Displaced Iraqi Christians in America have said that this Christmas
they will be praying for relatives still living in their homeland.
On a recent overcast Sunday morning in northwest Chicago, the pews of
the small wood-panelled St Ephrem Chaldean Catholic Church were filled
to overflowing. Among the rows of Massgoers sat Firaz Rassam and her
After the Mass, Rassam and her sister, Victoria Rassam, said they
“pray, pray that (Victoria’s) children would be able to get out (of
northern Iraq) in time” before any major ISIS attack or any other
conflict reaches their neighbourhood in Ankawa, a Christian hub in the
Kurdish region. Firaz Rassam, who arrived in Chicago in September, said
this year she would not be able to celebrate Christmas “with the type of
happiness that (her family) normally would celebrate.”
Speaking through their nephew who interpreted from their native
dialect, an Aramaic derivative, Firaz Rassam, 44, told Catholic News
Service (CNS) that she and her three children came ahead of her husband
after her other sister, Fairuz Rassam, sent for her.
“The environment over there,” said Firaz Rassam, who used to be a
librarian. “There’s no electricity. It’s dangerous. There’s no work. I
want to have a better future for my kids.”
Victoria Rassam, 56, who migrated to Chicago two years ago, was still
waiting for her family to come. She said all she could do was pray and
that she was “really hoping” she would see her children again soon.
“This Christmas we will celebrate by going to midnight Mass and praying for them,” said Victoria Rassam.
Since the second Gulf War in 2003, oil-rich Iraq has been unstable
with ethnic and religious conflicts that have given rise to various
terror organisations, including ISIS. Many Christians migrated; others
fled ISIS and other terror organisations.
Deacon Hameed Shabila, a long-time Chicago resident who works
at St Ephrem, told CNS his siblings in the Baghdad area have not been
able to attend midnight Mass for years because it is not safe. He said
the churches are heavily guarded by armed forces after dark.
Deacon Shabila, who has asked that his siblings be allowed to come to
the US, said it was also around Christmas time that one parishioner’s
adult son was killed in Iraq 10 years ago. Shabila served as interpreter
for the parishioner, Maria Yonan.
Yonan said she fled Iraq with her daughter-in-law and two grandsons
immediately after her son was killed when he was celebrating on New
Year’s. The 77-year old widow was hesitant to speak with CNS and feared
for her grandsons’ safety as she described how a group she called
terrorists attacked her son and his friends.
Yonan and her daughter-in-law spent a couple of years as refugees in
Syria, trying to get to Australia, where her daughter-in-law has family.
But the wait was too long and they decided to come to the US, which was
readily accepting refugees. Her daughter also came to the US as a
refugee and is living in California, but one other daughter stayed
behind with her own family.
Yonan, who recently became a US citizen and lives in low-income
housing, said at Christmas she likes to go to midnight Mass at St
Ephrem, where she can be with people who speak her language. She has
tried to keep up some of the same Christmas traditions that her family
kept in Iraq.
Yonan said every Christmas her grandsons visit and she makes special
Christmas sweet called klecha, a treat that “makes people happy” and
signifies a joyful time. But this year, Yonan said she was not planning
to make the sweets because she is in mourning after the November 25
death of her son-in-law, who suffered a heart attack in Baghdad.
Hazim Maryaqo and his family also will not be celebrating Christmas
this year because of the death from illness of his brother in Baghdad.
Maryaqo, 49, arrived in the Detroit area on October 4 with his pregnant
wife and three children, all younger than eight.
In a phone interview with CNS, he said through an interpreter that
when the family was living as refugees in Turkey during the two years
before coming to the US, “there was no (Christmas) celebration.”
“The three or four (Christian) families that were around us, they
came to our house, we went to their house. That was as simple as we
could do,” said Maryaqo, who was threatened with death at his family
pastry shop in central Baghdad for selling certain cakes with liqueur in
Maryaqo said now that he is in Michigan, his family tries to go to
Mass often, but sometimes trying to find transportation is tough. He
said he is hoping to find work as a pastry chef so that the family can
have some stability and get to church more regularly. But he also
expressed anxiety about the safety of his elderly father and siblings
left behind in Baghdad.
“I will never go back to Iraq, but I hope I can bring my family here,” he said.
Going to Christmas midnight Mass was something that Eevyan Hanoon said
she longed for when she lived with her husband and toddler for three
years at a refugee camp in Turkey. She told CNS by phone that she made
klecha and tried to make the most of the season. But something was
“The difference at Christmastime was the Eucharist. I missed taking
the Eucharist. I was with two church choirs in Mosul (Iraq),” said
Hanoon, 28. “This is the most important thing in our life. We have not
missed a single Sunday” since arriving in Michigan in September.
In Chicago, the Rassam sisters’ nephew, Rakan Kunda, said even if his
own family has been living in the US for two decades, they “always
remember … family back home” at Christmas time.
“We think about them,” said Kunda, 26. “We pray for them but there’s nothing we can do at this point. Until all this is over.”