Looting hits Assyrian businesses in Chicago

June 2020 | By Joe Snell

CHICAGO — After three months of being closed because of the coronavirus, Edmond Benjamin was looking forward to reopening his Chicago-based jewelry store, Naperville Jewelers, on June 1.

Around noon on that same day, however, a police officer walked into his store and warned him that Black Lives Matter protests were taking place in Naperville. Although the protests were peaceful in nature, in the wake of these demonstrations there was sometimes severe looting and rioting.

So Edmond informed his family of the situation, closed his shop, again, and returned home.

By 2 a.m., a security warning alerted his family of their worst fears being realized. Looters were inside their store and heavy damage was being done. The Naperville Police Department couldn’t immediately visit their store, recalls Edmond’s daughter Lisa, because police were being swamped with looting calls from across the city. 

“Knowing that there was nothing we could do and that we couldn’t even go there was an even worse feeling because we felt very helpless at that point,” she said.

LIFELONG PASSION

Edmond grew up in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The oldest son of seven children, his father died when he was 5 years old. At the age of 8, a neighbor who was an Armenian jeweler and a good friend of his father took Edmond under his wing to teach him the trade. 

His work at the jewelry store started simply. He swept floors, polished jewelry items and wiped down display cases and outside windows. By the age of 11, his work progressed to using a torch and other tools to design and craft custom jewelry.

In the late 1970s, Edmond and his family fled the Saddam regime and arrived in Chicago. For years, he saved money to start his own jewelry store. In 1979, he opened Edmond Jeweler in the West Ridge community on Devon and California.

That store operated for nearly a decade, serving the growing Assyrian community in Chicago that had escaped the Ba’ath regime in Iraq in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, however, many Assyrians began moving north of the city and most of Edmond’s clients had left West Ridge. Lisa said this forced her father’s business to shutter.

But Edmond continued making jewelry. Partnering with a family friend, he began selling items at the Fox Valley Mall and saved enough money to open Naperville Jewelry in 1998. In 2011, he opened a second store in Glenview.

Motivated by her father’s passion for the business. after high school Lisa studied at the Gemological Institute of America and began helping her father run the store.

REVIEWING THE DAMAGE

On Tuesday morning, it took forensics officials over two hours to photograph, fingerprint and detail the blood from a display case and t-shirt found in Edmond’s family store. 

When they were finally allowed inside, Lisa recalled the scene. Glass strewn across the floor. Custom display cases, demolished. Computers that held client databases, broken. The jewelry inside the display cases, from sterling silver to gold chains to gemstones, stolen.

And in the back of their workshop, her father’s tools were gone.

A review of the surveillance footage shows that rocks were used to break into the windows, and twelve looters ransacked the store. In total, she estimates tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

But the most hurtful part of the scene, Lisa recalled, was knowing how hard her father worked for the business. 

“The store really represents my father and what he has sacrificed for his wife and kids,” she said. 

BUSINESS SERVES ASSYRIAN COMMUNITY

Naperville Jewelers has become a staple in the Assyrian community, often visited by Assyrians from all over the Chicago metroplex.

It is also where Atour Sargon, an Assyrian Trustee in the neighborhood of Lincolnwood, and her husband bought their engagement bands. 

Sargon said that the impact of the store’s destruction ripples beyond the immediate physical damage done to the building. 

“Assyrian-owned businesses contribute so much to our community,” she said. “They are where many of us shop on a regular basis for our groceries, where we share and distribute important information to our community and where we go to socialize and interact with other Assyrians.”

LACK OF PROTEST INSURANCE

On Thursday, Lisa and her family learned that their insurance coverage didn’t protect them against damage from looting.

Their insurance provider, Jewelers Mutual, initially only offered to cover up to five percent of the loss and damage, Lisa said, but now they are discussing a higher percentage and additional support.

“For business owners, you think that when something like this happens, we’re under the impression that we are covered, so we have no worries,” she said. “But that’s not the case. Insurance companies are going to nickel and dime you for everything.” 

And on Friday, as the Benjamin family cleaned their store and prepared to reopen a third time with a handful of items in makeshift cases, they were forced to close, yet again, because protests were returning to Naperville.

“Oh God, I hope this is going to be ok,” she said after learning about the new round of protests.

As the Benjamin’s took stock of the damage to their store, Lisa is reminded of the challenges her father faced to build Naperville Jewelers.

So far, three Assyrian businesses in Chicago have been confirmed damaged by looting in the past week. Edmond’s story is just one of a number of stories about the sacrifices of some business owners affected by recent looting, including many immigrants that fled persecution in their home countries to build a new life in America.

“Our business is everything to us,” she said. “It’s everything that we’ve worked for, we’ve sacrificed for. It really represents us, the Benjamin family. We love what we do and we have a passion for what we do. And my father worked so hard for it.”

Community members paint messages on Naperville Jewelers, an Assyrian-owned business in Chicago recently hit by looting. (Photo contributed)

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