A group of kids clammer into the basement of Unity Lutheran Church on Chicago’s North Side on a recent weekday afternoon. As they snack on apple slices and Cheez-Its, a 16-year-old girl named Nazenin is there to greet them.
All the students at this after-school program are refugees, just like Nazenin. She arrived from Afghanistan just six years ago, making this after-school job close to her heart.
“I was also a refugee kid,” said Nazenin, who was a student at the very same after-school program and remembers it fondly. WBEZ is not using her last name to protect her privacy.
Nazenin feels passionate about welcoming refugees, especially young people. In addition to working at the program, which is run by the nonprofit service agency RefugeeOne, Nazenin has been showing a new Afghan girl around school and she’s helped a family with translation.
“When I first came here, I was like ‘I wish there was someone from my country, speaking the same language that can help me,’ ” said Nazenin, who goes to Roosevelt High School in Albany Park. “I just feel the same thing and want to help them.”
Nazenin’s family lived in Turkey before finally arriving in Chicago. She remembers feeling shy because she didn’t know English. She specifically remembers how difficult it was for her single mom to get the family settled.
“My mom went through a hard time with four of us. It was really hard,” she said. “She ran to my siblings’ school, my school, trying to get the paperwork done.”
Those memories are coming back to Nazenin as more refugees, especially from Afghanistan resettle in Chicago. In August, the Taliban captured Kabul, the capital. Since then, RefugeeOne welcomed more than 240 Afghans to Chicago, compared to about 50 refugees overall last year. Finding housing is the biggest challenge for refugee agencies. That’s further complicated with the expectation of more new arrivals coming in 2022.
Nazenin says she felt sad watching the news and seeing what was happening in Afghanistan. She still has family in the country, and she’s concerned for them and for those seeking to come to the U.S.
“New Afghan refugees that arrived here, they’ve been telling me they left half of their family back in Afghanistan,” she said. “It’s very sad seeing families and children coming here with no parents. [I] have no words to explain that feeling.”
As the oldest child, Nazenin helps take care of her siblings. Early on, she helped her mom with translation for things like doctor’s appointments.
As a 10-year-old new to Chicago, one of the first things she noticed were other refugee kids her age. She quickly became friends with another girl, Yvette, who came from Rwanda around the same time. Yvette was shy, while Nazenin was more confident, but they immediately connected. There was an instant understanding of each other’s experience. They now work together at the after-school program.
Both 16-year-olds dream of working in the medical field one day. Nazenin wants to be a neurosurgeon and says she’s that rare person who loves the smell of hospitals. A passion for medicine is what they bond over now, but in the early days their strong connection came from the experience of being refugee children.
Yvette says that’s something they think of as they prepare to welcome more kids to Chicago.
“When you are a refugee and you are a kid that doesn’t understand English, it’s a very big change,” Yvette said. “You may go through some struggle that you don’t want to tell your parents about because you don’t want to give them another burden.”
Yvette and Nazenin say that’s where they think they can be the greatest help. They’re refugee teens who can help other kids feel comfortable and ease into a new life.