Patrick Kennelly, director of the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking, led a presentation at Holy Family, Whitefish Bay, last month on the refugee crisis in Syria.

John Chabo, 23, is a Syrian refugee living in Milwaukee. An employee at Colectivo Coffee, Shorewood, he describes his life here as stable and secure, but said it was a struggle to get to this point. (Catholic Herald photo by Jacob Scobey-Polacheck)He discussed the history of the conflict, as well as the response needed from the Catholic Church, stressing that despite violence being in the Middle East, Americans must bring it to the forefront of their minds.

“We need to reach the needs overseas,” he said. “This is not some distant issue.”

John Chabo, 23, is an example of Kennelly’s message. A Syrian refugee, he is living in Milwaukee with his older brother Michael. John works at Colectivo Coffee in Shorewood and plays piano at his church, Eastbrook, in Milwaukee. He said his life in Wisconsin is stable, secure, but it was a struggle to get to this point.

John was born in Syria in 1992 to Christian parents. His father, an electrical engineer, went to seminary to become a pastor, making Christianity an important part of John’s childhood. As 10 percent of the country is Christian, religious persecution was never an issue for him as he grew up.

“Christians were treated nicely before the war. It was a privilege – everyone loved everyone,” he said.

This changed in September 2011 when violence occurred in Aleppo, John’s hometown. Protests against the Assad regime at his university led to shootings and bombings, making attending school perilous. The violence escalated in July 2012, when rebels and terrorists appeared.

John remembered a Monday night in late July when a bomb hit Aleppo.

“My family sat in the living room when another bomb hit,” he said. “There was no electricity all night; the house was shaking. We didn’t sleep – we just listened to the bombs.”

Two days later, John and his family took a vacation to Lebanon. They were expecting to return within a few weeks after the violence subsided. But the bombs continue to fall to this day, nearly four years later.

John and Michael began to build lives outside of Syria. They learned English through a Christian church in Lebanon, and after a disappointing few months in Los Angeles, they received a call from a Christian university in Lebanon announcing they had been accepted with full scholarships.

Returning to Lebanon, life started to feel normal for John again. He and his brother started school in September 2013, and they settled in quickly.

“We joined clubs, made friends, and we even started to get a little famous for our music, getting gigs. The school was a comfortable zone for us … life was great,” he said.

Life stopped being great for the men in January 2014, when the Syrian embassy denied the renewal of their Lebanon visas. Their home country wanted them to fight, something they refused to do. The Chabo family turned to prayer.
“We prayed, ‘God, if this is your will, open doors for us to stay.’” John remembered. “We started fasting and praying for 24 hours.”

They had six days to find an answer; otherwise they would have to return to Syria to fight.

Their prayers were answered when John’s parents found someone in Jordan who had contacts at Eastbrook Church.

They called Adam Shidler, the church’s pastor of international outreach, to explain the situation.

“Send them tomorrow,” Shidler said.

Forty-eight hours later, John and Michael were on a plane, despite not knowing where Wisconsin was or who these people were.

“It was definitely a leap of faith,” said John.

The Eastbrook community was everything for which the Chabos could have hoped. They provided the brothers with a family with whom to live, phones, clothes and a car. They brought them to the dentist and bought them health insurance.

John said it reminded him of the parable of the sheep and the goats.

“I was sick, you visited me. I was hungry, you fed me. That’s how Christians in America treated us – we needed everything and they gave us what we needed,” he said.

Shidler said John and Michael were quick to give back.

“It was very clear that there was a need,” he said. “So as soon as I heard the need, I just wanted to welcome them. And they plowed right into ministry, using their musical gifts in the church. They are extremely gifted.”

John is grateful for Eastbrook’s supportive community, crediting the body of Christ for uniting such distinct worlds.

Although he has not received the asylum status that would allow him to finish his studies in engineering, he remains positive.

“The love people showed here has been overwhelming. Everything has worked miraculously,” he said.

Regarding the Syrian conflict, John advised people to educate themselves from diverse viewpoints on what is happening.
Kennelly agreed.

 “We know so little, and yet we have members of the American Catholic Church responding on the front lines, and some of those people have direct ties to Milwaukee,” he said.

Kennelly praised Eastbrook’s work, adding that aiding with this crisis is not only a Christian calling, but even more specifically a Catholic one.

“Jesus was very clear: love one another and love your enemies. Our response to the crisis should come because we’re Catholic,” he said, suggesting people educate themselves about the situation and help through donations.

Kennelly offered a challenge to Catholics: how can the church community help to give the 12 million other refugee stories happy endings? If it happened for John, it can happen for others, he said.