By Joe Snell | August 2017 | Photos contributed
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.”
Watch the Grand Opening Presentation: