Category Archives: Events

Assyrian mother, daughter caught amid chaos of Highland Park shooting

By Joe Snell | July 2022

“I want to go back outside, what happened to the parade?” Isabel Badalpour recalls her daughter, 7, crying as they rushed inside her parents’ home in Chicago’s northern suburb of Highland Park. 

Shaking as she closed the front door behind her, Isabel, an Assyrian, watched through the window as people darted across her lawn and hid in her driveway while clutching strollers and mangled lawn chairs. 

Isabel and her daughter are among hundreds of families that fled the scene of Monday’s mass shooting in Highland Park during the city’s annual Fourth of July parade, an event Isabel has attended every year since she was a child. 

“Seeing this happen in your own home, you don’t know how it feels until you see it,” she said. “And then looking at your child and realizing you have to run in that moment, that was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever had to go through as a mother.”

The city of Highland Park is just north of Chicago, home to over 30,000 people and near Assyrian communities that reside in Chicago’s northern suburbs, including Skokie.

Isabel was at the center of Monday’s violence, only two blocks from the start of the parade, when she noticed something unusual — as she took a photo of her daughter, an unmarked police car sped by. 

“It started coming toward the parade really fast and I thought that wasn’t normal, there were kids everywhere, why would they do that?” she said. 

A friend told Isabel that someone might be running around with a gun. Seconds later, the pair looked up the street to see a large crowd sprinting toward them.

“I froze for a second,” Isabel said. “My heart dropped. I grabbed my daughter and felt this gut wrenching feeling. I didn’t know how to tell her without scaring her, I didn’t want to traumatize her. I was shaking for at least two hours… I wasn’t sure if the guy armed was in the crowd running toward us.”

Police had instructed parade-goers to run from the scene, Isabel later learned. And the gunman had fired his weapon from atop Ross Cosmetics, the business she works at.

Seven people died in the shooting, and more than 30 were wounded. The gunman, arrested after he was spotted by a police officer and following a short chase, was charged with seven counts of first-degree murder. 

Despite the shooting, Isabel said she will never leave her Highland Park community. She was born and raised in the city and has attended the town’s Fourth of July parade every year since she was young. It’s a tradition she’s since passed on to her daughter.

But their early memories of the parade will be starkly different. Isabel recalled one year when the parade was canceled because it was hailing. She now fears her daughter will get older and find out “it wasn’t rain” that canceled this year’s parade, “it was gunshots”.

“I don’t ever want her to find out.”

Inaugural Assyrian conference kicks off in Washington

By Joe Snell | July 2022 | Photos by Stephney Martin

It was on Reine Hanna’s birthday in 2015 that she learned the Islamic State (IS) had invaded the Khabour region of Syria, the birthplace of her parents. 

“My coworkers surprised me with a birthday cake and I saw it and started crying,” Hanna said. “I couldn’t understand why I get to live in a place where I’m safe, where I have all of these opportunities and somebody that’s just like me… everything is uprooted; their work, their dreams, their jobs, and their families separated.”

Hanna shared the story at the welcoming session of the Assyrian Policy Institute’s (API) inaugural Washington conference. The three-day event began June 16 and comprised of meetings with state representatives, exhibits on ancient and modern artwork, panels on language preservation and discussions on the future of Assyrians and other minorities in the Middle East and the diaspora.

The event comes amid increased pressure facing Assyrians to leave their homeland, confronted with growing attacks by IS sleeper cells, efforts by authorities to silence government critics and threats by non-Assyrians to seize Assyrian lands with impunity.

“The stakes are higher than ever,” Hanna said. “We’re at a turning point for our community and we have to assess the broader situation for what it is. We have to understand what’s worked in the past and what we need to do differently.”

While Washington’s coronavirus restrictions were largely lifted, lingering pandemic guidelines remained. This forced the API to adopt hybrid meeting formats while on Capitol Hill, limiting attendance at some talks while holding others outdoors. 

Author Alda Benjamen discusses her latest book, “Assyrians in Modern Iraq,” in a conversation moderated by Lincolnwood Trustee Atour Sargon. / Photo by Stephney Martin

The first day of the conference gathered nearly fifty attendees to meet with members of Congress on the hill to share stories and discuss community priorities. 

Modesto City Planning Commissioner Carmen Morad spoke on the importance of community-led advocacy. Participants later met with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA).

At an outdoor session, Rep. Josh Harder (CA) announced the relaunching of the Assyrian Congressional Caucus. The caucus was formed in 2018, chaired by Harder’s predecessor, Rep. Jeff Denham. Harder now leads the caucus that includes membership from Eshoo, the only Assyrian-American serving in Congress, and Schakowsky, who represents one of the largest Assyrian communities in the US.

“We’re here to be as strong an advocate for Assyrian issues as we can,” Harder said in a statement. “We’re going to get more folks involved to make sure that the Assyrian voice is heard.”

The second day of the conference welcomed over a hundred more attendees and included a screening of the Assyrian short film Grace that tells the story of a father living in Iraq during the reign of IS. He attempts to protect his daughter from extremists by playing a game of hide and seek. The film was nominated for a Short Form Drama prize during the Australian Academy Cinema Television Arts (AACTA) awards.

Bedril Diril, an Assyrian from Turkey, gave remarks about his family’s fight for justice following the murder of his parents in southeast Turkey. Presentations were later given on topics about the future of Assyrians, the impact of genocide on Assyrian identity as well as language preservation. Dr. Alda Benjamen discussed her new book, Assyrians in Modern Iraq

A separate room invited participants to a virtual reality experience by Yazda, a global Yazidi organization, called Nobody’s Listening Exhibition. The space highlighted the suffering and plight of the Yazidis during the reign of IS as participants chose one of three storylines: a young girl or boy abducted by extremists and a story through the eyes of an IS fighter.

In the evening, a pop-up video exhibition by Diaspora in Bloom curators Akadina Yadegar and Nardin Sarkis showcased prominent movies, television, music videos and contemporary video art by Assyrians in the diaspora that highlighted what the curators called “the evolution of Assyrian society and popular culture.”

Sargon Donabed on a panel discussing the early history of Assyrian-Americans. / Photo by Stephney Martin

Isa Yaramis, the President of the Assyro-Chaldean Association of France, welcomed guests to the conference’s final day. Panels were led by Joseph Hermiz, Dr. Arianne Ishaya, Dr. Ruth Kamber and Dr. Sargon Donabed and explored the early history of Assyrian-Americans in the United States. After the panels, attendees participated in roundtable workshops to discuss the future of Assyrians in the Middle East and the role of diaspora in sustaining these communities.

Donabed said the conference addressed issues connected to his Assyrian Studies Association, an organization launched in 2019 for which he helped found and is now a board member.

The question becomes “who gets to create, participate and propagate the narrative or narratives of Assyrians and their history and culture,” Donabed said. “The conference is a good example of the ways in which people can utilize their own power to affect positive change.”

This positive change, however, has yet to translate to a brighter outlook. Security and economic concerns remain in much of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, pressuring Assyrians to uproot their homes. A growing list of land theft cases drags Assyrians into sometimes years-long legal battles that often provide no resolution. And reported electoral injustices deprive Assyrians of proper local and national political representation.

In the diaspora, Hanna said communities are contending with cultural preservation and maintaining a sense of community despite being scattered.

For now, Hanna said, prospects across the board are bleak. 

“We need to recalibrate and also start expanding our focus and tackling issues that are relevant to Assyrians in the United States and wider diaspora,” she said.

API was formed in 2018 and advocates for the rights of Assyrians and other minorities in the Middle East, including Yazidis and Mandeans. The group, composed of 12 board members, told the Journal it is revamping its focus. It will remain committed to “amplifying the voices of Assyrians in the homeland,” Hanna said, and expanding on issues concerned with the diaspora. New offerings will include improving access to cultural resources and language preservation.

“Wherever we can help fill the gaps and speak to legislators and emphasize the importance of cultural preservation, we’ll be doing that,” she said. 

The focus on diaspora is important for Berta Kaisr, an Assyrian in Canada. Kaisr said the conference refreshed her desire to speak on Assyrian issues and advocate for better conditions, both in the homeland and Canada. 

“Being at the conference and simply belonging under the name of Assyrians/atouraye without needing to prove myself was a priceless feeling,” Kaisr said. “Especially living in a city now where I don’t have an Assyrian community, I need to speak louder and insert our people in conversations we are often left out of.”

Assyrians from Canada and Michigan at the opening session of the conference. / Photo by Stephney Martin

Assyrian awarded Medal of Valor by Simon Wiesenthal Center

By Joe Snell | July 2022

An Assyrian activist on June 26 was presented the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor at a ceremony in downtown Chicago, joining the ranks of US Congressman John Lewis, journalist Ann Curry and Sir Winston Churchill. 

Photo by Rine Photographics

Juliana Taimoorazy is the founder of Iraqi Christian Relief Council, an organization that supports displaced Christians and other minorities throughout Iraq and refugees in neighboring countries. She is also a UN delegate at Geneva. Last year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

“I don’t see the medal for me, the medal is for my Assyrian people and for all those that continue to suffer,” Taimoorazy said. “Every time I look at it, it is my duty, my responsibility to answer the call.”

The Medal of Valor, presented annually at sites in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, recognizes individuals for their humanitarian work and for “stepping up against hate.”

“Many people have no idea about the plight of the Assyrian community,” said Simon Wiesenthal Center Midwest Director Alison Slovin. “How often do we talk about the genocide or oppression of others? That’s why it’s important to highlight the work of people like Juliana because we all need to be activists against the hate in this world.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is an international Jewish human rights organization established in 1977 to honor ambassadors for peaceful coexistence. ABC7 Chicago, home to Assyrian journalist Diane Pathieu, was also awarded the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Community Service Award.

“It’s important for the Simon Wiesenthal Center to recognize the plight of others because so many stood silent during the holocaust when we knew what was going on,” Slovin said. “We cannot remain silent ever again against any genocide or oppression of any people.” 

Photo by Rine Photographics

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.


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.


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. 


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.”


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)

Palm Springs ruled out as this year’s convention hangs in the balance

May 28, 2020 | By Joe Snell

CHICAGO — The Assyrian National Convention will no longer take place in Palm Springs and is likely to be canceled for the first time in nearly 100 years because of the pandemic, according to officials in charge of organizing the event.

The convention was scheduled to run from September 3-7 in Palm Springs; however, the Westin Mission Hills hotel, the same venue that hosted last year’s event, confirmed that because of the pandemic they can no longer guarantee hosting the event after they reopen in June. 

Now, organizers are scrambling to decide whether the event should even continue.

“This would be devastating but understandable under the circumstances,” said Assyrian American National Federation President Martin Youmaran. “We’re already a fragile nation with our numbers. The last thing we want to do is to be a cause of more outbreak of COVID and a resurgence of numbers.”

A call with the federation’s board of advisors earlier in the week strongly encouraged organizers to cancel, one AANF committee member said, citing liability concerns and fear of a coronavirus outbreak.

The first convention was held in 1933, the same year that AANF was founded. Today, the event is a mix of lectures, sporting events, vendors and pool parties and regularly draws thousands of Assyrians from around the world.

And despite periods of inconsistent documentation, sources indicate if this year’s event is canceled, it will be the first time in history.

This year’s convention was also scheduled to host federation elections. Every two years, the organization allows its members to vote for new officers, but that may now be postponed until September 2021.

Now, the decision to cancel rests on conversations with hotels in Arizona, one organizer said, and Texas has also become an option. 

“We weren’t having luck finding a location for convention in Arizona prior to this whole thing,” Youmaran said. “But with the changes happening, we’re actually considering Arizona because it still has a big Assyrian footprint locally.”

If the convention does move forward, it likely won’t look like years past. New considerations include having people sign waivers upon arrival, conducting regular temperature checks, limiting the number of attendees or scrapping the weekend altogether and holding in-person lectures in major Assyrian cities across the country. 

On Tuesday, organizers sent an eight-question survey to previous convention attendees asking whether they would consider registering for convention this year. 

By Wednesday, nearly 700 people responded. Early results indicated that many respondents would not even consider attending.

After the survey ends on Sunday afternoon, organizers will discuss the event’s future. An official decision on canceling the event could be made as early as Sunday evening.

“At the end of it, convention is a way for us to come together, to learn more and to plan our future,” said AANF Educational Chairman Dr. Joe Danavi. “We can do that in a very creative manner without having to be there in person.”

See a video recap by The Assyrian Journal of last year’s convention here.

Vote Assyrian shifts gears on census project amid COVID-19 limitations

April 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji | Featured photo provided by Vote Assyrian

CHICAGO — Vote Assyrian, the civic engagement advocacy group that has, since January, been spearheading a campaign encouraging Assyrians to write their ethnicity into the 2020 U.S. census in an effort to obtain minority status, has implemented strategical changes to the movement in accordance with coronavirus-related social distancing guidelines. 

Prior to the stay-at-home orders implemented as a result of developments to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vote Assyrian had planned on fulfilling the majority of its outreach by setting up once weekly information desks at Chicago’s Assyrian churches and canvassing at Assyrian residences. 

Now, Mary Oshana, executive director of the Vote Assyrian census project, says the committee has shifted its outreach plan almost entirely to an online approach. 

“We’re…trying to think of innovative and creative ways to meet our community without meeting them in person,” Oshana said. “The limit is around making sure our community is safe and healthy.”

The organization had stationed at Mar Gewargis Cathedral in Chicago and St. Andrew’s Parish in Glenview, Ill. twice before stopping in March amid social distancing concerns, Oshana said. 

Oshana and her team have since revamped their strategy, utilizing platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to reach its audiences, according to Oshana.

Those with no access to computers or social media can now utilize newly instated phone hotlines, accessible via text or call, Oshana said. Vote Assyrian also began phone banking Saturday, April 4. 

Online informational tutorials – even videos of star Assyrian athletes expressing their support of the write-in campaign – supplement the phone banks. 

Ashur Shiba, a member of Vote Assyrian’s executive board, says the shift has “absolutely” impacted their ability to reach people.

“It is what it is,” Shiba, who has also been involved with the census project, said. “These are uncertain times, so we have to learn. We have to adapt.”

Oshana said the committee will continue phone banking efforts as well as social media efforts in the coming weeks.

“We’re going to think strategically; we’re going to think creatively,” Oshana said. “We’re doing just about everything we can to leverage social media.”

Vote Assyrian will be hosting a Q&A-style Facebook Live Thursday, April 9 at 6:00 pm CST. Updates and more information about the census project can be found at Vote Assyrian’s Facebook and Instagram pages. Questions can be directed toward the following phone resources: 

Text: (773) 839-6152
Call: (847) 802-VOTE (8683)

Thousands flock to Morton Grove for third annual Assyrian Food Festival of Chicago

August 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos and Video by Joe Snell

CHICAGO – By the early afternoon of the first day of the Assyrian Food Festival of Chicago, the Morton Grove Park District was already swelling with thousands of Assyrians and non-Assyrians waiting in lines for kebabs, listening to live music and watching traditional dancing.

When the dust had settled late Sunday evening, organizers estimate nearly 10,000 attendees across two days.

“Due to the fact that we don’t have a country of our own called Assyria, I think this is the best way to tell everyone out there that Assyrians still exist,” said Maureen Nano, a member of the festival’s executive organizational committee. “We’re close to a 7,000 year old culture and we are still alive, what better way to showcase that?”

The festival, which mixes authentic food, live entertainment, vendors and activities for children, began in 2017 (read more here) and is hosted by the Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) Diocese of the Eastern United States.

This year’s event was held on Aug. 24 – 25 and attended by His Grace Mar Paulus Benjamin alongside Mayor of Skokie George Van Dusen, Mayor of Morton Grove Dan DiMaria, Illinois State Senator Ram Villivalam and State Representative Yehiel Kalish Assyrian singer Malden Ishoeva also traveled from Russia to perform on Saturday evening.

Allen Yalda set up a stand at the festival for his new business, ANU Coffee. The brand mixes Assyrianism with coffee and tea by branding every product with Assyrian names, phrases and logos.

Years ago, Yalda said, an American professor asked him why he was proud of being Assyrian. Yalda responded that it’s not about nationalism but it’s a way of living. He hopes to showcase that lifestyle through coffee brand.

“The hospitality of Assyrians – there is nothing like it,” he said. “I’m bringing coffee and tea and products that everybody can use and drink, but I’m bringing it with that love and passion of Assyrians when they provide hospitality.”

Only Assyrian money is accepted at the booths and festival-goers must exchange American money for $1, $5, $10 and $20 Assyrian bills.

“The main thing with the Assyrian currency is to basically transform the festival into Assyria,” said festival volunteer Lina Eshaya. “We don’t have a country today… so it’s as if they’ve now arrived to Assyria.”

Rachel Sarah Thomas, a singer based in Chicago, was one of the festival’s opening performances. Thomas began getting more involved in the community in 2015 when she saw ISIS videos of beheadings and the Lamassu being destroyed. Singing, Thomas said, is her way to express her feelings.

“[This festival] makes us visible and in being visible, your identity even within yourself is strengthened,” Thomas said. “My instinct was to create. It’s an act of creation. You’re making something new and you’re asserting yourself because they’re trying to diminish you.”

Candlelight march highlights Assyrian Martyr’s Day in Skokie

August 2019 | By Mark Satter and Joe Snell | Photos and Video by Mark Satter and Joe Snell

CHICAGO – Hundreds of candles descended down Niles Center Road in Skokie on Aug. 7 as part of Assyrian Martyr’s Day.

The annual commemoration, held at the Assyrian National Council of Illinois (ANCI), brought together 16 organizations and hundreds of Assyrians and invited guests, including Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen.

“Not many people know what has happened to Assyrians,” said Nineveh Rasho, who coordinated the event alongside William Sargool. “It’s important to remember and to instill that in our everyday routine. We have to continue to survive and thrive and that’s why this event is so important.”  

Assyrian Martyr’s Day was initially recognized in the 1970s to commemorate the 1933 massacres in Simele, Iraq, according to the AUA website, and has since grown to encompass Assyrian martyrs throughout history.

This year’s commemoration began with an opening prayer and recognition of several organizations and community leaders including His Grace Mar Gewargis Younan of the Ancient Church of the East and His Grace Mar Paulus Benjamin of the Assyrian Church of the East.

“We want our new younger generations to know the reason why we left our homeland was because of these atrocities that have happened and the sacrifices that were made to keep us alive,” His Grace Mar Gewargis Younan said. “Even though we left our homeland, we know that our roots are still there.”

A highlight of the evening was a large timeline of 81 significant Assyrian events and massacres starting from 650 AD to 2015. Young Assyrians took turns reading events from the timeline.

After the readings, Assyrian singer Doug Bako performed a song.

The event concluded with a procession of candles around the facility to commemorate the individuals that have died for the Assyrian identity.

The Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF) estimates roughly 100,000 Assyrians in the Chicagoland area and upwards of 20,000 in Skokie. That number, Mayor Van Dusen said, has continued to rise over the last decade.

“I believe the more we know about each other, where we come from, what our beliefs are, the more civil we are with each other and I find it invigorating to get to know people,” Van Dusen said.

Assyrian Martyr’s Day is celebrated around the globe at major events in cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Sydney, Beirut and Irbil. The Assyrian Policy Institute website estimates roughly 3.5 million Assyrians worldwide.  

“The martyr’s efforts and their work and their tragedies won’t disappear into thin air,” Rasho said. “It’s important that we grasp that and hone it in to ourselves and utilize that every single day. We need to ask, ‘What am I doing for my community, what am I doing for my people, and why am I fighting for my people as other people have done for me before?’”

Chicago dinner gala raises funds, ignites responsibility to homeland

Assyrian Aid Society of America’s third annual “King Ashurnasirpal Dinner Gala” hosted among artifacts of popular Mesopotamian gallery

June 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos by Joe Snell

CHICAGO – Members of the Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A) and guests gathered at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago on May 25 for the Third Annual King Ashurnasirpal Dinner Gala, an evening that showcases Assyrian history while also encouraging support for future projects.

“We wanted to link something here in Chicago with the homeland,” said newly elected AAS-A Vice President Renya Benjamen. “What’s really unique in this city is that we have this gem of the Oriental Institute, which was one of the first to start excavating in Iraq and find the ruins of Nimrud. This is a special event to bring our guests to a piece of the homeland and link what’s important for us, which is our people, our homeland, to the people of Chicago.”


In 2016, as the President of the Chicago chapter of AAS-A, Renya attended a private “curator talk” at the Oriental Institute, a research organization and museum at the University of Chicago founded in 1919 and opened to the public in 1931 that is devoted to the study of the ancient Near East. After the event, she approached museum curator Kiersten Neumann and proposed a dinner event hosted inside the Mesopotamian gallery. The museum was initially reluctant because they didn’t open their space to public organizations.

“I told her this is affecting the people that are directly impacted by what was destroyed in Iraq,” Renya told the Journal. “It would be such a monumental event to hold something here to appreciate what you’ve preserved and also to appreciate that we have to preserve what’s remaining.”

Neumann, a PhD in Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, has spoken at Assyrian lectures in San Jose as well as on the Berkeley campus. She was keen on developing new programs at the Institute specifically targeted towards Assyrian history including family programming, academic sit-down lectures and gallery talks focused on particular objects. The dinner gala, she told the Journal, was an opportunity for the Institute to see another perspective on Assyrian history.

“I’ve always found it very interesting when I give a tour to someone from the Assyrian community and to understand their associations with objects in the museum and the stories they have related to an object or to an event,” Neumann said. “The Lamassu I know from my perspective of archaeology and the ancient cuneiform text, but being able to engage with someone who has a different perspective or other stories about history is equally interesting… We have a large community of Assyrians here and I think that’s something that is important for us to continue to develop.”

In 2017, AAS-A became the first organization to host a dinner inside the museum.

In order to use the space, AAS-A has to go through an approvals process with a museum committee that includes reviewing everything from the layout of the tables to controlling the humidity of the room with a designated door handler to limiting the number of guests to 70. The committee even monitors the decibel level of the microphones. No dark drinks or sauces such as red wine or whiskey are allowed and items entering the space go through a rigorous check by museum staff. The first year of the gala, for example, the museum had to individually inspect ever flower that would serve as a centerpiece to make sure there were no bugs that could damage the exhibit.

The name “King Ashurnasirpal” was selected by AAS-A, Renya told the Journal, because King Ashurnasirpal II was an Assyrian king who, after rebuilding Nimrud and celebrating his inauguration in 879 B.C, arranged a large palace banquet for all city residents.

Opening remarks at this year’s event were provided by Renya and AAS-A Chicago Chapter President Sonny Khoshaba in the museum’s Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery. Special addresses were made by AAS-A President Ashur Yoseph and Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq (AAS-I) President Ashur Eskrya.

Two recognition awards were presented. Peter Bityou, who recently retired from AAS-A, was honored with a plaque for his nearly 26 years of work for the organization. Most recently, Bityou pushed the organization’s name in DC and their work with USAID. Dr. Rouel Gewargis was also recognized for his long-time service to the national organization.

The Assyrian Aid Society of America was founded in 1991 as a non-profit and now has eight chapters in major Assyrian communities across the country. According to their website, the goal of the volunteer organization is to help Assyrians in need and promote culture and heritage. The AAS-A works to fund specific projects, including monthly contributions for Assyrian schools and helping pay teacher salaries in Northern Iraq. They also work on special shorter-term initiatives including building an irrigation channel for an Assyrian village in Northern Iraq.


The theme of ‘Continuity’ was chosen for this year’s event because Renya said Assyrians have a responsibility to continue the preservation of the community.

“If we’re proud that we have people living in the homeland, seeing what they accomplish, seeing what they preserve, then we have a responsibility to ensure that it can continue,” she said.

The theme was highlighted in the dinner menu, catered by Assyrian Kitchen. Atorina Zomaya, founder of the Chicago-based business, based her dinner choices on three Mesopotamian clay tablets, known as the Yale Culinary Tablets or the “world’s oldest cookbook.” Zomaya and chef Dan Sarkiss molded these recipes to today’s palette. As the courses progressed, they became more and more modern.

Keynote speaker Dr. Alda Benjamen, Kluge Fellow, Library of Congress and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke about the role of language in preserving the Assyrian history. Dr. Benjamen’s research is focused on the intangible (i.e. oral narratives, traditions, agricultural knowledge) history of minorities, particularly the Assyrians, during the 1960s through the 1980s. She urged the audience to begin documenting stories within their own families.

“I think often we care about documenting the lives of figures and events we deem significant but undervalue the experiences of the so-called ordinary people which are in fact very important,” Dr. Benjamen said. “Talk to your grandparents and family members and try to preserve their stories. Take an interest in the elderly people in your community. Ask questions about where they come from, what life was like, and what kind of traditions they practiced.”

Assyrian empowHER series launches in Turlock

May 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos contributed

TURLOCK — In 2015, as TV host Maryam Shamalta was leaving the studio of a live show, she received a call from her uncle.

For the last two hours, she had been interviewing two women in honor of Assyrian language day. The interview was special, Shamalta recalls, because at the time it was rare for Assyrian TV shows to exclusively feature women.

“My uncle had just watched the show and he called to tell me he loved that three strong women were together on one show for two hours,” she said.

The next day as she entered the studio, one of her colleagues pulled her aside to say something similar.

“He said it would be great for me to start a show focused exclusively on women,” she said. “That show in 2015 was when I started realizing what my calling is in the world and it is to empower women.”

Four years later, that idea turned into “Assyrian empowHER”, a lecture series by Shamalta and Dr. Adrenna Alkhas. The lecture series tackles topics pertaining to women’s empowerment and promotes inclusivity and collaboration. Discussions range from women working together in corporate America to collaboration in education and volunteering.


In early 2016, before launching the “Assyrian empowHER” series, Shamalta created a TV show called “Assyrian Feminine Power” and a year later she created her own media platform and video production company called Shamiram Media. Around 2018, however, she realized another avenue needed to be created to get closer to the women in the community.

“I was on TV and doing shows and interviewing women, but I had to meet them in person and let them ask me questions,” she said.

In January 2018 she interviewed college professor and marketing director Dr. Adrenna Alkhas for an episode of “Assyrian Feminine Power”. Alkhas had just published a new book titled, “EMPOWHER, Empowering Young Women” and was also leading women’s empowerment discussions in California.

“Sometimes you make connections with people for a reason,” Alkhas said. “I was honored that she asked me to work on this series. It is vital that Assyrians connect and support each other instead of tearing each other apart.”

The two began brainstorming what the new series would look like. The initial idea was to have a single lecture but they both agreed this should be a larger series. The title and logo of that series, “Assyrian empowHER”, was formed from a combination of Shamalta’s media company, Shamiram Media, and Alkhas book, “EMPOWHER”.

They reached out to Sam David, the president of the Assyrian American Civic Club of Turlock. David put them in touch with Ramsina Betsayad who had just started the Assyrian Wellness Collaborative, a new initiative that works closely with the local government to provide health, empowerment, and education opportunities for Assyrians.  Betsayad agreed to sponsor the launch event in Turlock.


The first lecture took place on Sunday, April 7 at the Assyrian American Civic Club of Turlock. The discussion covered women working together in corporate America as well as supporting each other both inside and outside the workplace.

“I found myself laughing at times, thinking deep at other times and even getting really emotional as I could relate to some stories or examples,” said Savina Dawood, an Assyrian activist who resides in Turlock and attended the event. “I was encouraged and guided to a better way of dealing with people talking negatively behind your back. Only focus on your goals and the positive people around you who want your well being and success.”

Sponsored by the Assyrian Wellness Collaborative and funded by the Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, the event was free to the public and drew nearly 130 participants.

“I wasn’t expecting people to walk up to me and open up,” Shamalta said, who was also encouraged by the number of men who attended.

“There is this idea as women that we can do it all by ourselves and we are better than men, but I don’t like that,” Shamalta said. “We can collaborate. We can learn, volunteer, get involved in organizations, and work together with our men. We bring different ideas. We have different visions. We have a different perception of things. When we combine that in a good way, we can make a big difference.”

The next event will take place in Los Angeles through the Assyrian American Association of Southern California (AAASC) later this fall and will cover different topics. Shamalta is also in discussions with other cities across the country including Assyrian communities in Texas and Connecticut.

Learn more about Shamiram Media by visiting their Facebook page.

Each lecture in the series will cover different topics and be videotaped and published online. Highlights from April’s lecture can be seen here: