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Seven refugees grateful for new home, worry about relatives in Lebanon

Daily Herald Staff Writer, Posted Sunday, October 15, 2006

If Hassan and Iman Al Samurrai could get better TV reception with a basic antenna, they'd be glued to the small screen in their Glen Ellyn apartment. After years of waiting, the couple and their five children, ages 2 to 17, emigrated from Lebanon in late June, not a moment too soon.Just days later, the war between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah militants began, with Israel dropping missiles into Beirut, the Al Samurrais' former hometown. If they had cable or satellite TV, they would have been scouring news footage for a glimpse of one of their many friends and relatives caught in the skirmish. They'd agonize over their inability to bring some relatives here to safety. They left behind Iman's two brothers, several aunts, uncles and cousins - family and friends who lived in and around the bombed area of Beirut. Even now, as the violence has subsided, they still haven't accounted for all their loved ones.
Hassan Al Samurrai, endured a difficult odyssey to make it the U.S. in late June. A native of Iraq, he was persecuted under Saddam Hussein’s regime and eventually fled to Syria, where he was jailed. "The whole area has been destroyed," Hassan Al Samurrai said through an interpreter. After days of uncertainty, the couple learned that dozens of people they know in Lebanon had gone underground. But one brother suffers from mental disorders and panics every time bombs go off, and the other brother's health is precarious because he has artificial intestines. The latter is trying to care for his brother in addition to supporting his own wife and two children. "My brother was crying out of despair ... pleading for help," Iman said through an interpreter. "It's not livable underground." The Al Samurrais are relieved for their good fortune, leaving just before the airports shut down. But they are concerned over the continued turmoil in their homeland.
"I don't care who gets the land," Hassan Al Samurrai says. "I just want peace so people can live." Starting over - again Settling in the Western suburbs has been just another bittersweet chapter in the 48-year-old Hassan Al Samurrai's odyssey. He was born and raised in Iraq, where he counted himself fortunate to hold sergeant's rank in the police force. That was until one day in the early 1980s, when he found himself facing charges of political crimes because, he said, a friend was outspoken against Saddam Hussein's regime. Believing he'd never get a fair trial under Saddam's rule, Al Samurrai fled for Syria, leaving behind five brothers. It wasn't an ideal choice but the best he had: He knew Syria wouldn't deport him to Iraq because of the political climate between the two countries at the time. Jordan and Turkey likely would have sent him back, he said. But, without a passport or other travel documents, Al Samurrai had to explain to Syrian officials why he sought entrance to their county. He was promptly jailed.
During the yearlong incarceration that followed, he said he was repeatedly beaten with sticks, given electrical shocks and burned by cigarettes. He was kept in a box not much larger than a small filing cabinet with a hole for his head. All the prisoners were "packed in like sardines," he said. But at least he was alive. The Syrian government eventually recognized him as a refugee, released him and sent him to Lebanon. It was there he met his wife, Iman, now 39, whose own parents and their families had fled Palestine in 1939. The couple married in 1987, eventually having three sons, Koutaba, now 17, Hussein, 16; and Mohammad Ali, 2, who was named for the boxer, his parents said; and two daughters, Nahida, 15, and Isha, 12. As a refugee in Lebanon, though, Hassan lacked the same rights as legal citizens and was denied many opportunities.
The family most recently lived in a two-room, windowless basement apartment they often shared with rats. Hassan struggled to make ends meet. His work as a bodyguard and chauffeur paid barely enough to feed his family and provide other basics. "I had no future there," he said. 'Castle' in Glen Ellyn Hope blossomed anew in 1994 when Lebanon granted Hassan official refugee status, opening the door for him to apply to emigrate. Finding a country to accept the family proved difficult. Canada, Australia and Finland turned them down before the U.S. granted them entrance. Worrying about their relatives in Lebanon and Iraq has been the bittersweet flip-side to making a new life in Glen Ellyn. "This is a castle," Hassan said of their three-bedroom apartment with kitchen, dining area and family room near Roosevelt Road.
The family is trying to learn English through a program at nearby Faith Lutheran Church coordinated by DuPage United, the social service network. And life is still a struggle. Iman got a job cleaning hotel rooms but since had to give it up, partially because of health issues. Hassan, whose leg remains weak from an old bullet wound, still hasn't found work but remains optimistic. That positive attitude, common among the refugee students in the ESL program, impressed its organizers and tutors. "They've shown so much resilience," said a program organizer, Naazish YarKhan. "They're just happy to be alive."

By kgrondin@dailyherald.com dailyherald.com

Art of journal writing meant to be shared

Art of journal writing meant to be shared
BY Sandy Stevens

Naazish YarKahn offers gifts for the future — for an unborn child; gifts of the past — of memories and mementoes; and gifts for the present — of ideas and imagination.
Next month, the Glen Ellyn resident will guide others in the "write" way to create such gifts through three classes offered for the first time by the Glen Ellyn Park District: Journaling for New and Expectant Moms, Journaling for Seniors and Little Shakespeares.
She is also the creative mind behind Writers Studio in downtown Glen Ellyn, where she offers creative writing workshops for 4- to 15-year-olds and journaling and writing classes for people of all ages and interests.

Writing in the New and Expectant Moms class results in a gift for the child and for the parent, YarKhan said. One aspect of the workshop might be writing down the parent's dreams for the baby. "This is 'My child: Welcome to the world. This is how we decided to have you,'" YarKhan said, "and you write a little about who you are and where you are in your own life."

Writing also becomes a relationship-building tool, she stressed, adding that her children — 7-year-old Taskeen, a second-grader at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School; and Yousef, a 3-year-old preschooler — love stories about themselves.

"In the case of an unforeseen event," YarKhan said, "I also want them to know 'This is who we were when you were little, this is how we waited for you and these were our dreams and expectations,' as well as whatever was important to us at this time: 'This was the year we went to war with Iraq; this was when we went into space.'

"Then the journal becomes a pause in time," she said. "People buy things for their kids, but more important is that you be there." Although the course title refers to moms, fathers or both parents are welcome in the class, YarKhan said. "They're going to have very different stories.
"It'd also be open to grandparents if they're really keyed into this gift," she said. "Children should have roots."

Seniors, who often feel isolated, benefit through journaling by connecting in a room full of strangers, YarKhan said. "The connection comes from things that are deep within you, such as friendships, things that are the cornerstone of who you are," she said.
Sharing writing is always optional, but expressing oneself in this safe environment can be therapeutic, YarKhan said. "It's not a critique; it's a bonding process. There's someone to listen to you even if there's no one else."

Seniors also will have an opportunity to bring a special item to class, tell the other members about it and create a poem about its meaning. "This is about how or what you are because of a time or an event," YarKhan said. The Little Shakespeares workshop for 8- to 13-year-olds develops and strengthens what children are working on in school, YarKhan said.
"All the skills you learn in writing, whether it's cause and effect or grouping together ideas, carry over to other areas of the curriculum."
And writing doesn't have to be painful.

"It doesn't have to be Shakespeare. Hip-hop is poetry," she pointed out. "It's whatever you want it to be. This country was built on ideas and imagination."
YarKhan never gives the young students writing topics because she believes they have enough assigned topics in school, but grammar and punctuation must be correct.
"It's like fine-tuning a machine," she said. "It's not an add-on."
She also stresses a goal of getting work published, something YarKhan first accomplished at age 15, as a contributor to a teen scene column in her native India. By 18, she was writing freelance features on extreme sports such as hang gliding.
Coming from "a very supportive family of letter writers," she simply always wrote, she said.
"I didn't think I would do anything else; it's what I always did," she said. "It was like 'This is who I am.'
"Some people run. I write."

YarKhan's bylines have appeared in more than two dozen publications, and two of daughter Taskeen's stories have been published in Chicago Parent magazine.
YarKhan is hoping to use her experience as a parent and a writer to become an artist-in-residence through PTAs in School District 41. She also is interested in presenting a series of workshops to play groups or homeschooled children or taking the instruction into Montessori schools.
"It fits into their concept of students leading the way," she said.

For information on YarKhan's Glen Ellyn Park District classes, call (630) 942-0463 or visit http://www.gepark.org/ . For information on classes at the Writers Studio, call (630) 915-8654 or e-mail bigmomentum@hotmail.com.

Sandy Stevens has lived in Glen Ellyn since 1984. Contact her at ssmamabear@aol.com or c/o The Sun, 1500 W. Ogden Ave., Naperville, IL 60540.

Many cultures, a single goal

Many cultures, a single goal
English-language class a melting pot

By Kathryn Grondin
Daily Herald Staff WriterPosted Sunday, October 15, 2006

The proverbial pot is melting in the basement of a Glen Ellyn Lutheran church.
Around cafeteria tables sit a teenage jockey, a Muslim nurse, a bodyguard, a Sudanese mother of two, an Iraqi salon owner and a Lutheran high school student.
From their disparate backgrounds, they come together with the common goal to build better lives through English-language classes.
“It’s amazing. My heart is just huge right now. This takes a lot of courage for everybody,” said Maryanna Milton of the People’s Resource Center in Wheaton. “It’s like seeing a puzzle of the world coming together.”
Milton said this English as a Second Language program differs from others — not just in the diversity of its students but in its organizers and tutors.
They include teens with the Darien-based Mohammed Webb Foundation, which seeks to bridge Islamic practices with American culture; representatives from the People’s Resource Center in Wheaton and DuPage United, two social service agencies; and members of Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn and mosques in Villa Park and Glendale Heights.
The students include Christian and Muslim children alike, as well as adults from Lebanon, Poland, Sudan and elsewhere.
“This is a thrilling moment for us to see different people from different cultures and different faiths learning from one another,” said Debbie Fulks, a member of Faith Lutheran and DuPage United.
Adds Milton: “That’s what’s really going to lead to better understanding of each other and of different cultures … We are so similar.”
Nicole Mohiuddin of Lake in the Hills is a nurse who attends the Islamic Foundation mosque in Villa Park. Born and raised in the U.S. by her Indian father and Polish mother, she got involved after receiving an e-mail asking if she’d like to help Muslim refugees.
Seventeen-year-old Lindsay Hornell of Glen Ellyn got involved just because she wanted to volunteer and fill some of her free time over the summer.
“It’s so much more fun than I thought it was going to be. I was nervous at first, at the thought of teaching someone to speak English,” she said. “I love it. It’s very rewarding.”
Fulks said the program works on several levels: It’s building a stronger community by showing people how to become involved and solve issues, it’s increasing literacy awareness, it’s teaching others English and it’s enabling both students and tutors to learn about other cultures and faiths.
One student, Rugaya Sourein, grew up in Sudan but fled civil war there a few years ago. She lived in Egypt for 18 months before coming to the U.S. with her husband. The couple, who have two young daughters, came for the freedom and educational opportunities.
A former chauffeur and bodyguard, Hassan Al Sumarrai lived in Lebanon for 24 years and fled in late June with his wife, Iman, and their five children. They came for the chance at a better life, for more than surviving in a windowless two-room apartment.
Guma Adam, who is uncertain of his own age but estimated it at 35, roamed between four countries before coming to the U.S. He lived in Sudan until 1983, when he fled to Egypt for three months before going to Iraq for six years, then Turkey for two years, returning to Iraq for four years and briefly venturing back into Sudan.
“I wanted to see if the situation improved, but it was worse. In Sudan, there is no life,” he said.
His father was killed because he was a Christian. Two brothers and other relatives have tried to flee to Chad but remain trapped in a no-man’s land between the two countries’ border patrols.
“Some are starving. They’re not OK,” he says.
In just the first few sessions, participants forged bridges.
A Muslim man and a Christian man sit side by side at the same table learning English.
“In their own countries, they probably wouldn’t even be able to talk to each other,” Fulks said.
Likewise, Muslim teens and their Christian counterparts remained in their respective groups at the training session, but they mingled during the activities at the subsequent tutoring kickoff class.
A Sudanese man serves as a translator for an Iraqi native who knows even less English.
An Iraqi man filled with contempt for Syrian jailers who had beaten him finds friendship with a tutor whose ancestors hail from Syria.
At another session, a male voice chanting prayers in an adjacent room spills into the tutoring room.
“He’s leading a Muslim prayer in a Christian building. Only in America,” program coordinator Naazish YarKhan said. “It’s collaboration, cooperation. That’s what it’s all about.”