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How a Chicago Nonprofit Creates Community To Empower Middle Eastern and Arab Women

By March 15, 2024March 25th, 2024Education, Health, Staff pick, Trending

The Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance (MIRA) launched a women’s empowerment group last fall to foster community and teach essential life skills.

Diane Bou Khalil/Borderless Magazine
Muntaha Alhindi and Doha Lahlah chat in MIRA’s office in West Ridge ahead of the women empowerment session on Feb. 21, 2024. Lahlah is Syrian and lived in Jordan before arriving in the U.S. in 2020 during the COVID pandemic with her husband and two kids.
By March 15, 2024March 25th, 2024Education, Health, Staff pick, Trending

The Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance (MIRA) launched a women’s empowerment group last fall to foster community and teach essential life skills.

Doha Lahlah still remembers the worries that weighed heavy on her mind during the days and weeks leading to her family’s move from Jordan to Chicago.

The unknowns of a new place, a language barrier, and leaving behind a support system at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic were concerns that kept her up at night.

“The hardest part was imagining what this new life would be like,” Lahlah recalled about the move. “Everything is unique to you. The people. Life. The language. The environment. The air. The weather. It was all hard.”

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In the days after arriving in the U.S., Lahlah, born in Syria before moving to Jordan, recalled trying to balance supporting her family while navigating a new country. Amid the unknown, Lahlah found herself inside the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance (MIRA) office in West Ridge, getting answers to her family’s pressing questions.

The nonprofit provides legal services, education, case management, and mental health support to Middle Eastern and Arab immigrant communities in the Chicagoland area. Last fall, the organization launched a women’s empowerment program to foster community and provide essential life skills. It has been a beacon of hope for women like Lahlah, trying to find stability in a new place.

Through MIRA’s help, Lahlah recently became a sewing teacher at ICNA Relief. MIRA leaders encouraged Lahlah to apply for a grant to help her start an artisan design business. 

“MIRA asked us what we needed, which was understanding and guidance in our language,” Lahlah said, noting that sometimes feelings get lost in translation. “It is comforting and strengthening to know that someone who went through something similar did overcome it.”

Meeting the diverse needs of a vulnerable community

Founded as the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society by newly arrived Iraqi refugees in 2009, the group formed in response to the challenges faced while adapting to their new lives in the United States. Over the last decade, the organization has evolved to provide many services to refugees and recent immigrants from the Middle East. One of those programs is the women’s empowerment program. 

MIRA holds monthly sessions for Arabic-speaking immigrant and refugee women, both newly arrived and those who have been here for years. It is a way to encourage women to connect and socialize and learn essential life skills to live a better life emotionally, financially, mentally and physically, said Muntaha Alhindi, a social worker and director of MIRA’s women’s mental health support group.

Alhindi understands because she’s been in their shoes. 

In 1999, Alhindi arrived in the U.S. from Palestine. She recalls the difficulty of adjusting to a new country and life. She experienced the same challenges members in the group currently face, such as learning a new language and pursuing an education while raising children.

“I had full-time classes at UIC and a full-time internship at Arab American Family Services,” Alhindi said. “I used to go home after work and classes very tired. I would prepare a meal for my kids, eat together and then sit in my living room, help them with their homework and do my own homework, too. Because English is not my first language, it was hard for me. Whatever homework would take an American student one hour, it would take me four or five hours.” 

Remembering some of those challenges is why Alhindi created the women empowerment group, to provide a support system to navigate these challenging spaces and dismantle the stigma of mental health. 

Alhindi introduced counseling and individual therapy sessions to MIRA two years ago because her clients expressed a dire need for Arabic therapy sessions. “We were not even funded [by any] grants, but I volunteered to do it because there was a need.” 

On a recent Wednesday, more than a dozen women gathered in the office for a workshop on financial wellness. During the session, Alhindi and Ekram Hanna guided the women through a two-hour-long session on personal finances, budgeting, and an overall orientation for new arrivals on essential ordinances in Illinois. 

Ekram Hanna helps lead MIRA’s women empowerment session with an orientation for new arrivals on Feb. 21, 2024. Hanna is MIRA’s director of development and arrived in the U.S. in 2012 from Iraq with her husband and two daughters.Diane Bou Khalil/Borderless Magazine

According to Alhindi, MIRA offers various workshops and tailors support to the diverse needs of women and their families.

Like Alhindi, Hanna, MIRA’s development director and certified mental health first aid instructor, came from Iraq with her husband and two kids in 2012 on a Special Immigrant Visa. 

Many women and families are facing barriers with finances, language, culture, health, education and domestic violence. The women empowerment sessions are supposed to provide resources and information to address causes of stress while educating women to alleviate some of the anxiety and mental health challenges, Alhindi said. 

Rana, a Syrian refugee who temporarily lived in Jordan before coming to Chicago, has attended workshops and community events since she learned about MIRA in 2022. Since the women’s empowerment group launched last fall, Rana said it has helped her learn new skills, such as paying bills and learning about women’s health. She said the support from MIRA transformed her life and helped her become an entrepreneur in two years. 

“They listened to me,” Rana said. ”Coming from a war then going to a foreign country … you vent to them, and they listen, and you are mentally and emotionally relaxed,” Rana said. “Ekram asked me what my dreams were, and I told her my dream was to open a business selling sweets. So she sent me to Muntaha.” 

Rana started her own catering business. Rana and Lahlah have promoted their businesses at community bazaars organized by Alhindi.

MIRA has helped provide guidance and support on how to start a business for women like Rana, Alhindi said. 

“They need this push because they don’t have any family or friend support here. Sometimes you have to be that friend or family and show them support,” Alhindi said.

A mental and emotional support system

For these women, MIRA’s empowerment group has also provided a much-needed support system to process ongoing trauma from abroad.

Many individuals who left Syria, Iraq and other countries experiencing dire socioeconomic challenges or war have been triggered by the images emerging from Gaza. Alhindi emphasized the importance of upholding community support during such times. 

“After six-year-old Palestinian-American boy Wadea Al-Fayoume was fatally stabbed by his landlord, some of my clients were afraid to leave the house with their kids,” Alhindi said. “One of my clients didn’t come in for four weeks and wanted to talk on the phone instead because she was scared for her and her son’s safety.” 

Many have admitted that their children have been subjected to bullying from their peers and teachers for being Palestinian but are afraid to report it to their school’s administration, Alhindi said. 

MIRA has been providing resources to ensure these women and their families feel supported during this time, Alhindi said. 

“Another client told me she got yelled at on the street to take off her scarf and to go back to her country,” Alhindi said. 

In the face of discrimination, Alhindi emphasizes that these women have rights. “A right to defend yourself against discrimination,” she said, noting racism against Arabs and Muslims in schools must be taken seriously. “If you face any discrimination and racism, you have the right to record it. If you don’t have the right resources, I tell them to contact me, and I will connect you with the right resources and the right support.” 

Alhindi said her advice to her clients is to understand that they have a right to defend themselves against discrimination. Diane Bou Khalil/Borderless Magazine

Alhindi is eager to plan upcoming women empowerment sessions. She hopes her clients will take the lessons and teach others, form lasting friendships, and make a long-term successful adjustment to a new country. 

“Coming here to these women’s sessions once a month is like a celebration to me,” said Reem Al Delatti, another attendee from Homs, Syria. She lived in Egypt for 15 years before coming to the U.S. in June of 2022 with her husband, two kids and her parents. 

Since arriving, Al Delatti said she spends most days caring for her ailing parents. The women’s empowerment group has connected her with her community and created a bond of sisterhood with leaders like Alhindi. While her time is occupied with navigating the U.S. and caring for her parents, Al Delatti already sees opportunities to grow personally and professionally. 

The group has planted those seeds.

“Ninety percent of the time, I’m taking care of my family and parents,” she said.  “But one day, I will be like Rana, doing my own business.”