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.
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 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.
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.”
Listen to previous “Face to Faith” podcasts:
- Decade after dust-up, nun Donna Quinn firm on abortion: ‘Choice is the woman’s,’ Oct. 29, 2017
- Chicago Satanist G. Edwin Taylor: There’s no devil, humans ‘are our own God,’ Oct. 22, 2017
- WXRT DJ Lin Brehmer: Finds inspiration ‘in the beauties of the world,’ Oct. 15, 2017
- Prominent Presbyterian pastor Shannon Johnson Kershner: ‘God’s not a Christian . . . we are,’ Oct. 8, 2017
- Former pro star Andrea Jaeger’s faith ‘way better than my tennis,’ Oct. 1, 2017
- Miranda Rae Mayo of ‘Chicago Fire‘: ‘My thoughts create my reality,’ Sept. 24, 2017
- Bears outside linebacker Sam Acho: ‘I want to be a light to my teammates,’ Sept. 17, 2017
- Top Lutheran bishop Elizabeth Eaton: If hell exists, ‘I think it’s empty,’ Sept. 10, 2017
- Author Scott Turow: Feels ‘a deep faith’ in ‘the power of good,’ Sept. 3, 2017
- Cardinal Blase Cupich: Some of ‘greatest Christians I know’ have no ‘faith system,’ Aug. 27, 2017
- Gov hopeful Daniel Biss: Faith that fuels divisiveness is ‘dead wrong,’ Aug. 20, 2017
- Lutheran scholar Martin Marty on faith, Luther, the state of religion: Aug. 13, 2017
- Chicago Sky’s Amber Stocks: Message matters more than the denomination, Aug. 6, 2017
- ‘Hood’ and ‘holy’ minister Marilyn Pagan-Banks: Not alone ‘even when you make bad choices,’ July 30, 2017
- Author Patrick T. Reardon: ‘Embrace the pain of life as well as joys,’ July 23, 2017
- Paylocity founder Steve Sarowitz: Baha’i ‘made sense to me right away,’ July 16, 2017
- Candidate Chris Kennedy: ‘I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work,’ July 9, 2017
- Jail warden Nneka Jones Tapia: ‘I think God is all around us,’ July 2, 2017
- Sox outfielder Melky Cabrera: ‘Let it be God’s will if we lose or win,’ June 25, 2017
- The Mekons’ Sally Timms: ‘Not the kind of atheist who’s down on religion,’ June 18, 2017
- J.B. Pritzker: At times, ‘your faith has to overcome maybe logic,’ June 11, 2017
- Daoud Casewit, American Islamic College president: ‘We’re as American as we are Islamic,’ June 4, 2017
- Public Defender Amy Campanelli: My clients ‘are not evil people,’ May 28, 2017
- James Lovell: ‘We go to heaven when we’re born,’ May 21, 2017
- Michael Magnafichi, one-time ‘rising star’ in Chicago mob: ‘I do say prayers,’ May 14, 2017
- Ald. Ameya Pawar: ‘There’s always the opportunity for redemption,’ May 7, 2017
- Sir the Baptist: ‘I want to be the first hip-hop chaplain,’ April 30, 2017
- Singer Shemekia Copeland: ‘Hell, yeah’ God loves the blues, April 23, 2017