Making a New Home in Chicago: Chicago Sun-Times’ Maudlyne Ihejirika Reflects on the Experience of Local Refugees

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Left: the Ihejirika family in their apartment in the Near South Side South Commons neighborhood months after their arrival in Chicago. Right: the author today.

As I absorbed Yasmina’s Necklace, I was transported back nearly 50 years, to when my mother arrived at O’Hare Airport on June 9, 1969, with six small children.

We were refugees of the Nigerian-Biafran War (July 1967–January 1970), here to reunite with my father, who had been studying abroad when the war broke out—separating he and my mother for nearly three years. Settling on Chicago’s Near South Side, my family, like Yasmina and her father Musa, were strangers in this new land, haunted by having witnessed unspeakable violence and death in surviving a war in which two million of our Igbo tribe were killed through massacre and starvation.

We were one Biafran family coming alone to this country; yet we did not remain so. Immediately, we were taken in by Chicago’s small Nigerian community, and my early memories include running and playing with other Biafran children at occasional events hosted by Nigerian community organizations. There, I’d be enveloped by familiar sights, sounds and smells—brightly colored native wear, Igbo language replacing the English I struggled to master in school, Nigerian delicacies consoling a child’s confusion.

So it is, and has been, for every wave of immigrants landing on America’s shores: whether as a refugee like Yasmina and Musa, or voluntarily migrating here in search of opportunity, as the play’s character Ali. Upon arrival, we search out our own. And once found, that ethnic community, be it loosely structured or cohesive, offers a cocoon of the familiar while navigating foreign new ways in a new land. Opportunity’s roadmaps.

Yasmina_Maudlyne_Inset1In Chicago, a city where recent studies find its dubious title as one of the nation’s most segregated cities still holds, immigrants undeniably fold into its entrenched racial and socioeconomic segregation. Gravitating toward those accepting communities, every immigrant wave in the process forms its own sub-community, through which we nurture cultural, sustenance and religious institutions—for example, the mosque that is so central to Yasmina and Sam’s world. This, then, is how newly arrived refugees Yasmina and Musa can become woven into the community that sustains the voluntary immigrant Ali, and impact his son Sam and wife Sara in a huge way. I encountered some of these sustaining communities recently, as host of a Chicago Community Trust “On The Table” dinner themed “The Refugee Experience,” in May, through myriad organizations providing support and resources to immigrants. Often, their goal is to ensure refugees like Yasmina—arriving invisibly scarred and traumatized by atrocities of war—find a sense of the familiar (“normalcy,” if you will). There was the United African Organization, Syrian Community Network, Centro Romero (Central America), Arab American Action Network, The Hana Center (Asia), Ethiopian Community Association, Rohingya Cultural Center of Chicago; the list went on. Many can be found under the umbrella of the advocate group Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR.org).

Such supportive immigrant communities are critical against the impact of racial and socioeconomic segregation, not only in Chicago, but nationwide; against America’s debilitating struggle with racism, and the more recently rising xenophobia at a time when the world grapples with the largest number of forcibly displaced people worldwide since World War II. Currently, nearly 60 million refugees around the world have been displaced by civil wars—as playwright Rohina Malik notes, one in every 122 people.

“So it is, and has been, for every wave of immigrants landing on America’s shores… upon arrival, we search out our own. And once found, that ethnic community, be it loosely structured or cohesive, offers a cocoon of the familiar while navigating foreign new ways in a new land. Opportunity’s roadmaps.”

Meanwhile, our nation wrestles with chaos in the immigration sphere. President Donald Trump’s administration has released travel bans prohibiting refugees/immigration from six Muslim majority countries, and temporarily closing the U.S. refugee program. The RAISE Act—a bill introduced in Congress in July, backed by the White House, aims to cut legal permanent immigration to the U.S. by half over the next decade; and the administration recently rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects 800,000 young people, who were brought to the U.S. as children, from deportation.

The city of Chicago has responded in many ways to the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel often noting his own grandfather emigrated to the U.S. from Moldova to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Standing by its sanctuary city designation, Chicago has also launched a One Chicago campaign (OneChi.org), designed to highlight the city’s vast diversity and immigrant roots, as well as provide additional support and resources to Chicago’s 560,000 foreign-born residents.

Yasmina_Maudlyne_Inset2As with Yasmina’s father, every wave of immigrants battles an additional stigma of being foreign-born, in pursuing work, education and opportunity against existing barriers of segregation and racism. My own mother, a highly credentialed educator who taught at a teacher’s training college in Nigeria before the war, could only waitress upon arrival in Chicago, as her teaching credentials from a foreign country were not recognized. For my mother, it meant becoming an entrepreneur; and later, going back to school. It’s why, on many occasions, I’ve gotten into a cab and engaged in conversation with the driver, only to find they hold a Master’s degree or PhD, and had in their countries of origin been upper-income professionals. Like Musa, however, they were relegated to cab driving until able to obtain recognized credentials in the country they now also call home—for just as with Yasmina and Ali, most immigrants remain ever connected to their country of origin, be it tangibly or spiritually. The foreign-born stigma has only become enhanced for many nationalities, against America’s current ideological, political and racial divisions that tear at the very fabric of a nation. Americans are on a new journey that calls for deeper understanding of our differences, and open and honest discourse as to how we hold on to our American values through rational government policy. As we find with Yasmina and Sam, we must continue to walk together and talk together. And together, we’ll create the path on which this journey leads.

Maudlyne Ihejirika is a veteran Chicago Sun- Times reporter/columnist and author of Escape From Nigeria: A Memoir of Faith, Love and War, a riveting tale of her family’s survival of the genocidal Nigerian-Biafran War.


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