Zahid’s family smiles so often, you would never imagine they had recently escaped dire circumstances. Zahid, his wife, Rabia, and their 6-year-old daughter, Sharon, came to the United States as refugees in October 2016. According to Zahid, Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program literally “saved his life.”
Zahid’s family had lived peacefully as Christians in Pakistan for more than 100 years. But after 9/11, tensions began to rise. Zahid’s father, pastor of their local church, was murdered. Shortly after, his brother was kidnapped. Zahid feared his family would be targeted next, and with the help of partner churches, they fled to Thailand to apply for refugee status. It would take four years before their request was approved.
During that time, the family lived in an office-sized room that had no air conditioning, no kitchen, and one small bathroom. They slept on the floor with no blankets or pillows. They relied on the church for food and supplies. Zahid counts the number of years they spent there on his fingers, and lifts them up.
While Zahid usually allows an interpreter to speak for him, he shares the things he feels most passionately about with the English words he does know. When asked how he and his family like Chicago, he had a simple, profound answer: "Chicago is paradise," he said. "When you live without freedom, you learn how important for life it is. Chicago, and America, is paradise."
“It was a very hard time,” he said, adding it was hardest of all on Sharon, whose early childhood – including birthday celebrations – were spent in the tiny room.
"She would want for toys and things to play with,” Zahid remembers. “It was very hard to tell her no.”
Finally, they got the news. Their refugee status was approved, and they were coming to Chicago, where they would be connected with Catholic Charities.
For families like Zahid’s, the relationship with Catholic Charities begins the moment they arrive. They are greeted at the airport, provided with a hot meal, and then taken to their new home, outfitted with the furniture and supplies they’ll need, as well as financial assistance to get started. From there, a case manager works with them for as long as two years to get them acclimated to life in the United States. Families receive everything from English classes, medical care, and employment resources.. If there are children, staff also works with getting them placed in the right school. Pregnancy services are also robust – in 2016 alone, Kate said they had about 15 babies born into the program. Kate smiles when she sees her families experience joy, after so many of them have overcome such extreme hardships.
“It’s exciting to watch clients get that opportunity to start a new life,” she said. “Less than 1 percent of refugees get a change to come here and we get to work with that lucky few. We help them make the best of that opportunity.”