Suburban refugee moms share stories of strife
Yasemin Dogan's family has been "completely broken apart."
An ocean separates her from her husband, who is a refugee in Europe. She and her youngest son live in a Lake County suburb. Her older son is in Turkey. She hasn't seen him in three years.
Balsam Haddad survived four wars in Iraq before making her way with her husband and children to Arlington Heights seeking a better life in the United States.
"We have to fight to survive," she says. "My journey was rough, but I have been given an opportunity to build my life again."
Dogan and Haddad were featured speakers at a program Monday sponsored by the Turkish American Society in Mount Prospect seeking to highlight the struggles of refugee mothers.
Dogan said her family life was "turned upside down" when a bloody military coup on July 15, 2016, attempted to topple the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The coup failed. The Turkish government blamed the attempt on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish preacher and businessman who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. Fearing reprisals, many Gulen followers and other people opposed to Erdogan's government fled Turkey.
Amid the chaos, Dogan and her younger son, a high schooler, sought refuge in the United States but were separated upon arrival. Her husband fled to Europe. Her older son, a college student, remained in Turkey.
"Neither of them had their mother and father with them to guide them through the difficulties that they were facing on a daily basis," said Dogan, choking back tears while speaking to a crowd of mostly strangers. "The worst part is, I do not know when I will ever see (my older son) again. The pain never fades. It becomes stronger with each passing day as I think and pray for the next time I get to hug him again."
Huddled Masses, a Chicago-based human rights organization with ties to Gulen, organized the event to highlight the plight of refugee mothers who are "victims of authoritarian government persecution," according to the group's website.
"We wanted to raise awareness about the hardship of the mothers who suffered in their own countries and had to migrate to the U.S. in search of more freedom, human rights, democracy and a better life for their children," Executive Director Ali Yurtsever said.
Along with her daughter and two sons, Haddad, 50, fled growing sectarian violence that erupted into a civil war in 2005 in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"My kids are the reason I came here," said Haddad, who worked as a contract specialist and translator for the U.S. military in Iraq, which she says made her family a target for those opposing U.S. involvement.
Life in the United States as an immigrant during an economic recession wasn't easy at first.
"I couldn't find a job that fit my experience," said Haddad, once a librarian for the University of Baghdad's medical college.
With help from a sponsor and refugee organizations, the family found its footing. Haddad went back to school to learn English and earned separate master's degrees in linguistics and in library and information science. Today, she is the head librarian for American Islamic College in Chicago. Her husband, Saad Sharhan, works as an Uber driver.
Now, Hadded tries to provide new refugees the kind of assistance her family received.
Adopting and sponsoring refugee families is one way people can help, said Rohina Malik, a playwright, actress and storyteller who also spoke at the event.
"One family is something all of us can do," said Malik, adding that building friendships with refugees can help them overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness.