Homelands

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Adad straightens his tie in the mirror and buttons his suit coat, the same one he wore to the job interview on Friday, the only one he owns.  He’s a little embarrassed by this, he’s had to swallow a lot of pride since he arrived in Chicago a year ago.  He used to have lots of suits but he was only allowed a few pieces of luggage when he fled Iraq.

Adad splashes some cologne on his neck, a Christmas gift from his wife, Zahra.  As he makes one last check in the mirror to make sure he looks good, he yells out in Arabic to the adjacent room.  “Jujee!” Jujee is Adad’s three year-old son, who is watching Mickey Mouse cartoons on YouTube with Arabic subtitles.   He doesn’t turn to face his father, but responds in Arabic.  Translation, “No, I do not want to go to church today.”  Adad responds in a string of Arabic, punctuated by one noun in English, “Chuck E Cheese.”  He is trying to bribe his young son into going to the service.  A few moments later the noun changes, “Toys R us.”  Jujee finally swivels the desk chair around to make eye contact with his father.  He will come.

Zahra is busy in the kitchen putting together a mixture of foods she knows from Iraq, and ones that are new.  Yogurt, tahini, walnuts, dried fruit, those remind her of home, four boxes of Special K breakfast cereal purchased with WIC dollars do not.

The tea kettle whistles and she pours two cups. She sits next to her husband as they converse in Arabic.  As they talk they look straight ahead at the kitchen wall.  They have spent a lot of time together this past year, each one supporting the other through what can only be described as a tough time.  The night before they celebrated their one-year anniversary in Chicago, arranging the same meal they had the day they arrived.  Fish.

Adad and Zahra’s apartment looks like a showroom with almost no distinguishable items that indicate anything about them.  Save one.   A calendar hangs on the sparse living room wall.  The pages are written in Assyrian, one of the oldest languages in the world, and the language of Iraqi Christians.  Adad and Zahra are Chaldean, Iraqi Catholics.   A photo of an elderly Chaldean priest is published on the January page with a short story.  Adad says he was kidnapped, tortured, and assassinated the year before by a radical Islamic group.  In the past year attacks on Christian sites in Iraq have stepped up, including a massacre of more than fifty parishioners and two priests at a Baghdad church in October.  The same church where Adad was baptized as a child.

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have headed to Chicago in the past few years as refugees, fleeing what many perceive to be an attempt to permanently displace their religion from the region.  While Detroit has the largest concentration of Iraqi Christians, Chicago became a second home in the early 1900s when a group of Assyrians came and settled and started a church in the city.  Christians from Iran, Iraq and other nearby countries have been coming ever since, always in greater numbers during times of conflict.

Adad and Zahra’s church on Chicago’s North side is busy with parents inching minivans into a narrow parking lot and teenagers helping their grandparents navigate an icy path into the building.  Four hundred well-dressed parishioners are packed into the mid-size Catholic church as the service begins.  And while the scene is a familiar one in the deeply pious and immigrant friendly Chicago, it is also stark to see so many Iraqis in a church huddled half way around the world from the lives they knew.  Elderly women wear lace shawls embroidered with the word “Lourdes,” a nod to the hallowed Catholic pilgrimage.  Young men swing overpowering incense as a row of priests take turns reading the words of the saints in Assyrian.  And as light shines in through stain glass windows, it is hard not to think it is the bright sun of Baghdad, racing around the globe, to comfort the once persecuted crowd.

The head of the church guild says while he misses his homeland, he also appreciates living in a country where for once he is in the religious majority.  That is a new experience and a blessing he says.  Adad agrees, he’s happier in the United States than he was in Iraq, even though he had to leave his parents and friends behind.  In Iraq he was persecuted not just for his religion, but also for working with the Americans.  Radicals threatened to kidnap his father if he didn’t quit his job.  In Chicago he can pursue his engineering career and his wife her chemistry studies, and his son can pursue his future passion, in peace.  “To go back, I would need 80% of the things I want.   Only then would I consider going home.”

A few miles north of Adad’s church service sits the Skokie Holiday Inn, where a different kind of gathering is going on.   Mostly elderly Iraqi men are embracing, pouring cups of tea, and catching up in a large conference room.  The men are dressed in expensive suits, and wool and leather jackets, signs of regal Chicago.  Most have been in the Midwest for decades.  They are lawyers, doctors, and businessmen, and they are all Assyrian.  Like the Chaldeans, they are Christians.  This is a national gathering for an Assyrian American Association.  The topic of the day is what to do about the anti-Christian violence back in Iraq.

Sitting outside the conference room is a small group of five smartly dressed, noticeably younger men and women.  They are all Assyrian, all successful lawyers, and after listening to a few sentences tinged with references to “Chicawgo,” it’s clear they were born and bred here in the Midwest.   They wear Assyrian flag pins on their lapels and share an impressive knowledge of their motherland, a history that includes “CENTURIES” of battles for the right to worship and live in peace.  “We’re worried with this latest violence, that the final push is starting, to remove us once and for all from our territorial homelands.”  They say only 100,000 Iraqi Christians are left in Iraq, and that soon places like Chicago will become the defacto centers for their heritage, culture, and religion.  The young lawyers passionately explain why this is an unacceptable outcome, that one day they dream of returning to the homeland they have only heard stories about.

Music starts in the conference room and the young group disperses to join the event.   After listening to both the American national anthem and an Assyrian one, the crowd of 100 or so members takes a seat for a long afternoon of speakers.  The lawyers sit up front, their eyes fixated on the podium as they struggle to process the long speeches in Assyrian.

Meanwhile, at a strip mall a few miles away, Adad and Zahra navigate their white mini-van, a gift from a local relative, into the parking lot.  Jujee screams at the site of Chuck E Cheese.  Iraq is the last thing on his mind.

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