Blasts from exploding bombs. Gunshots from the rifles of government soldiers. 7 p.m. curfews enforced on an entire city. According to Lana Aldos, these were normal occurrences in her life in Daraa, Syria before being granted refuge in the United States.
Aldos, an 18-year-old Loyola sophomore majoring in neuroscience and anthropology, is a Syrian refugee. She moved to Chicago when she was in eighth grade, after a journey she described as long and difficult.
The Syrian revolution began in Daraa over seven years ago after several teenage boys were arrested and tortured for anti-government graffiti, according to Aldos. The war in Syria is a late addition to what is known as the Arab Spring, a series of governmental protests across Arab Nations.
According to historian John McHugo, author of “Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years,” the treatment of these boys “accelerated into a vicious spiral, as the security forces showed that many of their members did not know how to handle peaceful demonstrations without responding brutally.”
Brutality and violence became a regular part of Syrians’ lives, as McHugo wrote. Aldos said she remembers hiding in one specific room in her house whenever there were bombings outside. Syrian Muslims like Aldos found comfort in the adhan — the Muslim call to prayer — but it was banned after war broke out.
“I remember because they banned the adhan, the call to prayer … our neighbor behind us would go up on the roof and he would sing the adhan, which was the most heartwarming thing I’ve ever witnessed,” Aldos recalled. “I remember everybody saying ‘Alhamdillah, Alhamdillah’ [Praise be to Allah].”
In 2012, Aldos said her family left Syria for Qatar, where her father had business connections. Aldos said her family was unprepared when they left Syria so they left their belongings behind.
In Qatar, the family of five lived in one-bedroom and one-bathroom housing until they found a bigger apartment. She said people in Qatar were largely unaccepting of refugees so she faced bullying and discrimination.
Because of these negative experiences, Aldos said she disliked living in Qatar. But she said they lived there for seven or eight months while awaiting U.S. entry approval, which they applied for through the Qatari consulate.
Although many Chicagoans might not feel the consequences of a war thousands of miles away, its effects are global, impacting the Loyola community and Rogers Park.
Aldos moved to Chicago as an eighth grader. She said high school was challenging because she was learning English and adjusting to a new home, far from her friends and family. She remembers people making fun of her for not speaking English well, but she said she used that as motivation to improve.
“All of that motivated me to study English even more,” she said. “I would go under my blanket and I would be pronouncing letters just so my accent can go away.”
Aldos said attending Loyola has been life-changing and meeting so many new people has pushed her outside of her comfort zone.
“Starting here at Loyola, I’ve never met more of a diverse group of people around me,” Aldos said.
As a first-year student, Aldos lived on campus with the social justice learning community, where she said she met friends who inspired her. She said she became passionate about social advocacy, but her education was still her first priority.
Aldos said she pushed herself to speak about her journey at Chicago’s annual Muslim American Society and Islamic Circle of North America Convention in 2016, which is one of the biggest Islamic conventions in North America.
She said she has found helpful resources while at Loyola, particularly the office of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs (SDMA), which promotes diversity and multicultural awareness and offers a supportive, inclusive environment for all students on campus, according to its website.
“That’s my safe space, my safe zone,” Aldos said. “I find family in that space.”
She said she also worked at the Information Commons and met some of her best friends there.
Despite her positive experiences at Loyola, she said she became accustomed to comments such as “go back to where you came from.”
“It’s just so saddening, so upsetting because I don’t know where that home is,” Aldos said. “You’re telling me to go back to a war zone. You’re telling me to go back to torture.”
Aldos reflected on what she endured in Syria and said she’s heartbroken for those who are unable to seek refuge like she did.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the Trump administration’s plans to limit the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. to a maximum of 30,000 in 2019. The administration’s plan could prevent many people like Aldos from finding refuge in the U.S.
The U.S. accepted the fewest number of refugees since 1975 in 2017-2018, according the U.S. State Department. Last year’s 45,000 maximum was already a record low, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.
“Cutting that number down to 30,000, you’re limiting so many opportunities, you’re crushing down so many hopes and dreams, and those kids have nowhere to turn to,” Aldos said. “It’s making me want to speak louder, making me want to wear my hijab even harder. I don’t want to take it off.”
Aldos said the most tragic part of the refugee cuts is how it could affect kids in Syria like her.
“Those kids in Syria have so much potential,” Aldos said. “And that’s a question I ask myself all the time because why am I the lucky one to get out of there?”
Dr. Daniel Amick, an anthropology professor at Loyola, said he’s been involved in refugee work and teaching since 2008 and advises Loyola’s Refugee Outreach Program.
“What is being done right now through the current U.S. administration’s policies toward refugees is absolutely cruel, needlessly inhumane, and shamelessly immoral,” Amick wrote.
In January 2017, the Migration Policy Institute — an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank which analyzes migration and refugee policies — said between October 2011 and December 2016, Chicago resettled the second greatest number of Syrian refugees in comparison to all major U.S. cities, behind San Diego.
According to the Illinois Refugee Program’s 2017 report — a comprehensive overview of the origins of refugees and statistics regarding their resettlement — the state as a whole has resettled over 128,000 refugees from 86 countries since 1975.
GirlForward, a non-profit located in Rogers Park that supports girls who have escaped conflict, has seen fewer girls being resettled in Chicago under the current administration, according to Emily Ramstetter, 23-year-old operations manager at GirlForward. Ramstetter said GirlForward isn’t involved with resettlement but understands the process is extremely difficult.
According to the U.S. Department of State Refugee Admissions Program’s website, the process begins when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refers refugee applications to the U.S., where they are processed by a Resettlement Support Center (RSC) and considered by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
The website states the RSCs collect biographical information, conduct in-person interviews and perform health screening for applicants. The Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, with involvement from multiple U.S. government security agencies, are responsible for enhanced security screenings, according to the website.
The resettlement process continues after refugees move to the U.S. Aldos said her family lived in Chicago for two years before they could apply for green cards and she’s currently working to obtain citizenship, with hopes of becoming a citizen within the next year.
Despite Chicago’s diversity, Aldos said she still struggles as a Muslim hijabi refugee.
“I feel like here [in the United States] no matter what we do, we always have to prove ourselves,” Aldos said. “Not just being refugees but being in a marginalized kind of community, you always have to prove yourself to society.”
She said this is why she doesn’t take her opportunity to study here for granted. She said she finds everything — even struggles — a learning opportunity to grow from.
“I would study day and night just so I could learn English and get my own job,” Aldos said. “We are working hard to get where we are, to get where we want to be.”Aldos’ goal is to travel back to the Middle East to help refugees medically. She said her experiences in Syria, Qatar and the U.S. have not only shaped her, but provided her the motivation to push forward.
“I drew a lot,” Aldos said as she reflected on her experiences during the war. “Just because I wanted to remember this, you know? Like this should be something that I can’t forget about it, you know? It’s a part of who I am and I’ll always grow up with it.”