms and brought an important early income for the family. RefugeeOne helped Said find work as a dishwasher soon after. Their children were enrolled in the RefugeeOne Youth Program, participating in the after-school program and receiving home tutoring.

 “I want to say ‘thank you’ to the Americans who assisted us and thank you to the American government for bringing us here,” said Said. “I hope to buy our own home and send all my children to university.” Hodan added, “When we become citizens, I also want ask the United States to help my daughter in Somalia come to Chicago and live with our family.” The biggest dream for the future was voiced by their oldest girl, Muna. “I don’t want to be a doctor or teacher when I grow up. I want to work at RefugeeOne and help new refugee families in Chicago.”


Oct 28, 2013

Pursuit of the American Dream

When asked if he would ever return to his home country of Burma (Myanmar), Molto’s answer is a definite “No” and his expression emphasizes that clearly. His eyes are filled with fear and resentment when he points to an indentation on his skull above his left eye and describes the horrible beatings he received by policemen in Burma.   

Molto Salim Bin Sultan and his wife, Aminah Binti Aliahmada, lived a relatively normal life in Burma until the day when rebel forces came to recruit soldiers, including Molto. Fearing for his life, Molto made the difficult decision with his family to leave their belongings, their home, and their community in search of safety. For almost four years, they walked through the difficult terrain of Burma, experiencing a nomadic lifestyle filled with hunger, dehydration, and violent attacks from the police. It was during this time that Molto was the victim of the attack that caused him to leave Burma and vow never to return.

The family arrived illegally in Malaysia where they found themselves without any opportunities. Their children could not attend school and they could not work legally. The only work they could find were occasional, unauthorized construction jobs for Molto and seamstress work for Aminah. But this work could barely provide for them and their children. Their situation in Malaysia proved even more difficult with the police closely monitoring and harassing them. They were constantly asked to produce legal documents which they did not possess and had to pay bribes of $50-$100 to avoid being taken to jail. After eight years of these hardships, the family finally obtained permission to reside in Malaysia legally, but for the next 22 years the family still had no opportunities for education or employment.

After 30 years of living in Malaysia, Molto, Aminah, and their youngest son Muhamad were accepted to be resettled in America. In August 2013, they arrived in Chicago. Today, they are thankful for how their lives are progressing and they have hope for the future. The family appreciates how RefugeeOne has helped them learn English, secure housing, and find employment, assisting them on their path to realizing their American Dream of one day owning a home, car, and sending their youngest child to college.

While their future seems bright, they continue to think of family members--sons, daughters, and grandchildren-- that were left behind. They hope that someday soon their whole family will be together again. 

Oct 18, 2013

Global Giving Bonus Day October 23, 2013

There are more than ten million refugees in the world. What can just one person do?

Imagine what the impact would be if

everyone in your family DID ONE THING,

if everyone at your workplace DID ONE THING,

if every member of your congregation DID ONE THING,

if everyone on your block DID ONE THING,

if all of  your Facebook friends DID ONE THING,

and if everyone at your school DID ONE THING...

 Collectively, we can make a difference if we each would DO ONE THING.

RefugeeOne is encouraging everyone to DO ONE THING to positively impact refugees beginning new lives in the U.S. Donate through GlobalGiving on October 23 to have your financial contribution matched at 30%. Tell your friends, family and co-workers to DO ONE THING.

When many of us DO ONE THING, the impact is huge.

Aug 27, 2013

Achieving Bold Dreams in the Face of Danger

Sein Martin is a refugee who has relentlessly overcome one hardship after another for nearly a quarter century. Born in a small town in Burma, Sein faced ethnic persecution from a young age. As members of the Karen group, one of several ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy in the country, Sein and his family were subject to targeted government prosecution. He and his parents survived by keeping lights out at night and hiding in underground holes. When he was two years old, Sein and his family endured a two-day journey to Sho Klo refugee camp in Thailand, bordering Burma. Ten years later, violent fights caused Sho Klo refugee camp to shut down and for its refugees such as Sein and his family, to relocate to another Thai camp bordering Burma, Mae La Camp.

The current count of Burmese refugees in Thailand is estimated at nearly 62,000 and it is considered one of the most protracted displacement situations in the world. Nevertheless, these camps offer refugees critical support: food, aid and, most importantly, protection against arrest, detention and deportation. Outside of the camp’s protection, Sein recounts that “whenever police were in sight, we’d immediately hide and run. We never had the freedom to go outside. We were like animals in the zoo.” Unfortunately, the camp left much to be desired, as refugees residing there lived in cramped, makeshift conditions with limited access to jobs and education.

In spite of the barriers, Sein was determined to make the best of his situation and worked hard to complete his high school education and a year of college education. Afterwards, he pursued medical training at Opian Refugee Camp, and then returned to Mae La Camp for an internship. Though Sein had completed his coursework, securing employment was challenging as Sein struggled to meet arbitrary hiring standards. He faced opposition from hiring managers, was required to retake medic training courses, and he waited for long periods of time to retake tests.

However, Sein persevered in his search to find employment. By the time he found work, Sein was 21 years old with the responsibility to support not only himself, but his wife and one-year-old daughter. His new salary was still not enough to support his family.

After 13 months of working as a medic at the camp, Sein applied to come to the United States with great hopes of achieving the personal and financial freedom he desired. Three years later, in November of 2012, his dream came true. “I love the freedom in this new country!” Sein exclaims. “No more police chasing me. I feel accepted.”

Sein found employment June 2013 as a dishwasher at a local Chicago restaurant. His wife, daughter and infant son remain in Thailand, awaiting the legal proceedings necessary to join Sein. “I will be happy when my family is here with me,” Sein says.

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Chicago, IL, United States

Project Leader

Kim Snoddy

Chicago, IL United States

Where is this project located?

Map of Helping refugees resettle in Chicago