This Sanctuary Never Closes: Chicago’s Refugees

They come from everywhere. They come to start anew, to survive, to live just another day.

They come to Chicago because it is where others settled, where they have links, or where there are hands willing to to accept them.

Chicago’s has a legacy as a place of sanctuary. 

This story about the flight of Assyrians from Iraq adds to the legacy. Ramsen Shamon is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

 By Ramsen Shamon


Photo: An internally displaced child sleeps on the floor of St. Joseph’s Church in Arbil, Iraq. Photo courtesy of Allen Kakony/A Demand For Action

Chicago-area Assyrians are seeking ways to help their brethren in Iraq and Syria. Territorial expansion by Islamic radicals, know as ISIS, or the Islamic State, has caused devastation and displacement of the region’s indigenous Assyrians, who are Christians. And now they face a brutal winter.

Assyrians in Chicago also are worried that their distinct culture and language may not survive in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

“It breaks my heart in multiple ways,” said Sargon Yaro, a high school math teacher and deacon of Rogers Park’s Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Saint George’s Cathedral. “First, as a people, being evicted from a place that belongs to us. Being the indigenous people [of Iraq], we not only get evicted, they take our churches.”

After the takeover of Mosul on June 10, by Islamic militants, Christians could either convert to Islam, leave the city, pay a high tax for being Christian, or be executed, according to a July 18 news statement by Jen Psaki, Department of State spokeswoman. She also said jihadists were marking homes belonging to Christians with the Arabic letter ‘N’ standing for ‘Nazarene,’ a Quranic term referring to a follower of Christ.
An international Twitter campaign in solidarity with those forcibly removed from their residences by ISIS erupted online with the #WeAreN hashtag.


Ivan Watson, CNN’s senior international correspondent tweets from St. Joseph’s Church, in Arbil, Iraq on Aug. 8, 2014.

Chicago and its suburbs are home to an estimated 100,000 Assyrians, according to the Assyrian National Council of Illinois. The Census Bureau estimate is smaller — that more than 14,000 Assyrians live in the Chicago metro area. The Assyrian International News Agency estimates Assyrians number around 400,000 in the United States, with a population of over 3 million worldwide.

Following the exodus of Christians from Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, on June 10, Chicago Assyrians took it upon themselves to aid Iraq’s internally displaced.

Fundraising efforts

In October, a fundraiser gala known as Mesopotamian Night was held in Skokie at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. An evening devoted to the arts, with over 800 guests, raised $250,000 for Iraq’s displaced. The auction of three pieces of art by Assyrian artists generated the most money. All proceeds from the night were donated


Actors perform “Taliboota” or “The Marriage Contract” at Mesopotamian Night on Oct. 11, 2014. Photo courtesy of Mesopotamian Night Facebook

to the Assyrian Aid Society, a nonprofit organization that has helped needy Assyrians in Iraq for several decades. The organization also aids all Iraqis regardless of religion.

“This money gets wired to Assyrian Aid Society Iraq, which then withdraws those funds and distributes them to all of the towns and villages in need,” said Margaret Khamoo, president of Chicago’s Assyrian Aid Society chapter. “Assyrian Aid Society in Iraq is very large and consists of hundreds of members that have been working tirelessly since 1991. They use the money to purchase tents, to pay for public housing, to pay for blankets, toiletries, food baskets, generators, [and] clothes. This money gets delivered to all the towns where Assyrians are found. Every town has an executive member living there to ensure that this money does not get misallocated.”

The Society also organized a Nineveh 5K walk in September to raise funds for Christians in both Iraq and Syria. Chicago’s Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Ancient Assyrian Church of the East, and Cornerstone Baptist Church supported the event. Political groups, including the Assyria Foundation, also contributed to the walk that took place in suburban Skokie. The walk raised over $19,000.

In addition, Assyrian churches held a two-day telethon in September. All proceeds were raised for the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization. The telethon raised $30,000. St. Andrew’s Assyrian Church of the East in suburban Glenview held two picnics in the month of August, raising $25,000 for charity.
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The Assyrian National Council of Illinois, located in Skokie, organized a winter clothing drive titled Shlama, or Peace, during the month of October. About 5,000 boxes of clothing, shoes and other items were collected for the internally displaced people in Iraq and Syria. Assyrians and others continued to donate items well after the designated collection deadline.

Conditions in Iraq and Syria

According to a July 23 report from the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq, Islamic militants took “houses, furniture, money, gold, cell phones, [and] cars” from Christians. Some who fled from Mosul walked the 46 miles to Dohuk, a city not taken by the Islamic State. The Kurdistan Regional Government recently reported that it has built camps to accommodate over 1.6 million internally displaced people and refugees, who are Assyrian, Kurdish, and Yezidi from Syria and within Iraq.

About five displaced Assyrians in Iraq die each day said, Khamoo said.

Sargon Saadi, an Assyrian documentarian native to northeastern Syria, moved to Chicago in 2006 and graduated in 2011 from Columbia College with a film and video degree. Saadi, who now lives in Los Angeles, traveled to Iraq in early September to shoot a documentary highlighting the situation faced by internally displaced Assyrians and Yezidis (another ethno-religious minority). The 10-minute film, titled, “The Last Plight” was featured as a staff pick by video-sharing website Vimeo. It has received over 100,000 views. The film has been shown to the European Parliament and Harvard University.

“There are 160,000 displaced Assyrians right now in Iraq,” Saadi said. “This is half of the population of Assyrians [there]. They’re stripped of literally everything. They’re living in tents and in unfinished buildings under the mercy of the weather. Now it’s winter. The weather is unforgivable there. They need literally everything from food, clean water, medicine, good shelter and education. Probably, above all, they need protection and peace of mind. The only solution for Assyrians in Iraq is a safe haven in the Nineveh Plains under international protection,” Saadi said.

In Syria, the pre-war Christian population numbered 1.8 million, or 10 percent of the total population, The Economist reports, and 500,000 have been displaced.

In Iraq, a total of 500,000 Mosul Muslims, Christians, and other religious groups fled following ISIS’ advancements, according to Amnesty International. Assyrians who are unable or unwilling to leave Iraq are considered internally displaced, not refugees.

The United Nations has set up camps for those willing to be registered as refugees. Once the Islamic State took control of Mosul, Assyrians in neighboring towns and villages fled either to Arbil or Duhok, some escaped to the Turkish-Iraqi border, Assyrians in Chicago say.

Najiba Samuel, Friday-school teacher at Saint George’s Cathedral for 10 years, traveled to northern Iraq for a month in early May to visit her village, Bakhtmy, among other Assyrian villages and churches. Samuel left Iraq four days before radical Islamic fighters entered Mosul. She considers herself “lucky” for being able to leave Iraq in time.

“[The] immediate solution is to provide humanitarian aid and a safe haven. Also provide them with necessities such as food, medicine, and water. It is important that the UN provide a safe haven for these native minorities. It is also important to provide education to children and job opportunities for families that have taken refuge and have no documents,” Samuel said.

Political action

A grassroots movement with Swedish origins, called A Demand For Action, has members in 19 countries and counting – including Assyrians in Chicago. It came into existence in June, following expansion by the Islamic State. According to its website, the group’s main objective is to raise recognition of what is happening to Iraq’s minorities. The group also aims to establish a safe haven in the Nineveh Plains, considered to be the heartland of the Assyrian people, which include Catholics, sometimes referred to as Chaldeans and Orthodox, sometimes called Syriacs.

A Demand For Action has given presentations to the European Parliament and the White House in hopes of recognition and humanitarian help. U.S. Rep.  Jan Schakowsky (D-9th), who represents a large number of Assyrians, joined A Demand For Action members in Washington, D.C., to support the establishment of a safe haven in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains region. The formation of a safe haven is constitutionally permissible, under Article 125 of Iraq’s constitution.

“A Demand for Action is Assyrian Christians’ diasporic cry, while watching the remaining hundreds of thousands of our people endure extreme suffering and persecution in our native country,” said Ashtar Marcus, A Demand For Action’s Chicago representative. “It was born of our outrage, tears, exhaustion, frustration and heartbreaking disappointment.” Marcus is Assyrian, a Chicagoan born in Boston. She covered the Iraqi elections from 2004-2010 as a journalist.

“When I came back from covering Iraq’s first elections as a reporter, I was in tears after hearing all the painful stories of human rights violations culminating in what they considered a happy ending as they voted. The young man working the polls who never saw his father again, the small woman who had carried artillery, the hardened old woman draped in the Assyrian flag: they all came to my mind as [I later heard about ISIS] rebels ripping through village after village marking them with the now infamous letter Noon for Christian.

“The happy ending was ripped out of all our hands,” she said. “There is more trauma to tame. Yet another human rights catastrophe in our nation’s history. A nation that seems to survive only by the grace of the God it believes in, in spite of the threat that belief poses. With that same stubborn faith, I have to believe that Assyrians – who now have representatives in Iraq’s parliament and the United States Congress – can overcome this, too. Our resounding global unity under A Demand For Action is proof of that.”

The House of Representatives recently passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which would allocate $1.6 billion to assist troops, Assyrian security forces included, to combat the Islamic State. Marcus hopes that this funding will help Assyrians in Iraq defend not only their land, but also their rights.


Mosul, known to Assyrians by its Biblical name Nineveh, or Ninweh in Aramaic, is an important city for Assyrians. A worldwide three-day fast facilitated by Assyrian churches globally is held during the month of February to commemorate the arrival of the Biblical Prophet Jonah to the people of Nineveh. In late July, the Islamic State destroyed what was believed to be the tomb of Jonah, a figure honored by Jews, Christians and Muslims.


According to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, the Assyrian Empire between the 9th and 7th centuries BC was the largest empire known to civilization. At its height, much of the modern Middle East, including present-day Armenia, Georgia and Cyprus, were part of its territory. The empire’s capital changed throughout its reign. The city of Ashur was an important city to the ancient Assyrians. Other significant cities include Nineveh (Mosul), Kalhu (Nimrud) and Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad).

The destruction of the tomb was assessed by John Kerry, secretary of state, in a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on Sept. 22: “The tomb of Jonah … was a symbol of tolerance, and a powerful reminder of the traditions that we all share. ISIL apparently saw the tomb and the Nabi Younes Mosque that housed it – as a threat. So they ringed the mosque with explosives and literally turned it into dust.” The structure was originally built as an Assyrian church that was later converted into a mosque.

The Islamic State has destroyed ancient churches and historic relics. On Sept. 24, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria obliterated the Green Church in Tikrit, Iraq, which dated to the 7th century. The church belonged to the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, which is headquartered in Chicago. In Syria, militants shattered an ancient Assyrian statue dating to the 8th century BC to pieces, considering it polytheistic and against Islam, according to published reports.

A Demand for Action members say Iraq and Syria’s indigenous Assyrians may be obliterated from their homeland forever, if action is not taken to ensure the existence of Iraq’s minorities. Assyrians speak a modern version of the language spoken by Christ, known as Aramaic, which is sometimes called Syriac or Assyrian. Most also speak Arabic or Kurdish as secondary languages.  According to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, “In the Iraqi context, references to Assyrians as ‘Arab Christians’ or ‘Kurdish Christians’ reflect political attempts, both past and present, to assimilate Assyrians into Iraqi society at the cost of their identity.”

“There is a future in Iraq for Christians so long as Chaldeans/Assyrians/Syriacs weed out the corruption within our own [international] community,” said Ben Kalasho, president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization that seeks to grow the San Diego and overall Californian economy.


The Assyrian heartland is considered to be northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey, and northeastern Syria. Photo by

The United Nations reported in August that close to 2,000 Yezidis and Assyrians were forced into sexual slavery by the Islamic State. Women and children were also raped. About 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced since June, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Steven Salaita, former University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor of indigenous studies, regards the crisis in Iraq as being more than just religiously characterized: “I consider the Assyrians, and the Chaldeans, quite rightly to be indigenous populations to these regions. I see it as even more than just religious persecution of Christians, which it is. It’s horrible.

“I think it’s important for people to put it into the context not only of persecution of the Christian minority but also of [Iraq’s] indigenous communities,” he said. “As the natives of North America were pushed aside, the goal of ISIL and some of these other sectarian groups is to not only wipe away a people but wipe away a history, and it’s genocidal and it’s horrible.” 


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