How Chicago Fights to Uphold Basic Human Values

Julian Röder / Ostkreuz
Sustainable Cities

Chicago is locked in a battle with the Trump administration to uphold its status as a sanctuary city. The White House efforts to defund municipalities protecting undocumented immigrants and refugees has met with stiff resistance in the Windy City, from both a robust civil society and an active city government.

On a sun-drenched side street in Rogers Park, two teenage girls bounce down the stairs of a broad red brick building framed by neatly trimmed hedges. Their voices ring into the bright, bold halls within, draped with flags from around the world. Among a cluster of posters papering the walls, one announces an upcoming African Small Business Expo to empower young entrepreneurs in the neighborhood.

This is Sullivan High, one of Chicago’s most diverse schools in one of its most diverse neighborhoods. As the North Side’s immigrant and refugee communities have expanded, Sullivan has increasingly become a magnet for students from varied histories and cultures. Dubbed “Refugee High” by local media, 65 percent of the nearly 800-strong student body at Sullivan is bilingual; more than 39 languages are spoken at the school, from Arabic to Swahili to Burmese; some 100 students hail from refugee families. The students in the English language learning program chose to name their unique environment “One Ummah,” or One Community in Arabic.

Sanctuary City ChicagoImmigration

Sanctuary Cities

A sanctuary city is not an official legal term. Broadly defined, sanctuary jurisdictions choose to limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities. Through policies or official laws, these jurisdictions aim to protect undocumented residents from deportation and provide all residents – regardless of immigration status – with the same rights and services. According to the non-profit Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C., there are more than 200 sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States, in both red and blue states. Although commonly referred to as “sanctuary cities,” the term applies to counties and even entire states as well, like California.

On a mid-spring afternoon, Fatima Al Mohazam, a student from Syria wearing a navy blue Sullivan High School t-shirt and headscarf, traces her family’s path from her native country to Chicago. Sullivan, she says, provided a new home and a safe environment where she could learn the language and begin pursuing her goals. “I moved here with my family because I wanted to have a better life and study to be a nurse,” she says. “My dream is to work at a hospital and be an artist.”

It is a dream Fatima is pursuing with the help of Sullivan’s school administration and teachers. If it takes a village to raise a child, Sullivan draws upon a particularly close-knit one, relying on deep partnerships with initiatives and organizations that help the school address the needs of its unique student body. Two partners have been particularly instrumental: Girl Forward, an initiative providing opportunities for refugee girls, and Becoming a Man, a project focusing on self-determination and self-awareness to help young boys become successful adults.

"We wanted to be the go-to school for refugee students and through our partnerships and hard work we’ve been able to make it happen."
Chad Adams

Despite the difficult task of welcoming such a broad spectrum of cultures and backgrounds, efforts to do so have paid off. Enrollment is rising steadily, and Sullivan is at the cusp of being recognized among the highest performing institutes in the Chicago Public School district.

“We wanted to be the go-to school for refugee students and through our partnerships and hard work we’ve been able to make it happen,” says Principal Chad Adams. Sullivan is an example of how Chicago is striving to be and maintain its status as a sanctuary city, a jurisdiction where authorities refuse to collaborate with federal Immigration or Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.


Transatlantic Core Group

Members of the Transatlantic Core Group visited Sullivan High School and the Albany Park Theater Project as part of their April 2018 Connected Cities workshop, bringing together leaders from Hamburg and Chicago.

The Transatlantic Core Group is an initiative of the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. The goal is to gain a better understanding of common challenges, identify sustainable solutions, and revitalize the transatlantic partnership. One of the projects that emerged during this process is Connected Cities. It aims to deepen the partnership between Chicago and Hamburg by establishing and expanding civil society networks. 

After President Donald Trump took office and vowed to deport undocumented immigrants across the country, municipalities like Chicago were placed squarely in his crosshairs. Trump’s administration moved to slash federal funding for cities that would not turn over their undocumented residents to ICE. Chicago’s government has successfully won the right to keep those funds in court, so far.

Seemi Choudry, Director of Chicago’s Office for New Americans, says the city’s sanctuary city status is twofold: Legally, all municipal services and programs are offered to each and every Chicago resident, regardless of immigration status; more holistically, Chicago strives to be a welcoming city that upholds basic human values.

“We protect and preserve diversity and welcome everyone, regardless of your ethnic, cultural or immigration background, to find a home in our city,” she says. Immigration has defined Seemi’s personal path as well; her parents came to America as Pakistani immigrants, then moved to Venezuela, where she was born and raised.

“My parents were able to utilize the skills and talents they had earned from their native land and find a way to socially integrate into the community here, so much so that it afforded them the opportunity to move again to another country – which is my birth country, Venezuela,” she says. That has spurred Choudry’s drive to contribute towards building and upholding an open and welcoming society in Chicago. Yet that work has grown increasingly difficult in an environment of political and social polarization, particularly in the debate surrounding immigration.

"We uphold a certain set of values, but they’re not the same values upheld by our current president."
Seemi Choudry
In the Chicago metro. Julian Röder / Ostkreuz
Chicago firemen taking a break. Andreas Muhs / Ostkreuz

“We uphold a certain set of values, but they’re not the same values upheld by our current president,” she says. “We as a city can maintain safety and protection of our residents, but the challenges of having an administration that doesn’t maintain the same priorities remain.”

Chicago has long been a paragon of diversity as a city of immigrants and migrants. A vibrant urban hub, the Windy City has been shaped and reshaped by generations of newcomers, from Irish to German to Polish to Mexican. And it has been a sanctuary for decades as well, as the Chicago Tribune documented; the Wellington Avenue Church was the second in the country to provide safe haven to refugees entering the country illegally some 30 years ago. Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1989 signed a series of executive orders granting the same employment and benefits to all Chicagoans.

"Our city, state, country is only as strong as the people who come into them."

Seemi Choudry

Like Daley then, public officials today must ensure Chicago treasures and maintains that diversity, says Seemi Choudry: “Our city, state, country is only as strong as the people who come into them, and so it’s important for us to encourage a healthy flow of migration into our cities and that they’re viewed around the world as cities of opportunity and prosperity.”

Opportunity and prosperity are crucial to the city of Chicago. According to the American Immigration Council, immigrants accounted for a little over 20 percent of business owners in the Greater Chicago area three years ago. Yet its population has been shrinking over the past few years; reporters at Chicago Magazine and The Atlantic pointed out that the city’s drive to woo the wealthy and successful has started to displace low- to middle-income earners. That leaves newcomer communities in particular in limbo.

A new play at the Albany Park Theater Project, a youth theater ensemble in Albany Park, Chicago, brings into sharp relief the successes and struggles of newcomers, particularly young immigrants and refugees. The theater piece, called Ofrenda, or Offering in Spanish, features a deeply talented teenage cast examining the increasingly fraught concept of home.

These are the 32 brilliant and beautiful artists who co-created and will perform "Ofrenda." Do you have your tickets yet? Performances begin April 25!

Gepostet von Albany Park Theater Project am Donnerstag, 12. April 2018

In one vignette, a young Syrian girl watches her family and life crumble around her in a warzone; an immigrant student at a local university, meanwhile, painfully conceals her undocumented status from her fellow students; a woman (played by a teen) takes her fight against a deportation notice public, with a fiery statement to the press outside of Chicago’s ICE offices. The piece is raw and layered with the tangled emotions, weaving the unsullied hope of children yearning for home with the bitter reality of an uncertain future in today’s America. It is a paradox some of the cast – and much of their surrounding community – already face.

The creators of Ofrenda say their piece is a “love song, a requiem, and an incantation” about turning “here into home.” Indeed, where the city government strives to provide a basic framework of protection, it is civil society and the broader community that is tasked with creating a truly welcoming society.

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