A group of area residents are helping a Syrian refugee family get settled in Chicago. The Riverside Area Refugee Resettlement Team is helping a family of six that arrived in Chicago last month after fleeing the civil war in their homeland and spending 10 years in a refugee camp in Jordan.

The Riverside Area Resettlement Team grew out of what had been, pre-pandemic, a joint effort between Riverside Presbyterian Church and Ascension Lutheran Church in Riverside. The two churches have teamed up in the past to help refugee families.

Adnon Al-Haffar, who owned a pizza restaurant in Damascus before fleeing Syria, visits the lakefront with two of his four children in Chicago. The family now lives in the Rogers Park neighborhood in an apartment. | PROVIDED

“Then COVID hit and we took a break,” said Lynda Nadkarni, a leader of the team and the minister for mission and outreach at the Riverside Presbyterian Church.

When the group started getting active again, they decided to expand their reach beyond the two churches and to recruit members from outside the two congregations. Now the team has 188 members, most of whom have no connection to either Riverside Presbyterian or Ascension Lutheran Church.

“It’s just a big community-wide effort now,” Nadkarni said. 

The team has raised $10,378 which they will use to pay rent and utilities for the Syrian family for a few months as they get their feet on the ground in a new country. The team furnished, complete with furniture and groceries, a two-bedroom apartment in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago for the AlHaffar family. Everything was in place before the family touched down at O’Hare International Airport on Feb. 24. 

Seven members of the team will mentor the family and help them adjust to their new lives and surroundings. 

“Our mentoring is about helping them get comfortable in the neighborhood they live in, understanding how to navigate, understanding mail,” Nadkarni said. “They’ve been visited twice a week since they have arrived. They’re becoming comfortable exploring the neighborhood.”

The mentors for the AlHaffar family are Riverside residents are Doug Asbury, the former pastor of Riverside United Methodist Church who now in retirement helps out at Riverside Presbyterian Church, along with Amy Hill, John Haugland, Ken Johnson, Christine Johnson (no relation to Ken Johnson), Brookfield resident Rafah Abuna (who also serves as a translator) and Nadkarni, who lives in LaGrange Park. 

The mentors were trained by RefugeeOne, a Chicago-based organization which works with refugees from the U.S. State Department’s refugee admissions program.

“RefugeeOne does the legal side of being a refugee — so the legal paperwork and the interfacing with the requirements of interfacing with the government — and we do the cultural side,” Nadkarni said. “They picked us for this family because we were able to marshal so many resources so quickly. They knew we could handle the long-term support for the family.”

The Syrian family includes Adnon AlHaffar, who owned a pizza restaurant in Damascus before fleeing Syria, his wife, Houda, and their four children: Hanaa, 13, Fatima, 12, Eman 7, and Mohammad, 3.

Asbury has worked as a mentor with refugee families before. He says it is rewarding work and he has become close friends with one family he helped decades ago.

“It just gives me something meaningful to do,” Asbury said.