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Immigrants seek refuge, resources in DuPage County

Nar Thapa spent 18 years as a Bhutanese refugee in Nepal before coming to the United States.
Nar Thapa spent 18 years as a Bhutanese refugee in Nepal before coming to the United States.

WHEATON – A divorced woman from Mexico. A 75-year-old accountant who lived blocks from the presidential palace of Saddam Hussein during the American invasion. A Sudanese refugee who escaped war with her husband and 9-year-old son. A Bhutanese man who spent 18 years in a United Nations tent in Nepal.

These are not just nameless and faceless people – they are residents of DuPage County.

“A lot of people don’t realize that,” Emily Grey, the executive director of World Relief DuPage, said. “Many people think that immigrants in the state are in Chicago. Really, 56 percent live in the Chicago suburbs, not in the city.”

According to 2011 census numbers from the county, 18.4 percent of residents in DuPage are born in a foreign country. World Relief, a nonprofit that provides services to refugees and immigrants, has worked with 7,500 people from 125 countries in the past three years.

Sara Anil, the mother from Sudan, said that she left her country in 1999 to escape the violence that has torn apart the region.

“We left Sudan to save our lives,” she said.

She and her family reached Egypt, where they sought asylum at the U.N. They spent nearly two years there before being placed in the U.S. Despite not knowing where the U.S. was, the family chose to go to Chicago because Anil had heard about it in school.

A World Relief volunteer who knew Arabic met the family at the airport and the agency arranged for them to receive English classes and, eventually, jobs. But the transition to Glendale Heights was difficult.

“It’s very hard, but there are more opportunities,” Delia Lopez said.

She came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1994 to visit her brothers and decided to stay, despite her father’s wishes. She eventually got married, although her now-ex-husband insisted that she didn’t need to go to school to improve her English. Now she lives in Stone Park and is using resources at World Relief and Wheaton’s People’s Resource Center.

“I hope these classes will help me get a better job,” she said. “My supervisor says ‘Dalia, you need a higher position, but you need to speak English more.’ So I’m working.”

World Relief works with places such as the PRC and more than 75 area churches to provide a range of services, including ESL classes, job placement and training, a food pantry, computer classes and nonprofit legal counseling.

The Iraqi accountant who arrived in Jordan in 2008 and the U.S. in 2010 – who declined to be identified by name – said that he left his country not when his house was bombed by invading forces, but when the lack of electricity and security became a problem. Now, he said that he has felt welcomed by the community of Addison and the U.S.

“Not everybody can leave the country,” he said. “But here I have had excellent treatment wherever I go. I just want to be free to live.”

Nar Thapa spent more than 18 years with his Bhutanese family in Nepal as refugees because they didn’t have the proper paperwork. The camp they lived in had more than 100,000 people from Nepal, Bhutan and India. Eventually, they found a home in Wheaton and now he is taking ESL classes to get into a mechanic course and translate some of his Christian poetry into English.

“People didn’t treat me badly as a refugee, they all tried to help me,” he said. “They knew that immigrants have a bad time sometimes and need help.”

Grey said that in addition to proximity to a large city, job opportunities and cheaper housing, the positive community environment for immigrants and refugees is a big part of the recent boom in the DuPage County immigrant population.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of immigrants who are invisible and still need help, and that’s something we as a nation, a county and a city need to think about,” she said.

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