Chicago immigrant: Assyrians suffered ‘so much’ but ‘still have hope’

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Atoor Merkail. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

Atoor Merkail, an Assyrian Christian whose immediate family — seeking stability and a better life — left their native Iraq last year to settle in the Chicago area, part of a Middle East minority with a rich history but targeted by ISIS in recent years.

Merkail, 39, is married with two kids, 5 and 3. Her husband became a U.S. citizen when he lived here previously.

Their village is in northern Iraq in an area with numerous Kurds, who just voted for independence and are among those battling the Islamic extremist group ISIS.

Merkail was a teacher in Iraq, but, with pay sometimes sporadic and the future of the region unclear, moved last year to the Chicago area, where she had family who once lived in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

“We’re trying to find a better situation, at least for our kids.”


Assyrians have deep historical “roots” in Anatolia, today part of Turkey, and Mesopotamia “going back well before the third millennium” before Christ, according to material from Rutgers University.

Assyrians were among the first converted to Christianity — tradition has it by at least one of Jesus’ apostles.

“Most Assyrians, who belong to different Christian denominations and have a population of about 300,000 in Iraq, want to remain part of the country but aspire for political autonomy,” according to a recent article by Al Arabiya, a Middle East news outlet.

In the modern era, “Most Assyrians are in Iraq, Syria and Iran,” Merkail says.

But because of war and turmoil, many have left as refugees or immigrated to the U.S. or Europe.

ISIS has slaughtered Assyrians and other Christians in that region and destroyed their religious sites in attacks in recent years.

Aside from what’s going on now, the “Assyrian people have been repeatedly victimized by genocidal assaults over the past century,” according to one historical account.

Some Assyrians are part of military coalitions fighting ISIS.


Merkail’s village helped families who left Mosul when that Iraqi city was under siege by ISIS.

She has spoken with women raped by ISIS fighters, who espouse a radical, unyielding interpretation of Islam and violently target Muslims who don’t agree with them.

“I have a lot of Kurdish Muslim friends” and former co-workers in Iraq.


There have been Assyrians in the Chicago area since the late 1800s, with some coming for education, others as refugees settling on the Near North Side, according to the book Assyrians in Chicago, which also noted local Assyrians “mostly represented six different churches: Presbyterian Church, Holy Catholic Apostolic Church of the East (Assyrian), Congregational Church, Baptist Church, Pentecostal Church and the Catholic Church.”

The Assyrian American Association of Chicago just celebrated its 100th anniversary.


Some Assyrians still speak a version of Aramaic, which is believed to be the language Christ spoke.


As many as 100,000 Assyrians currently live Illinois, with most arriving since the 1980s, according to Iraqi Christian Relief Council, based in Evanston.

There are a number of Assyrian churches and other organizations in the city and suburbs.


Will Merkail ever move back to Iraq?

“I hope so,” but after a year in the U.S., she enjoys the “human rights” and equality emphasized here.


“We belong to Iraq, we are the original, original people,” would like “our own region to know that we will be safe, not all the time planning to run away or to go outside of Iraq.

“We hope that there will be peace in Iraq.”


Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times, with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at and on iTunes and Google Play.

Atoor Merkail. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

Atoor Merkail. | Tim Boyle / Sun-Times

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