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Her family survived the Holocaust. Now she’s helping a Muslim refugee family start anew in Chicago, including hosting their first Thanksgiving.

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The tables at the Littmann home in Evanston were set with turkey-themed place cards, handwritten with a mix of Jewish and Muslim names.

The final touches on the holiday feast were almost complete as the guests of honor arrived.

The Dil Mohamad family — Rohingya refugees who resettled in Chicago seven months ago — came to celebrate their first Thanksgiving dinner amid safety and freedom in the United States.

The Rohingya people are a stateless, persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar; more than a million Rohingya refugees have escaped violence in their home country since the 1990s, according to the United Nations. The Dil Mohamads fled Myanmar years ago and had been living as refugees in Malaysia, until they started a new life here in April.

The Littmann family — descendants of Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust — served as co-sponsors for the Dil Mohamads, forging a deep friendship between two households with disparate backgrounds but parallel stories of survival, immigration and resettlement.

The early holiday gathering held Sunday marked the first taste of turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie for Nurzan Binti Zahid Hussin, 26, and her husband, Hussin Johar Bin Dil Mohamad, 42, who goes by the name Johar.

Nurzan Binti Zahid Hussin with her husband, Hussin Johar Bin Dil Mohamad, as he holds their 6-month-old son, Aiman, on Nov. 20, 2022, during a Thanksgiving celebration at the Littmann family’s Evanston home.
Mira Littmann, 18, holds 6-month-old Aiman on Nov. 20, 2022, during an early Thanksgiving celebration at the Littmann family's Evanston home.

At one point, Johar looked up from his full plate and gave a thumbs-up sign, nodding his head in approval. Nurzan brought homemade dishes of curry shrimp and chicken in a masala sauce to share with her hosts.

“I am very happy to be here,” she said, through an interpreter.

Their 9-year-old son, Afnan, and 5-year-old twin boys, Aaryan and Aariz, made hand turkey drawings on construction paper before the meal.

“Gobble, gobble!” the boys chanted throughout the day.

In a highchair next to the dining room table sat the youngest son, baby Aiman, whose perilous birth six months prior had ignited a particularly profound connection between the mothers of both families.

Forty-seven-year-old Jessica Littmann was by Nurzan’s side when she went into emergency labor due to preeclampsia, holding her hand and getting a first glimpse as the healthy boy — the first U.S. citizen in the Dil Mohamad family — emerged into the world.

After the birth, Nurzan said, she felt as if Jessica was a sister to her, “one who goes through the labor, helping, like a blood sister.”

During the Thanksgiving festivities, the Littmann kitchen and dining room were full of the sounds of dishes clanging, kids playing and grown-ups laughing.

But in a quiet section of the living room, a small unobtrusive candle burned in remembrance of Jessica’s grandmother, Marila Erlich, whose unlikely survival of a Nazi concentration camp decades ago to a large extent paved the way for the recent union of the two families.

The holiday gathering happened to fall on her Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death according to the Hebrew calendar. The Littmanns lit the memorial candle and prayed for her in the Jewish tradition.

“That this is all happening at the same time feels like an incredibly special worldscollide kind of thing for me,” Jessica said.

Jessica’s mother, Dorothea Erlich, was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany following World War II and came to the United States with her parents as a refugee at the age of 2. The family was generally supported by a strong Jewish community that helped them acclimate socially, culturally and financially.

Yet Dorothea also recalled a memory from early childhood when she went shopping with her mother and the refugee family’s sponsor. Her mom was picking out curtains, but the sponsor seemed to indicate the purchase was too good for a refugee family.

This tale was at the forefront of Jessica’s mind when she and her husband, Alan, recently decided to help sponsor the Dil Mohamad family. She wanted to always be thoughtful and respectful throughout the relationship.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” her grandmother would often say.

In February, the Littmanns had teamed up with four friends to co-sponsor a refugee family through RefugeeOne, a Chicago resettlement agency.

“The world’s a mess, there’s not a lot I can do about it,” Jessica recalled thinking at the time. “But if I could just help one family or one person restart, that feels like a very positive hands-on way to be involved in the world and kind of good karma, I guess you could say. I thought of all the people who are restarting here, in this really difficult time, when the country feels so fractured in so many ways.”

Afnan, 9, plays with a paper turkey Nov. 20, 2022, during a Thanksgiving celebration at the Littmann family home in Evanston.

The Littmanns and their fellow co-sponsors Camille Fetter, Brian O’Donoghue, and Kristin and Ben Albert went through training with RefugeeOne. They also set up an online fundraising page, raising more than $14,000 in less than 24 hours to help the family pay rent and household bills until they became independent.

The team — with the help of the Littmann family’s three daughters — also cleaned, furnished and decorated the Dil Mohamad family’s small apartment in the West Ridge neighborhood, in preparation for their arrival.

“I thought I knew what it meant to be a refugee,” Jessica said. “Because it was this experience, it was talked about constantly, it was such a part of my heritage, part of my upbringing, part of my family. … But I really had so much to learn about what it means to start again.”

Her grandmother lived with her while growing up in Connecticut and Jessica’s childhood was laced with stories of the Holocaust and life in Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women in Nazi Germany.

At the age of 7, Jessica had a bag packed by her bedside and a plan to run and hide in the woods if the Nazis ever returned.

Her grandmother, a pharmacist before the war, always stressed that the key to life was education — and hers likely kept her alive during the war.

In the concentration camp, Marila worked as a laborer at a factory.

“Things you never forget are how hungry you were, how cold you were — and the lice,” Jessica recalled her grandmother saying. “They were everywhere, constantly tormenting the woman.”

Her grandma got to the point where she was so exhausted, she didn’t even try to delouse herself.

“And she didn’t even care if she lived or died,” Jessica said.

Marila became so ill, she was sent to the factory infirmary, where a Russian prisoner of war working at the pharmacy didn’t understand the chemical names of the medications and couldn’t keep straight what should be dispensed.

Applying her training as a pharmacist, Marila wrote down all the information about the medications for the infirmary worker. Shortly after, she was selected from a lineup at the factory and brought back to serve as an assistant in the infirmary, where she worked until the concentration camp was liberated in 1945.

Marila hitchhiked by train back to her home in Lodz, Poland, where the supervisor at her father’s factory had been entrusted to care for their house and valuables during the war.

“You can’t have anything,” her grandmother recalled him saying, before slamming the door. “The only mistake I made was not taking more from you.”

But she and her sister had hidden some family photos and jewelry, including a platinum ring with diamonds, behind a board in the outhouse. They ran and grabbed their treasures before the supervisor released dogs on them.

Before Marila died in 1998 at the age of 89, she passed down that ring to Jessica.

It was a gift to celebrate her graduation from the University of Chicago, a constant reminder of the importance pursuing an education.

Armed with welcome posters and bouquets of flowers, the co-sponsors and their children gathered at O’Hare International Airport in April.

After a roughly 24-hour journey from Malaysia to Qatar to Chicago, the Dil Mohamad family finally arrived. Jessica recalled a hijab and niqab covered Nurzan’s hair and face, revealing only her big brown eyes, which looked exhausted.

At 17, Nurzan had left Myanmar alone and traveled by boat for about 18 days to seek refuge in Malaysia, where Johar was already living. They married soon after.

She described life in Myanmar as extremely violent.

“It was very hard,” she said. “People were getting murdered. If you were a Muslim, they tried to kill you.”

They were safer in Malaysia but still lived in fear of being rounded up and deported or harassed by police. Refugee children weren’t permitted to attend school in Malaysia, so their sons couldn’t learn how to read or write.

There are more than 500 Rohingya families living in Chicago, according to the Rohingya Culture Center, which is across the street from the Dil Mohamad’s apartment.

After leaving O’Hare, the family piled into Jessica’s Subaru to head to their new home.

The twins had never seen a car seat before and screamed as she tried to buckle them in the middle row. Nurzan, at 34 weeks pregnant, sat in the passenger seat next to Jessica. Johar sat next to his oldest son in the back row and held each of the twins’ hands to try to calm them down.

During the roughly 10-mile ride, everyone in the Dil Mohamad family nodded off, the father still clutching the hands of his sons as they all slept. At their apartment, an interpreter gave them a tour and showed them how to work the water, lights, thermostat, fan and refrigerator.

The co-sponsors had set the table and brought the family a Halal dinner for their first meal in Chicago. Then Jessica left, so they could enjoy their first meal here as a family.

The new arrivals spoke almost no English, except for the words “thank you,” which Jessica recalled them repeating dozens of times that day.

Soon after her arrival, Nurzan was diagnosed with high blood pressure, a dangerous condition during pregnancy.

Several weeks later, she underwent emergency labor at Swedish Hospital. Her husband didn’t want to leave the young boys alone, so it was Jessica who was with Nurzan during labor and delivery.

“I was like OK, I’m going to go have a baby with this woman I’ve known for three weeks,” Jessica said. “What is happening here? And I sort of felt like, does she want me here? I couldn’t imagine having this really intimate experience with someone I’ve known for a few weeks.”

With an interpreter on the phone, she asked if Nurzan wanted her to remain there for the birth.

Jessica recalled Nurzan turning to her and emphatically saying, “Yes, please stay.”

In the hospital room, Jessica coiled Nurzan’s waist-length hair into a bun atop her head and held her hand as she labored.

“We’re in this space together where everyone is so focused on bringing life into the world instead of all of the horrible things that had been happening elsewhere in this country,” Jessica said. “It really made me so profoundly grateful to be there with her and, in a very strange way, renewed my faith in this country to see how excited she was to be here. And how excited she was that her baby was going to be an American.”

Nurzan prayed aloud to Allah to help her and make the labor easy. Jessica silently recited the Shehecheyanu blessing, a common Jewish prayer for new beginnings.

About 4 a.m. on May 27, from behind Nurzan’s shoulder, Jessica saw the boy’s head crown, revealing a full head of dark hair.

The doctor handed Jessica a pair of scissors, asking her to cut the umbilical cord. As she cut between the two clamps, she burst into tears.

“Everybody in the room was crying,” she said. “It was just this incredible thing to see this life coming into being right before my eyes. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.”

In the months following Aiman’s tumultuous birth, the Dil Mohamad family seemed to fall into a rhythm of family life in their new city.

“I have more freedoms here,” Johar said. “I feel this is a country where I belong now.”

With the help of the Rohingya Culture Center, Johar recently found a job with a hospitality company that provides airline catering services.

The three older boys have enrolled in school.

“This is their first time going to school and knowing what school is,” Johar said. “I’m very happy. I have no words to describe. Seeing my kids successful … and I have faith that they will go to college, to bigger school and have bigger educations.”

Jessica has begun tutoring Afnan, but the apartment often becomes a one-room schoolhouse of sorts, with the parents and twins joining in on lessons.

“I want them to know not just how to express themselves, but how to advocate for themselves,” Jessica said.

As Jessica is teaching, she often thinks of Marila Erlich and her legacy and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge.

“Education is the one thing no one can take from you,” her grandmother would always say. “The Nazis took everything from me. …They took everything I ever owned and loved, but they could never take my education.”

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The co-sponsors have begun taking Nurzan and the kids on outings to explore Chicago, visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo, Shedd Aquarium and the Chicago Botanic Garden. One day, Jessica and Nurzan spent time with another Rohingya family. Afterward, Jessica asked Nurzan if she had any friends here.

Jessica Littmann wears a ring that belonged to her grandmother, left, and one given to her by her friend, Nurzan Binti Zahid Hussin.

“Jessica best friend,” Nurzan replied, and took a ring off her finger and gave it to Jessica.

The gold ring with multiple bands, held together with a piece of transparent tape in the back, was one of the few items the family had carried with them from Malaysia. Nurzan said the gift expressed her gratitude and sense of closeness with Jessica.

“She feels like a sister,” Nurzan said. “She feels like a family member.”

Now Jessica wears two rings symbolizing two refugee journeys from different continents, each chronicling a narrative of resilience, renewal and hope for the next generation.

“I was so grateful she had become part of my life and that I had this tangible reminder of everything she had been through and everything that she had brought with her to this point,” Jessica said. “And I felt I had become part of her life too.”

eleventis@chicagotribune.com

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Written by Natalia Chi

Chicago Popular; Chicago breaking news, weather and live video. Covering local politics, health, traffic and sports for Chicago, the suburbs and northwest Indiana.

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