Helping refugees resettle in Chicago

by RefugeeOne
Juliana, Goreth, and her sister, Terezia
Juliana, Goreth, and her sister, Terezia

I’m excited to share an update on my experience mentoring a refugee family from Rwanda. It's been a lot of fun getting to know them over the past three months. Their English improves every week, and they are now able to tell me more about themselves. For example, Agnes, the mother, told me that she is a vegetarian, and Goreth, her fourteen-year-old daughter, told me about a cat they had when they lived in a refugee camp.

When I first started mentoring the family, communication was challenging. Kinyarwanda, their native language, isn’t available on Google Translate. However, they all speak bits and pieces of ten different languages, including Portuguese, French, Swahili, and various African dialects.

The family is enthusiastic about learning English. Goreth already understands past and present tense verbs, and her brother, Eric, likes to talk about cars. Like any sixteen-year-old, he wants to drive. On a recent visit to their home, Agnes told me about what a handful her four-year-old daughter, Furaha, can be. Some of Furaha’s favorite activities include climbing all over mom and unplugging things.

When I visited last week, we talked about the family’s schedules, and I realized that they didn't know how to set an alarm on their cellphone or digital clock. They hadn’t been sleeping well due to fear of arriving late to school or work. I showed them how to set alarms. It was a simple thing to do, but has made a big difference. Now, it’s easy for them to get up in time for their jobs and for school without worrying about sleeping in too late. 

Speaking of waking up in time for work, Agnes found her first job in the U.S.! RefugeeOne’s employment team helped her find a job at Tyson. Being able to set an alarm has truly helped her since she needs to leave the house at 4:00 a.m. and commute over an hour to work. I admire her dedication to learning English, even after such a long day at work.

Two friends have joined me to help Agnes and her family. Sherman, a member of the church sponsoring the family, and Rachel, my housemate, have started coming with me to tutor Agnes and her five children. Sherman is a talented English teacher and works with the younger children on things like the days of the week and how to pronounce words like “thirteen” versus “thirty.” Meanwhile, I read books with Agnes and Goreth.

Agnes’ children are also involved in RefugeeOne’s after-school program, which runs every weekday. Through this program, the children receive additional one-on-one support from program staff and volunteer tutors who provide help with homework and learning English. After class work, there are team-building games, journaling, sports practice and time to just play. 

On a recent evening visit, as the sun was setting, I finished a chapter of the book we were reading and told the family it was time for Sherman and me to head home.

Eric asked, “Why?” and I said, “Because it’s time to sleep.”

Eric replied, “Sleep? No, in America, we don’t sleep. In America, business every day!”

We all laughed. Sherman and I were impressed by his strong work ethic.

I am looking forward to seeing Agnes and her children continue to grow and thrive here in Chicago.


Note: RefugeeOne welcomed 447 refugees during Fiscal Year 2014. Juliana is one of 400 volunteers who assist RefugeeOne each year. If you’re interested in volunteering with RefugeeOne, visit our website at and complete an application.

Sherman practices the alphabet with the children
Sherman practices the alphabet with the children
Emmanuel, age nine, practices English with Sherman
Emmanuel, age nine, practices English with Sherman


The newly-arrived family at Chicago O
The newly-arrived family at Chicago O'Hare Airport

I recently signed up with RefugeeOne to mentor a refugee family from Rwanda. Mentors make weekly home visits to help newly-arrived refugees become self-sufficient and acclimate to American culture. Most mentors don’t get the opportunity to meet the family at the airport, so I was very excited to meet them and work with them from the very beginning.

The mother, Agnes, and her five children (ages five to sixteen) arrived at Chicago O’Hare Airport with only two small suitcases and travel documents. Along with RefugeeOne staff, I greeted the family with flowers, and we drove them to their new Chicago home. When we arrived at the apartment, I showed them how to turn on a lamp, use the shower, and work the stove. After eating lunch together, we left so the family could rest. They were exhausted since they’d been in transit for over 30 hours.

Two weeks later, I met the family for our first mentorship meeting. I was a little nervous, but as soon as the family heard the word “teacher,” they pulled out notepads with the alphabet written on them, and we spent the first lesson reading and writing the letters. After two hours of practice, Agnes and the three oldest children could recite every letter of the alphabet, except H (it’s a tricky one).

The next week, I took the family to a local agency to get clothes. Since the family arrived with a very limited supply of clothing, we ended up getting a lot of clothes. In fact, I wasn’t sure how we would carry everything! Fortunately, Agnes had an idea; she tied a jacket around the bulk of the clothes, then carried them on her head all the way home without dropping them.

The following week, the children and I colored together. Crayons and markers were a huge hit! Later, when we read a book about the alphabet, it was obvious that everyone had been practicing because they were much more confident. Agnes can look at words and sound them out very well. She likes to open the dictionary and read the words in English, asking what each one means. I translate with the help of a smartphone and hand gestures. Agnes and her children are eager to learn more, and I think they're going to do very well. I look forward to seeing the progress they make as they adjust to life in the U.S.

Note: RefugeeOne welcomed 447 refugees during Fiscal Year 2014. Juliana is one of 400 volunteers who assist RefugeeOne each year. If you’re interested in volunteering with RefugeeOne, visit our website at and complete an application.

Agnes carrying clothes home
Agnes carrying clothes home

As we listen to the horrific news of ISIS’ terror campaign in Iraq, our hearts go out to Iraqis around the world. RefugeeOne is privileged to have resettled hundreds of Iraqi families and individuals in recent years. We’re glad to share this hopeful story of one of those families with you.

Several years ago, RefugeeOne resettled an Iraqi father and his two young children. When the man’s wife was unable to leave Iraq with the rest of the family, the separation threw him into a paralyzing depression. He had a nervous breakdown shortly after arrival, could not keep his job, and became unable to care for his children. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services removed the children from his home and placed them in foster care.

RefugeeOne worked actively to restore this man and his family back to health. Staff provided extensive individual therapy and coordinated all aspects of his care with the court-appointed social worker and family therapist, foster parents, court attorneys, and a psychiatrist. The efforts led to measurable improvements. Program staff, his psychiatrist, court witnesses, and the client himself recognized his improved mental state and ability to be a good father. He achieved self-identified goals for recovery, learned English, looked for employment, and complied with therapy. Over time, he no longer needed medication. He became less focused on basic survival and moved to planning for the future. 

We are overjoyed to report that with the help of RefugeeOne, his children were returned to him with full custody and that after two years of separation, he was reunited with his wife. When she arrived at O’Hare Airport, she was welcomed with tears of joy by her husband, daughter, and son.

The parents are now focused on their children’s health and education, and the children are excelling in RefugeeOne’s after-school program. Thanks to RefugeeOne’s services, this family’s dark hours and hopeless days are behind them, and they are living their daily lives with mental and emotional health. We feel honored to be part of this story of recovery and new life.

Thank YOU for being part of this story. Your gifts to RefugeeOne make it possible for refugees to build the foundations for flourishing lives in the U.S. 

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.


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.”



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Location: Chicago, IL - USA
Website: http:/​/​​
Project Leader:
Kim Snoddy
Chicago, IL United States

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