Our mission is to be the unifying federation of Islamic organizations of greater Chicagoland, the leading advocate of Muslim community interests and a catalyst for enriching American society.

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The Unaccompanied Children Program:

The Unaccompanied Children Program: A Journey Towards Healing and Belonging for Children Refugee

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that there are currently over 108.4 million people forcibly displaced globally, with children constituting roughly half of this staggering figure, 3 million of them are refugees in the US alone. These children seek refuge in the United States, for safety, opportunity, and the prospect of rebuilding shattered lives scarred by the horrors of war, persecution, and forced migration.  

 

Amidst the narratives of struggle and resilience, there emerges a glimmer of optimism—a program dedicated to extending a support system to children who have traversed the darkest of paths for the last 23 years. At the heart of this endeavor lies the Unaccompanied Children Program by Heartland Alliance, an organization committed to providing vital support and resources to refugee children ages 0-17 who arrive at the border alone and without family or parents as they navigate displacement and resettlement. Within 72 hours of arriving at the border, these children must be taken to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are then taken to a shelter. The Heartland Alliance currently has 4 shelters across Chicago for unaccompanied children with doctors, teachers, service staff and case managers ready to assist and provide a nurturing environment for the most vulnerable of our population. Children in this program come from diverse corners of the globe—Guinea, Haiti, Bangladesh—each speaking different languages, creating barriers to connection.  

 

Struggling to bridge the gap between the familiarity of their homeland and the unfamiliarity of their new surroundings, these children navigate a delicate balancing act of preserving their heritage and religion while embracing the norms and values of American society. Yet, beyond the cultural differences, these children often carry invisible wounds that defy easy healing as they grapple with feelings of isolation, alienation, and cultural dissonance which is why bringing identifying a common basis for bringing them together is so important. 

 

 

 

 

Access to religious services is vital for refugee children, as it provides them with a sense of continuity, comfort, and community amidst the uncertainty of displacement. Religion often serves as a foundation of identity and a sense of belonging for many individuals. For refugee children who have been uprooted from their homes and separated from their families, it is particularly important that they be provided with the opportunity to maintain a connection to their faith. 
Recognizing this need, particularly during the month of Ramadan, the Heartland Alliance collaborated with CIOGC to organize a youth iftar event at the Mecca Center. This event served as an opportunity for these youth to interact with their peers, make friends, and deepen their connection to their faith and community. 

 

“On the ride there, the kids were quiet; they hadn’t been interacting with each other very much, and after leaving, they were on such a high; laughing and joking with each other, which they hadn’t been doing before,” said Shireen Nassar, Heartland Alliances Community Engagement Coordinator. 

“The kids told the staff, ‘It wasnt that we just enjoyed going; it was that we needed it,” emphasized Nassar. 

 

 

“Attending an iftar in a community created bonds between them; they felt connected to each other and made them feel whole for that short period of time with everything else that they were dealing with,” continued Nassar. 

The Unaccompanied Children Program serves as a bridge to community integration, facilitating access to educational opportunities, vocational training, and social support networks. Through partnerships with mosques, churches, local schools, healthcare providers, and community organizations, the Heartland Alliance provides a safe space for healing and emotional expression, empowering these children to reclaim their sense of agency and resilience in the face of adversity. To learn more or to become a volunteer, contact Shireen Nassar at snassar@heartlandhumancareservices.org.