“Our Life Has Generally Improved”: How One Syrian Refugee Family Started Over in Chicago

As Russia continues launching attacks in Syria, NBC Investigates revisits a Syrian refugee family who moved to Chicago earlier this year

Nine months ago Zachariah Torkmany spoke no English.

Now the 12-year-old goes to school, has American friends and teaches his sisters to play basketball.

“I like to play basketball and soccer and the beach,” said Zachariah Torkmany.

NBC 5 Investigates first met Mayada Hamdo Torkmany and her six children back in June. The family had made a desperate escape from Syria. Just five months into the Syrian Civil War, Torkmany’s husband was shot in the head by a sniper and the family’s home was flattened by a barrel bomb. They fled to Jordan and were eventually resettled here in Chicago.

Since our initial encounter with the Torkmanys, their life has changed dramatically.

“Our life has generally improved since we moved,” said Mayada Hamdo Torkmany, who is taking classes to learn English. “My oldest son Ziad is now working. We moved to a new apartment. … We’re closer to our organization which has resettled us. And the kids are back in school.”

But the Torkmanys are in the minority. So far in 2015, 94 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Illinois, according to the U.S. State Department.

NBC 5 Investigates was there as the most recent refugee family arrived at O’Hare. Mohammad Akram Oibdat, his wife, their 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter have no relatives in Chicago but will be assisted by Refugee One, the largest in the Midwest.

“All of them are coming from some trauma,” said Melineh Kano, executive director of Refugee One. “All of them are coming from a civil war. Many of them have been sitting in refugee camps for years and they need help.”

Refugee One offers assistance with housing, employment, medical care and other life necessities.

“We establish a relationship with those families,” said Suzanne Ahkras Sahloul, founder of the Syrian Community Network, a volunteer organization that also helps refugee families transition to life in Chicago. “We go and do house visits and then we start to fill in the gaps.”

Families like the Torkmanys and the Oibdats get a fresh start here. While millions of other refugees face an uncertain future.

“I’m constantly watching the news and following what’s going on,” said Torkmany.” It’s very sad to see everyone leave the country.”

More than half of Syria has fled the country. Thousands have drowned attempting the treacherous journey to Europe in overcrowded boats. Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi‘s drowned body off the coast of Turkey, now  a symbol of the Syrian migrant crisis. Weary Syrians are turned away daily at the borders of Hungary, Croatia and Serbia.

President Barack Obama pledged earlier this month to take in at least 10,000 more Syrian refugees during the next year.

But there’s still the issue of screening all the refugees entering the states. Some law enforcement and politicians argue that the refugee resettlement program could allow terrorists to slip into the states. And just this week, presidential candidate Donald Trump declared that if elected, he would force all Syrian refugees to leave the United States.

“I can only imagine how difficult it is for others who travel for such long distances and they tell them to go back or they hold them or there’s some abuse while they are in those countries,” Torkmany said.

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