The Assyrian Journal| January 2018 | Photos from Assyrian American Bar Association | By Ramsen Shamon
Name: Phillip Rehani Hometown: Skokie, Ill. Occupation: Attorney at O’Hagan Meyer, LLC
Phillip Rehani, the 30-year-old secretary of the Assyrian American Bar Association, always knew he wanted to find creative ways to help people solve their problems, especially Assyrians. He transferred that passion into becoming the only Assyrian to graduate from his Chicago-Kent College of Law class in 2012. But Rehani, further compelled to help his community, co-founded the Assyrian American Bar Association in 2017. “I immediately knew this was a special chance to make a difference,” he said. “I have been searching for a way to become more involved within our community and the Assyrian American Bar Association has been the perfect fit.”
What law school did you attend? What year did you graduate?
Chicago-Kent College of Law; 2012.
How was your law school experience? Did you have any Assyrian classmates?
My experience in law school was positive. The education I received taught me to look at a problem and identify multiple issues in a single fact scenario. This taught me the importance of utilizing a dynamic method to problem solve. Unfortunately, I did not have any Assyrian classmates. One of the main reasons for creating the Assyrian American Bar Association (AABA) was to promote the legal profession as a viable and attainable option for the Assyrian youth. We want to provide our youth with the tools to be successful – whether it be in the classroom, or in their professional endeavors.
What kind of law do you practice? Why did you decide to practice this specific kind of law?
I am an attorney at O’Hagan Meyer, LLC. My practice focuses on a variety of civil matters including labor and employment law and tort litigation. After graduation, I was unsure which area of law held my interest. I just knew that I wanted to be in a court room. I was lucky to have that opportunity and develop interests in many areas of law along the way.
Why did you choose to study law? Was it something you knew you wanted to do since you were young?
I did not know that I wanted to go to law school until I was a Sophomore in college. I knew that I wanted to find creative ways to help people resolve their problems. I had many conversations with family and friends before deciding on this career-path.
Why did you decide to help start the Assyrian-American Bar Association?
When I learned about the opportunity to join a professional organization for lawyers with a focus to help the Assyrian community, I immediately knew this was a special chance to make a difference. I have been searching for a way to become more involved within our community and the Assyrian American Bar Association has been the perfect fit.
What are some of the association’s goals?
We wanted to create a strong network of Assyrian attorneys with a range of expertise to serve as leaders in our community.
Why was the association established?
The main objective is to promote high standards of professionalism and integrity while inspiring our youth to join the legal profession.
How many members currently exist?
We have approximately 50 members. The majority of the ABA membership reside in Illinois. We hope to expand to include members nationwide and we are on the way to achieving this goal. We now have members in Arizona and California.
Will workshops be held?
We have not held any workshops, but we have presented seminars in the areas of immigration law, corporate law and labor/employment law.
What advice do you have for young Assyrians who are thinking to go to law school or are currently in law school?
We want all students that have an interest in pursuing a legal education to know that we are here for your support. My advice for college students thinking about law school is to take advantage of opportunities to make an informed decision on whether law school is right for you. Applying for and attending law school is great financial undertaking so you must do your research. Reach out to your professors and school advisors for guidance. The more first-hand knowledge you can get the better. You can begin your law school search by narrowing where you want to practice law and get information on the schools in the area.
My advice for law students is that building relationships through networking (along with getting good grades) is the key to finding a job after school. You have to be proactive. The job market is competitive and separating yourself from other candidates for positions could be as simple as maintaining a friendship. Also, use the opportunities provided by your career service offices, such as resume building and cover letter workshops. If you have an opportunity to run through a practice interview, do it. More experience with the interview process will build your confidence.
What does justice mean to you?
Justice is an outcome we strive for in society. As a society, [we] have laws that govern behavior to protect rights and punish wrongs. It is the reason why we have police, politicians, lawyers and judges.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Please search for the Assyrian American Bar Association on Facebook. You can follow us to see what events we have coming up in the near future.
The Assyrian American Bar Association is a nonprofit organization founded to promote high standards of competence, professionalism and integrity with and among …Assyrian attorneys and the Assyrian communities within the State of Illinois. It seeks to cultivate a strong network of Assyrian attorneys with a comprehensive range of legal expertise to serve the Assyrian community and mentor our youth who aspire to join the legal profession.
The Assyrian Journal | December 2017 | Photos contributed | By Joe Snell
Erbil, Iraq – They may not have been home for the holidays, but for thousands of displaced children in Northern Iraq, Christmas spirit remains thanks to an annual gift giving campaign that all began when a girl, recently evacuated from her home in Nineveh, asked a volunteer if Santa was going to visit her.
“We were not planning on doing this event,” said Savina Dawood, a co-founder of the Etuti Institute that organizes the project. “It started when this girl asked me if Santa was still coming this year. I didn’t answer her, I just asked what she would like Santa to get her. She said a doll and that’s how we thought of this event.”
That same year, ISIS began overtaking towns in Northern Iraq and many residents were forced into Internally Displaced People (IDP) buildings hundreds of miles north of Baghdad. At the time, Dawood was part of a small group of roughly ten volunteers that were bringing supplies to an IDP building in Erbil, one of several IDP declared buildings in the area.
When asked by children in the building if Santa was going to visit them, the volunteers responded by each dressing as Santa. They surprised 50 children between the ages of newborn to 12 years old with presents from money they gathered among themselves.
Although the group couldn’t afford to purchase a tree and lights for the simple event, they bought big white sheets of paper and decorated them with stickers and paint.
A projector, screen, and speakers were donated and after the gift giving and decorating, children watched cartoons, something they hadn’t had access to in months. Afterwards, they were taught that Christmas is about more than just receiving gifts.
“We explained that Christmas is not about getting new clothes,” Dawood said. “For these kids, none of that was actually possible. We explained that it’s about being friends to one another, about helping one another and giving somebody who doesn’t have something and helping them in anything they need.”
CHRISTMAS SPIRIT GROWS IN NORTHERN IRAQ
A group called “Help Iraq” heard about the group’s efforts and their founder, Rafed Yaldo, met with Dawood and offered $10,000 with the request that they take Santa to other places in the region.
Etuti’s volunteers researched areas that were not receiving any gifts and settled on Alqosh, a region 30 miles north of Mosul. Dawood spoke to a priest in the region about making an announcement at church an expected a decent turnout.
With just two days’ notice and only the church announcement and word of mouth, 3,500 children as well as their parents and siblings arrived to collect gifts and watch cartoons.
“This was the first time we saw this many children at the same time so we kind of freaked out,” Dawood said. With no room to decorate and barely any space to move, the volunteers – each still dressed as Santa – quickly created a system to distribute the gifts.
The Alqosh experience proved to be a major step toward developing the new Christmas project.
The group began to travel to other regions, including Sharafiya located in the Nineveh Plains, and used Christian churches as a network to announce when they would be coming, often with only days’ notice.
By this time, other organizations began hearing about the campaign and offered to donate.
“We didn’t make a campaign or ask anyone for gifts, people heard from other people,” Dawood said. “It was amazing and it was beautiful.”
SUPPORTING THE YAZIDIS
In 2015, Dawood and her Santa volunteers set a lofty goal: to gift every IDP Camp in Erbil and the surrounding regions. That tour kickstarted in February 2015 with the Yazidis.
The displaced Yazidi’s were broken up into two camps that faced each other in the Dohuk Province of Northern Iraq. These camps comprised of tight tents sitting in light dirt. Often, tents and belongings were covered in mud from previous rains. In total, over 4,000 children were in both camps.
“We did not want to wear Christmas clothes because it was not Christmas and also we did not want to impose our beliefs on them because they are a different religion,” Dawood said. “We were just there to give them gifts and to give the children some joy.”
The Santa volunteers had since December grown to nearly fifteen individuals from across the world, including members from Iran, Iraq, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Egypt, and Holland. Before the event, these volunteers traveled the camps asking what kind of toys the children wanted and making sure the toys would not put the children in danger.
“We were not sure whether to buy them a ball or not because we weren’t sure if it would put them in an insecure playing situation,”Dawood said. “We had to ask camp management.”
The event was so big and the weather conditions so rough (the event took place during a rain storm) that it had to be divided between multiple days.
“The second day, it was raining like hell. We all were soaked in the mud and it was so fun and exciting,” Dawood said. “It was beautiful.”
In 2016, ISIS began retreating in the Nineveh Plains. Christmas returned to the region for the first time in years and the Christmas campaign Santa’s wanted to mark the occasion by concentrating their gifts on the families that had returned to the liberated area.
Nearly twenty volunteers traveled to seven different villages and took a week to distribute all of the gifts. In some villages, the destruction from ISIS was so bad that no church or community space was left available to gather, so the Santas had to go knocking door to door to hand out gifts.
Since 2014, over 17,000 children have been provided gifts as part of Etuti’s “Christmas Spirit” campaign. They plan to add another 4,000 children this Christmas.
ETUTI’S 2017 CHRISTMAS CAMPAIGN
For this year’s campaign, Etuti is looking to raise $40,000 by Christmas. The campaign is asking for $10 from at least 4,000 individuals globally and Dawood equates donating $10 to buying a large drink at Starbucks.
“Just think of it as one child in Nineveh the same way as you’re buying gifts for your children this Christmas in America,” she said.
The Christmas project is not an official Etuti project. Instead, it is something extra the organization does during the holidays and Dawood may be the perfect person to lead the project.
She remembers growing up with little money and having to make decorations on their Christmas tree from items at home, including match boxes they would color and wrap with small items.
No Santa ever visited her growing up, she admits, and now she is surrounding by dozens every Christmas.
Etuti, a non-profit founded in 2013, shifted its focus to aiding IDPs shortly after the ISIS invasion in 2014. The organization aims to bring children and youth together to build generations of new leaders within Northern Iraq’s communities. The organization runs nine formal projects spanning education, human rights, careers and sports workshop among others.
The Assyrian Journal| October 2017 | Photos contributed | By Joe Snell
Chicago – Last January, Ashur Shiba joined 61 Assyrian community leaders throughout Chicago to become a certified deputy registrar. The event was part of Vote Assyrian, an initiative started in 2015 by Billy Haido and Ramsin Benjamin that registers Assyrians to vote as well as promotes civic representation.
“That event was huge,” Shiba said. “We’re talking about the most democratic country in the world, and now I have my hand in it. I have my hand in local elections, I have my hand in general elections federally as well as locally, and our community lacks voters.”
After listening to Illinois leaders in government, going through formal training, and taking an official oath, Shiba and his colleagues became able to register American citizens to vote locally.
The event was one of a number that have been hosted by the non-profit voting initiative over the past two years.
“We don’t tell you who to vote for,” Shiba said. “We tell you when early voting is and when you should go out and when you shouldn’t go out and vote. We ask you to vote to voice your opinion.”
According to the 2000 United States Census, nearly 35,000 Assyrians live in Illinois, although Assyrian organizations now estimate that number is closer to 60,000, including 17,000 alone in Skokie.
In 2015, while the chairperson for the economic development committee in Skokie, Billy Haido learned that the Assyrians were the largest population in the Chicago suburb at 25%, including 30% of the school district.
Haido linked up with Ramsin Benjamin, who at the time was the executive director of the Assyrian American Chamber of Commerce, and together they began voter registration drives to mobilize the large Assyrian population.
“We thought it would be a very beneficial thing for our Chamber,” Haido said. “Vote Assyrian’s idea is to educate our community on the importance of voting and understanding that voting is not just about electing the President, it’s about voting for local politicians because those are the ones that really influence our day to day.”
Haido and Benjamin modeled their mobilization efforts after the Assyrian Committee for Civic Responsibility (ACCR), a grassroots committee in Chicago that worked on Assyrian civic engagement in Chicago in the early 2000s.
The Vote Assyrian initiative expanded on the early ACCR model with informational sessions on voting dates and procedures as well as political forums to introduce Assyrians to local candidates.
“At political forums, politicians would see 500 or 600 people and it’s very impressive, but the results are that a majority of the Assyrians that were coming were not registered to vote,” Haido said.
Although there are a few committee members throughout the country, Haido hopes to bring Vote Assyrian under a national umbrella in the near future and gain larger recognition.
“It was always a local initiative,” Haido said. “We partnered with a couple groups in Arizona and Southern California and once we established it [in Chicago], we would give them the model of what we had done and duplicate it, but it has to start locally.”
Shiba was already actively attending local civic forums when he heard about Vote Assyrian and began a deputy registrar in early 2016. After the November Presidential election, Shiba asked Haido and Benjamin to join the board of directors. He wanted to carry the enthusiasm from the Presidential election into local nominations. Encouraging Assyrians to vote, Shiba said, is a long term goal for the community.
“Growing up, it wasn’t something my parents pushed for,” he said. “It wasn’t something they would come out and tell us that voting is important.”
Recently, Vote Assyrian sponsored a breakfast with Congresswoman Jan Schkowsky, where Assyrian women were invited to talk to the Illinois Democratic state representative.
“[Schkowsky] told us that if we’re not on the table, then we’re on the menu,” said Rema Shamon, an active Assyrian leader in Chicago who was invited to attend the event. “The importance of civic engagement [among Assyrians] hasn’t been highlighted. Very non-traditional professions like politics or journalism are overlooked in our community and can make a difference.”
Schkowsky encouraged the women not to be afraid from speaking up, vocalize their accomplishments, and urged women in the room to run for civic leadership roles. Since the event, she has stayed in touch with the women and began mentoring them.
This Sunday, Vote Assyrian set up outside of the Mar Odisho Assyrian Church of the East.
Lt. Colonel Sargis Sangari, an Assyrian running for the 9th Congressional District of Illinois, was available at the church to help register voters. Sangari reached out to Chicagoland Assyrian church leaders to emphasize the importance of a unified push for registration.
“I want to focus Assyrians in a direction that they have a reliable candidate they can support and get individuals registered who can vote,” Sangari said. “Hopefully, this is the first push for the next 100 years. We have to start establishing a small footprint in the United States to effect what major policies are.
“If we can get this large number to turn out, now we’ve been able to at least show our strength to say look what the Assyrians are capable of doing when it comes to either vote to retain you or vote you out.”
Vote Assyrian plans to offer membership opportunities in the future and invite members to annual meetings where they can shape the future of the organization.
“On television, you always hear that a vote doesn’t matter, ” Shiba said. “My vote in the city of Illinois might not dictate who the President of the United States will be, but our votes here locally can dictate who our local officials are and those local elected officials can then communicate to the President of the United States.”
A general election will be held in Illinois on November 6, 2018. All of Illinois’ executive officers as well as the state’s eighteen seats in the house will be up for election.
If you are interested in volunteer or learning more about Vote Assyrian, visit voteassyrian.org or email email@example.com.
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 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.
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.
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.”
TWO MONTHS TO PLAN THE TOURNAMENT
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.”
ASSYRIAN ATHLETIC CLUB
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.
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.”
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.”
The 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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
Kako 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
NEW COMMUNITY CENTER
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”