Immigrant center reaches out to refugees as fears spike
By William Lee, Chicago Tribune
A Muslim family services organization is opening a food pantry and case management office in the heart of the bustling Devon Avenue business corridor as immigrant families in the tight knit ethnic patchwork of West Rogers Park cope with anxiety over President Donald Trump’s recent immigration travel ban and a six-state sweep of unauthorized residents.
In a storefront nestled between a bank branch and a cellphone store, officials with ICNA Relief Chicago are planning a grand opening at 2 p.m. Saturday, when elected officials, community shareholders, mosque leaders and prospective clients can get their first look at the new center aimed at providing donated groceries and support services to vulnerable refugees, as well as indigent American citizens.
And the services are desperately needed, they say. Before the center even officially opened its doors, staff handed out food to 130 families.
The new center at 2809 W. Devon Ave. represents the first local expansion of ICNA Relief, a national nonprofit social service, since it opened its Midwest office in Glendale Heights about five years ago, according to its Midwest director, Saima Azfar.
“Our mission is to work with refugees and immigrants mostly, however we do serve anybody who comes through the door,” said David Zverow, a volunteer consultant with ICNA.
For three to five days a week, ICNA staffers and volunteers will help feed families, offer case management, translation and counseling services, as well as partner with other social service organizations in the area.
While the suburban office helps a large number of Indian and Pakistani families that settled in the area, ICNA’s city office is expected to assist a number of refugee families, including those from Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Myanmar living in and around Rogers Park and unable to travel to its main office in DuPage County.
Though planning for the center had been in the works for over a year, its opening comes at a particularly precarious time for Muslim refugees living in West Rogers Park. Fear among the community’s South Asian and Arab residents has heightened following Trump’s recent ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim nations, as well as a series of federal deportation sweeps that recently netted 235 arrests across six states. Of the 235, 48 were from the Chicago area, 45 were convicted criminals and 20 were previously deported.
Last week, business owners told the Tribune that business and foot traffic along usually busy Devon had slackened recently as concern and unease settled over the community, leaving immigrant families fearing they would be caught up in the government sweep, even among families with legal status.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Chicago called the sweeps, which were the first of Trump’s administration, routine.
Azfar said she’s received numerous calls in recent weeks expressing not only concern about how the new rules would affect immigrant families, but also about the anguish children were going through.
“When the ban came, I’ve received a lot of calls from Iraqi refugee families and some Somalis who wanted to understand what was going on and how it was going to affect them,” she said.
“But now we’re receiving some calls that undocumented kids are stressed out basically,” she said, adding that there’s a fear that the government will deport family members and break up their homes.
Zverow, a former Oak Park resident who recently moved to Rogers Park and has previously worked at other social service agencies, echoed some of Azfar’s comments.
“When I ask the staff and the volunteers how are you feeling about this (the current situation), folks are scared,” he said.
“People are … saying, ‘We hope this is a phase.’ One lady said this is bringing out the best and worst in people. She said some people are being especially courteous and respectful, making a point of showing that they are accepting other people. (For) other people, this is bringing out some hostility that I don’t think people felt politically correct exhibiting before,” he said.