Tournament draws Chicago’s best Assyrian golfers

The Assyrian Journal| September 2017 | Photos contributed | By Joe Snell

Chicago – Bailey Bitbabo was only nine years old when she competed in her first Assyrian Open golf tournament in 2014. Only two years later in 2016, as the youngest competitor in the field and only woman, she shot the lowest individual score and won the closest to the pin award.

Bailey Bitbabo
Bailey Bitbabo and her team of Hormoz Bitbabo, Dr. Mark Mkrdichian, and Edward Mkrdichian.

“Bailey is gearing up to take this game very seriously,” said Alex David, who started the Assyrian Open in 2014. “She’s got all of the skillset and support from her family. She’ll have the support of our community as well.”

This year, Bailey joined 57 other golfers at the fourth annual Assyrian Open. The Chicago-based event took place on Sunday, Sept. 17 at Old Orchard Country Club in Mount Prospect, Il.

The best ball or scramble format was used for the first time this year, where each individual on a team hits the ball and the team decides which ball to play. This format eliminates individual competition in favor of a team score.

“It was a request from most of the golfers,” Lazar said. “It makes gameplay go by faster and it’s more fun. It keeps everybody competitive because even if you have one or two bad players, the others can carry the team and you end up with better scores.”

This year’s outing served as a fundraiser as well as friendly competition, as money from sponsors and donations from players will go back into the Assyrian Athletic Club’s (AAC) upcoming youth sports program.

“After seeing Bailey and how much she’s progressed over the last couple of years, it’s on my mind to get some sort of youth league or kids program going to get them involved in golf at a younger age,” Lazar said.

The event was sponsored by Tim Ardam of Synergy Logistics, Tony S. Kalogerakos of Illinois Injury Lawyers, Ashur Shiba of G&G Cabinetry, Johnson Shino of Advanced Auto Body, and Dr. Mark Mkrdichian of Family Care Dental.

The total cost to put on the tournament was roughly $5,500. Registration for each golfer cost $125 and included play for the day, a buffet dinner immediately following the competition, and an Assyrian Open polo and hat.

Golf Carts - edited
Golfers are minutes away from starting the tournament at Old Orchard Country Club in Mount Prospect, Il.

On the day of the event, Lazar recruited two of her AAC directors, Ramsena Giannoni and Ashtar Toma, as well as Nina Slefo to help with registration and the awards ceremony.

Best team
The best team score went to Steve Shino, Noel Nonah, Tony Dashto, and Romeo Warda.

Awards were also presented across four competitions: best overall team, the closest to the pin, longest drive, and best dressed team.

The best overall team competition was won by Steve Shino, Noel Nonah, Tony Dashto, and Romeo Warda. The Old Orchard pro shop also awarded them a chance to come back and play for free.

The best dressed award was created this year after Lazar wanted to recognize a group of four golfers who have been going above and beyond since the tournament began.

Taymen Gindo, whose father was one of the initial founders of the event, and his team of Tim Youkhana, Ashoor Yonan, and Patrick Shino, have worn outfits including colorful high socks and kilts with polos since 2014. This year, the team won the best dressed competition with tuxedo shirts.

“Our goal was to go out there and have fun,” Gindo said. “There are, of course, awards, but it’s all about hanging out and having a good day of golf with a bunch of Assyrians.”

Lazar with Best Dressed team_edited
The best dressed team award went to Taymen Gindo, Tim Youkhana, Ashoor Yonan, and Patrick Shino.


Although the tournament has been around since 2014, this is the first year it was hosted by the AAC. The group’s president Movina Lazar, who was elected to the post in March, was granted the event rights in July. That left her only two months to reserve a golf course and plan the outing.

“We contacted 15 courses in the Chicagoland area and received different feedback from each one of them,” Lazar said. “A lot of these places are booked out months in advance, so that was the biggest obstacle we came across.”

When Robert Younan of Luxe Promos heard that Lazar was taking over the event for the AAC, he wanted to lend his design skills.

Younan, who has done marketing work for Coca-Cola, the Chicago Marathon, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Blackberry, didn’t want to push Lazar on the redesign and later admitted that she wasn’t even initially open to switching the design.

“I just showed her how it would look if we were to touch it up and she loved it,” he said.

Younan, who has been golfing with the same team in the tournament since 2014, applied the design across this year’s polos and hats.

“When I create logos, I try to stay simple and gave it a touch that would look good on clothing and hats and open up the imagination for the community,” he said.


Decades ago, the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF) hosted a golf tournament for the Chicago Assyrian community. That event ended over 10 years ago, and in 2014 Alex David had the idea to bring it back.

David recruited George Gindo and Tony Eshaya to help run the event, which attracted over 60 golfers in its initial year.

“Assyrians aren’t known for being golfers,” David said. “It’s showing the evolution of living in a Western culture, that we are becoming more cultured and more aware of the things that are around us.”

All proceeds that year were sent to Iraq to serve internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Earlier this year, David approached the AAC about taking over the event.

“I believe in organizations,” David said. “Everything should be run by organizations even though they were started by individuals. It provides more accountability, there’s more trust, and there are more resources to expand.”

He knew he could trust Lazar to put together the event because she had been a large help in organizing over the first two years.

“Movina helped tremendously on the first one,” David said. “She knew the ropes and wasn’t in unfamiliar territory. I knew I could trust it with somebody who has been there before.”


Lazar (left) with volunteers Ramsena Giannoni, Ashtar Toma, and Nina Slefo.

AAC is a Chicago-based club that organizes sporting events and leagues for all ages throughout the Chicagoland area. They host an ongoing Assyrian basketball and volleyball league as well as a Winged Bull soccer team, Babylonian softball team, and a ten-week yoga program in the spring called Shiluta Yoga.

Moving forward, Lazar would like to move the AAC golf tournament around the United States.

“There are golfers in other states that have asked to participate or for us to help host something in their areas,” she said. “One of my biggest goals is to have a weekend tournament. We know there’s a solid group of Assyrian golfers out there. It all runs smoothly now, it’s just about growth at this point.

Thousands attend first annual Assyrian Food Festival in Chicago

The Assyrian Journal| September 2017 | Photos contributed | By Joe Snell

Chicago –  This year, Julie Kako was determined to put on an Assyrian Food Festival in Chicago. As the Special Events Coordinator for the Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) Chicago Diocese Executive Committee, Kako knew that the church’s Bishop had wanted a festival in the city for years and the ACOE was having a hard time finding both a location and the proper permits.

No matter what it took, she said, she was going to get it done and by mid-July had received the permits needed to begin organizing. That left her with only six weeks to put on the festival by her target weekend at the end of August. To pull everything off, she later admitted, she needed her team to remain optimistic.

“I had no challenge,” Kako said. “I was positive and I made sure everyone was positive and on the same side as me and everything was done. I had a checklist and we went through all of them with no problem.”

Food Fest Alphabet - edited

The festival, which was held on Saturday, Aug. 26 and Sunday, Aug. 27 at the Morton Grove Park District, was the first Assyrian food festival in Chicago.

After obtaining a green-light from Morton Grove, Kako and her team went to work approving the layout of the park, scheduling the number of tents, tables, and chairs needed, and organizing the food items. She brought on Sargon Mando as the event’s food chairman and Munira Nano as her co-chair.

“Julie had many sleepless nights,” said Lina Eshaya, the treasurer of the ACOE Chicago Diocese committee. “It’s a lot of work that goes into it and she handled 90% of that with help from other committee members.”

Festivsal logoThe festival’s marketing strategy included announcements at churches, a social media post, radio station announcements, and banners throughout Chicago’s suburbs. The committee also bought six billboards to put up in Chicago off the highways close to O’Hare and downtown Chicago. As part of the marketing strategy, a sponsorship package was put together and Alliance Moving & Storage came on as the event’s big sponsor.

The ACOE Chicago Diocese committee, comprised of seventeen individuals from all five ACOE churches in Chicago, worked through each church’s special events committee and youth group to recruit volunteers. Over 200 volunteers were used across both days of the festival, including roughly 75 ACOE youth members.

By the time Dr. Sandra Odicho, youth president at Mar Gewargis church, was approached to volunteer, a lot of the planning was done and sponsors were already on board.

“They were on top of it,” Odicho said. “The most difficult part was making sure we had the manpower to do everything in terms of set-up up and cleaning.”

Food Fest Dan DiMaria - edited

The event kicked off with an opening ceremony in front of roughly 700 people. Diane Pathieu, an Assyrian and ABC Channel 7 News Anchor, was the master of ceremony and introduced Albert Youna, ACOE excutive committee president, as well as Morton Grove Mayor Mr. Dan DiMaria.

“It’s important for all of us as a village to see different types of traditions,” Mayor DiMaria said. “It brings unity and understanding and that’s good for any community.”

Morton Grove’s special events committee is involved in helping organize festivals throughout the suburb of Chicago. DiMaria says that the committee encourages numerous cultural events throughout the year. “If we can facilitate it, we want to do it,” he said.

Kako drew inspiration for Chicago’s food festival from the ACOE California Diocese, including the currency exchange of American money into the Assyrian dollar. No American money could be used at any of the booths. Instead, individuals were directed to an Assyrian currency exchange.

Food Fest Money 1

“If you had an American $20 bill, you had to exchange it for $20 in Assyrian money,” said Odicho. “It was printed money with Assyrian figures, so they had pictures of Ashur on the $5 bill. That’s what you would use to pay for food, drinks, and raffle tickets.”

The ACOE youth dance troupe was asked to perform at the opening ceremony as well as throughout the entire weekend. As a new dance troupe in Chicago, having officially organized in July, they performed in the traditional Assyrian khomala clothing .

The troupe, made up of ACOE youth between the ages of 16 and 22, had roughly a month to prepare for the event and practiced twice a week. During the festival, they performed two routines a day and three dances during each routine.

Food Fest 3 - edited

“One of the coolest aspects of our culture is the dance,” said dance troupe member Anabel Abraham. “Our dances date back hundreds of years and more. It’s part of our history, especially wearing the traditional clothing. It puts you more in touch with the culture.”

The festival was broken up into a food space, wine and beer garden, main stage for dancing, art exhibit, and a Kids Zone hosted by the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF), where children painted their own Gilgamesh scultpures.

A gift shop also featured items such as the kopala, the traditional Assyrian dancing cane, that were customized for Chicago sports teams including the Cubs.

Food Fest Volunteers 1 - editedKako estimates that well over 4,000 people attended the festival across the entire weekend. That number surpassed her initial expectation of 2,000 attendees.

A large number of attendees were non-Assyrian and heard about the festival through word of mouth marketing.  Weeks before the event, Dr. Odicho recalls one of her volunteers first hearing about the festival through his non-Assyrian co-workers.

“That’s how word got out amazingly,” she said.

Eshaya emphasized the importance of non-Assyrians attending the festival.

“When I was young, people didn’t know who Assyrians were,” Eshaya said. “It was a long explanation of who we are and where we came from. Putting this out there gives people the knowledge that this is who we are and where we came from.”




Expansion, rebranding ushers in new AUAF era

The Assyrian Journal| August 2017 | Photos contributed | By Joe Snell

Chicago – On the afternoon of May 7, Tiglat Issabey greeted Assyrians as they packed into the newly renovated Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF) community center in Lincolnwood, Illinois.

It was the center’s grand opening, and the long road to this day had been a bumpy one for both Issabey and the non-profit foundation. Only a few years earlier, the organization was floundering under a legal battle in the Illinois circuit court and a lack of brand recognition within the Assyrian community.

When first recruited to join by AUAF board member and former president, the honorable Homer Ashurian, Issabey had no prior business management experience or interest to be part of a non-profit organization. “I’m purely a musician and that’s my interest,” he said.

Tiglat Issabey
Issabey, an accomplished musician, playing piano with an orchestra.

Issabey had grown up in music. His mother was a vocalist and his father, a composer, had created an Assyrian National Anthem. When first confronted by AUAF, Tiglat’s closest experience to business management may have been when he rearranged his father’s anthem for a symphony orchestra and chorus and had it performed by the Chicago Philharmonic.

The thought of running an organization for the Assyrian community, especially one facing an uphill battle, was not something he had anticipated. It was just this kind of music background and different thinking that AUAF was looking for in a new board member.

“I came in with the condition that I was going to do a lot of different things and it’s going to require a lot of financial support,” he said. “Everything we’ve done is quite new. It’s not different, it never existed.”

Now on a warm day in May, Issabey stood in front of the gathered crowd eager to show off his upgraded vision.

“AUAF has been around for 40 years and basically was managed like a family-style business,” he said. “There were really no plans in place to do anything. We wanted a fresh look and to tell people what we are all about, what we are planning to do, our vision, and the mission.”


AUAF was founded nearly 40 years ago in 1978 by Helen Schwarten. With help from her brother, State Senator John Nimrod, Schwarten wanted to create an organization that would help with the mass migration of Assyrian refugees into the United States. The foundation’s focus was initally on assisting with the resettlement process, including helping with language barriers and the cultural gap to find housing and employment.

Helen Schwarten
Portraits of Helen Schwarten and Homer Ashurian are unveiled at the foundation’s grand opening.

In 2015 the foundation’s leadership, led by Issabey, expanded the mission statement beyond social services to include humanitarian relief efforts as well as educational and cultural programs. He was also strict on avoiding politics.

“Originally there was a partnership between the Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA) and AUAF,” said Reine Hanna, who manages the foundation’s community affairs and event planning. “The AUA was focused on political issues and the AUAF was focused on the humanitarian side. The two groups split years ago and the unfortunate thing is people still associate the two organizations.”

She hopes the rebrand will distinguish AUAF from any prior affiliations and also set a new tone moving forward.

“It was really important for us to revive our local community and inspire changes across the board,” Hanna said. “Having this new brand gives us a clean plate and a way to start fresh.”


Issabey’s first priority as new president was to identify the foundation’s target audience.

“I wanted to attract the group of people that I’m interested in,” Issabey said. “The younger people, the new generation, and the educated group because we are all about culture. I want to attract the musician, the artist, the scholars, writers. It would be a good, fresh start.”

Rabel Betshmuel, an Assyrian graphic designer living in Chicago, was invited by Issabey in September of 2016 to create a new logo. Upon visiting the renovated foundation, he realized his job was much more than designing a single design.

“I saw Assyrian history up on the walls and kids playing music, kids making art, and lots and lots of books,” Betshmuel said. “I quickly realized that a logo alone wouldn’t do this place justice, so I got to work on developing a brand strategy.”


New AUAF Logo
According to Betshmuel, the new AUAF logo of a daisy wrapped by Assyrian text symbolizes individuals working together toward a common good.

Rabel started to develop a logo of a daisy wrapped by Assyrian text. The flower, he said, symbolizes individuals working in unison toward a common good and each petal contributes to the beauty of the flower.

To help the brand come to life, he applied the logo to letterhead, business cards, a brochure, and a rack card. He put together a mock-up of a website and started incorporating marketing messages about being community-oriented.

“The new brand is much more reflective of the work that we do here,” Hanna said. “It looks more like a cultural or community center logo as opposed to the traditional Assyrian Star. We wanted to make it clear that this is a place that promotes culture and education and we stay away from political work.”

The logo was unveiled in April 2017, a month before the grand reopening. After creating the new brand strategy, Rabel started working with Joseph Badalpour as the assistant fine arts director to help build the arts program even further.


AUAF now has programs in fine arts, music, education, culture, and humanitarian efforts. When Issabey first joined the board, he was determined to structure the programs not as leisure activities but as serious concentrations for finding and developing talent. That plan began with the music program and the Nebu J. Issabey Music Wing.

“It’s a program that is very much designed like a conservatory of music,” he said. “The reason for that is the way our music is going these days. The only way to correct this is to start from zero.”

Music Program
The foundation’s new music program is structured like a conservatory of music, designed to find and develop talent.

Currently 130 kids are part of the program, ranging from eight to 18 years old. Each student has to try out for one of the exclusive positions.

“We are trying to take things to the next level,” Issabey said. “We are very picky on who we are going to work with and what’s going to happen in that place. The talent is there. You just have to know what to do with them.”

To showcase the musical talent, the foundation is putting on a concert series at the beginning of October. The music will be a mix of serious classical and pop music.

“It’s not meant for entertainment,” Issabey said. “It’s meant to expose us to others that don’t know who Assyrians are the right way. I’m taking and showing non-Assyrians what Assyrian composition can look like.”

Accompanying the music program is a free-of-charge fine arts program that runs on Saturdays. Like the music program, Issabey hopes to identify Assyrian Americans with exceptional talents at an early age. Children seven through 18 years-old are led by professional instructors on various mediums of art. The classes are open exclusively to students of Assyrian descent.

Logo Design Workshop
Dan David instructs students at an AUAF logo design workshop.

Fine arts students will have a chance to show off their work in AUAF’s new studio gallery. The space will host rotating exhibitions by Assyrian artists.

For the grand opening, the gallery displayed works by nine contemporary Assyrian-American artists.

The foundation also launched the first of what they hope to be an annual art competition. US-based Assyrian artists are encouraged to submit artwork and the grand prize is $3,000.

“It gives them the platform that they don’t necessarily have anywhere else,” Hanna said. “And it’s to encourage the artistic community that maybe hasn’t gotten the support they’ve deserved in the past.”

The education program, run by Assyrian educators, is aimed at middle school and high school students that need assistance outside of the classroom and especially those students who have recently immigrated to the United States.

In conjunction with the education program is a scholarship opportunity that awards roughly $300,000 a year to Assyrian students pursuing various fields. The program was put on hold last year as AUAF redefined and reevaluated their mission, but they hope to relaunch the opportunity as soon as this year.

The board is also discussing how to build a network of Assyrian scholars to have more engagement from the scholarly community.

AUAF’s Community Care Program, a state-funded program through the Illinois Department of Aging, serves as a replacement to nursing home care. The program employs over 1,400 Assyrians as well as non-Assyrians and serves 2,000 senior citizens.

Recognized as an independent agency contracted through the Illinois Department on Aging, the program offers a cost-effective alternative to nursing home placement.

“The majority of our clients are Assyrians, but we also service non-Assyrians,” Hanna said. “That allows our community members to have the highest level of independence to live with dignity in their own home.”

The foundation works closely with the Assyrian Aid Society (AAS) to support global humanitarian efforts. The foundation’s biggest humanitarian project is working with AAS on Assyrian schools in Northern Iraq. AUAF provides funding to AAS to run and facilitate the schools.

“The funds that we provide for the schools pay teacher salaries because the regional government there has stopped funding Assyrian schools,” Hanna said.

Over the past year, AUAF has sent over $200,000 to AAS for these schools.

Hanna hopes that in the future the foundation will offer language courses. She has considered helping support language initiatives with the Assyrian National Council of Illinois.

Other AUAF events in development include a lecture series, SAT prep classes, and leadership programs.


In November of 2013, AUAF moved offices from Clark Street to Lincolnwood and built the community center. Within the last two years, the building has undergone major reconstruction.

Community Center Renovation
AUAF’s community center has undergone major renovations within the last few years.

“The building was completely renovated to serve as office space and a community center,” Hanna said.

A focal point of the new center is the Ashurbanipal Library. The library hosts the largest collection of Assyrian texts in the world and includes works both about and by Assyrians, including some texts over 100 years old.

One feature of the library is a collection of Assyrian magazine and newspaper publications over the last 100 years from all over the world, featuring English, Assyrian, Arabic, and Swedish publications.

Ashurbanipal Library
The Ashurbanipal Library hosts the largest collection of Assyrian texts in the world.

Issabey’s next goal is to convert the texts into a digital library and expose Assyrians around the world to the vast collection.

“If it’s sitting in Lincolnwood, it doesn’t do an Assyrian good in Australia or perhaps anybody else that has been doing the research,” Issabey said.

Issabey says the digital library won’t be available for at least another six months to a year.

“It’s a lot of work because it’s a lot of old books and they’re very fragile,” he said. “It’s very difficult to scan, so we’re planning to buy a special scanner.”

Ancient texts
The library is in the process of converting to a digital database, but is a difficult process because some of the texts are over 100 years old

According to Issabey, the addition of new programs and the digital conversion of the library are steps in the right direction, but the foundation has a long way to go. “We’ve gone through a lot of changes and these changes require time and attention,” he said. “It’s very time consuming and putting different things in place is not easy.

Through all of the new initiatives and rebranding efforts, Hanna hopes that the Assyrian community will see the foundation as a way to unite through shared heritage.

“We’ve all had different experiences that have led us here,” she said. “Some people are immigrants, some are first-generation Americans, but we all are tied together, regardless of where exactly we came from, by our identity and our love and appreciation for our heritage. We’re hoping that this foundation can be a place where Assyrians and future generations of Assyrians are inspired to continue to see connections with their past and each other.”

AUAF Website

Watch the Grand Opening Presentation:


Etuti Institute inspires youth with new leadership program

Dooreh, Iraq – After hiking the jagged mountains of Hakkari in northern Iraq, once an area serving as the north Assyrian frontier, and visiting an ancient Saint George church that dates back to the early years A.D., participants of the inaugural Etuti Institute’s Leadership Program were greeted by one of the village elders in Dooreh with a photo exhibition. The display, which included a collection of old and new photographs, showcased Assyrians fighters on the famous mountain range, religious leaders of the past, and Assyrians living through the genocide.

The exhibit was one of many activities at this year’s leadership program, held March 9 through 12 in Dooreh, which provided workshops and volunteer activities for Etuti’s many organization partners.

“We wanted to make an annual event where all of our volunteers can gather, all of our sponsors, all organizations and supporters who work with us,” said Savina Dawood, co-founder of the Etuti Institute. “Then we decided to do it each year in a village of ours that holds a meaning to us and that has a story for us.”

The program was kicked off on Thursday with an introduction by the Etuti Institute as well as a presentation on the importance of volunteering. After the presentation, the group divided into two teams, with one team traveling to a church in the village and the second to renovate the church hall. The hall is used by the village across events from weddings and funerals to larger social gatherings, but had issues with lighting, air conditioning, and having enough seating for guests.

“They can use it for anything now,” Dawood said. “The whole village uses it for everything. During the winter it was not very useful and during the summer it wasn’t very useful because it was very hot, but not anymore with the air conditioning we put. They can use it all the time.” The renovations also included adding lights as well as more chairs and tables.

Despite their electricity being cut off every evening, the program’s participants continued activities by using the light on their cell phones. A highlight of the second day’s activities included a seminar on leadership by Dr. Heja Sindi of Irbil, who stressed the importance of communication skills before a larger conversation about youth empowerment.

Planning for the event began in the beginning of February when Etuti sent invitations to some of their partners around the world including organizations in Germany, France, Syria, Lebanon, and the United States. The cost of the entire event was $7,075 and included food and supplies for each participant as well as supplies for the renovation projects.

Although no location has been selected for next year, during the last night of the program the volunteers were asked where they would want the event hosted and three locations were chosen. Later this year, one of those three choices will be announced as the 2018 host village.

“The key is to choose a village where there are people,” Dawood said. “We cannot go to a village with only three families, it’s not going to work, it has to be a village where the youth are existing.”

Included in the roughly 50 participants that came and went throughout the weekend were thirty volunteers and around ten to twenty individuals each day from the village. Most participants were between the ages of 18 and 25.

The event was free for participants thanks to a sponsorship from L’Œuvre d’Orient , a French organization that focuses on education, care, and action across the world but primarily in the Middle East.

Currently the conference is only open to Etuti volunteers, sponsors, and individuals that work with the organization, a decision that Dawood says is important to rewarding those members that are leaders in their communities.

“The reason why we are limiting it to people involved with us is because we are putting too much effort and so much value into this and we want the serious people to receive it, people who really care,” she said.

The group decided on hosting the conference near the end of March to align with the Kurdish new year because the government allows time off work.

The Etuti Institute was formed in 2013 to aid displaced individuals by providing necessities as well as creating educational programs to develop the Assyrian youth. Dawood emphasized the organization’s unique challenge of teaching leadership in a place like Iraq.

“Leadership is controlling and dictating, that’s the understanding of leadership in Iraq because the only leader they had for more than 30 years was Saddam Hussein,” she said.
Etuti’s current mission is to bring the youth together to build generations of new leaders in the Homeland.

“The whole concept of Etuti [Leadership Exchange Program] is generations of leaders,” Dawood said. “We want to generate leaders and we want to push the existing ones or to help and support them. Through this program, we can connect between cities and villages, connect our ideas and connect our thoughts together and understand leadership in general.”