Interview with author and entrepreneur Jacob Bacall

This is an interview I did with Jacob Bacall, who epitomizes the successful Chaldean American. Chaldeans are Neo-Babylonians, an indigenous Aramaic-speaking people whose lineage dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. Jacob immigrated to Michigan in 1977 and quickly established himself as a successful businessman. He has written several books about Chaldean Americans including the following:

About the book Chaldeans in Detroit: Chaldeans (pronounced Kal-de’an) are a distinct ethnic group from present-day Iraq with roots stretching back to Abraham, the biblical patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam who was from the “Ur of the Chaldees.” Chaldeans are Catholic, with their own patriarch, and they speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. Chaldeans began immigrating to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, when Iraq was known as Mesopotamia (the Greek word meaning “land between two rivers,” the Tigris and the Euphrates). Lured by Henry Ford’s promise of $5 per day, many Chaldeans went to work in Detroit’s automotive factories. They soon followed their entrepreneurial instincts to open their own businesses, typically grocery markets and corner stores. Religious persecution has caused tens of thousands of Chaldeans to relocate to Michigan. Today, the Greater Detroit area has the largest concentration of Chaldeans outside of Iraq: 180,000 people (it’s estimated that since 2014, Detroit actually has the largest concentration of Chaldeans).

Jacob’s second book is called The Chaldean Iraqi American Association of Michigan, more commonly known as CIAAM. This was not simply an association of just a group of early immigrants who escaped prosecution or were merely looking for better life for their family and loved ones. They were indeed good-hearted individuals who strived to build a solid foundation for a well-rounded community in this new land for the immigrants, the United States of America. The CIAAM exemplifies the success of immigrants that have migrated to Detroit from Iraq, providing a place for social gatherings, community discussions, family celebrations, and education to those yearning to learn more about the Chaldeans of Mesopotamia, their successful migration to America, and the contributions they are making in Michigan. Today, CIAAM has more than 900 active families as members, strengthening the recreational, social, and business bonds among the large “family” of Michigan Chaldeans.

This interview was hosted by the Chaldean Cultural Center, in collaboration with the University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter] and Unique Voices in Films.

Interview with artist and author Paul Batou

Written by: Weam Namou

Paul Batou was born in 1959 in a tiny village on the border between Iraq and Turkey. When he was two years old, the Kurds destroyed his village in an act they called “ethnic cleansing.” This forced his family to migrate to Mosul and eventually to Baghdad, where he lived among Arabs. His family rented a room with six other families. Almost forty people shared one small kitchen, bath, and toilet. He described his home as “more like a prison.” Even though his family spoke a different language, Aramaic, they managed to survive. Batou’s mother was forced to work like a slave in a hotel while his father traveled back and forth from Baghdad to the north in order to restore their land. He could not imagine working in a city while others stole his land.

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None of Batou’s siblings completed their education, but thanks to his aunt’s generosity, he was enrolled in a Catholic school. He performed very well, especially in art and science. At first, he drew simple Disney characters, and then graduated to Western wild west-style pictures. At the age of twelve, he wrote his first short story, which was a love story based in the city of Kremat, where he grew up. His journey as an artist continued throughout high school.

In 1989, Batou traveled to Italy to study art, but his father refused to finance his studies. He returned to Baghdad and was accepted in a pharmacy school, so he followed that direction. Luckily, the school had a studio for the arts. One of the protocols in Iraq was that each college must have a music and art department to be used for students’ hobbies.

The following is an excerpt from the book Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists

WN: Why didn’t you study art in Baghdad?

BATOU: The College of Fine Arts was exclusive to the Baath Party. I didn’t even bother to apply because I had no desire to become one of their members. I was fortunate that the director of the studio in the pharmacy school was one of the most famous Iraqi artists, named Abdul Ellah Yassin. That’s how I practiced and learned art in a more professional fashion. It was as if I’d missed something and then found it. I was hungry to absorb all the knowledge I could in art.

WN: While living in Iraq, did you have any serious encounters with the Baath Party?

BATOU: My problems with the Baath Party began after I received my bachelor’s degree. I was accepted to continue my master’s degree in toxicology. However, because of my friendship with Abdul Salman, a Shia Muslim student who was disliked by the Baath Party, my art teacher told me that, like my friend, I would not have a chance. My friend and I took our case to the minister of education and eventually to the minister of health, who refused to help us. When we asked him why his daughter was going to England for the master’s degree when her scores were lower than ours, he replied, “She is my daughter and I want the best for her.” The minister’s final advice was for us to join the army.

One of my classmates from elementary school had become a powerful person in the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabart. I had helped him in his academic study in pharmacy school and we used to play together during childhood. He offered me the opportunity to study nuclear pharmacy in Sweden. In return, I would receive an excellent pay and my family would be provided with a nice home and a comfortable life. It was either the army or studying abroad and joining the Mukhabarat. It was like having to choose between heaven and hell. I chose hell.

I served in the army five years during the Iraq-Iran war. The first few months, I was on the front line, and every night I asked myself if I had made the right or the wrong decision. I played by my principles, and my principle was not to give up my freedom. I later wrote a poetry book, My Last Thoughts About Iraq, which is based on the notes and soldiers’ quotes I jotted down during the time I served in the war, from 1983 to 1988.

Matters changed when I was placed in the medical unit and began focusing on helping as many people as I could. We were in a city that bordered Iran, where there was shelling and wounded men every day. That’s when I forgot my doubts and questions. God gave me peace in my heart, and I ended up staying in order to help the people who needed me. I stopped feeling like I made a bad decision and I felt happy to be a pharmacist. I’m helping more people now.

WN: What was the driving force behind leaving Iraq and coming to America?

BATOU: Freedom. The turning point in my search for freedom was when I started reading and painting the Epic of Gilgamesh. That story had a major impact on my thinking as a human and as an artist. Gilgamesh and his long journey and search for life, love, and freedom opened my mind and caused me to look back at my roots as a Mesopotamian. I became more determined to love my land and my people and to fully understand that this is my Iraq, not owned by Shiites, Sunnis, or Kurds. The Christians of Iraq are the natives of Iraq. They carry the heritage of Iraq.

Seeing my friends, mostly artists, writers, and poets whose thinking was in opposition to that of Saddam’s ideas, taken by Baath Intelligence or put in prison or disappearing from the university affected my thinking. I realized I am not free. If you search for freedom while under the dictator rule, either you think to exit Iraq, or if you can’t do that, your alternative is connecting to whatever makes you feel free. To me, the gypsy culture, writing poems, painting, and playing classical guitar provided me with the ideals that I live by and the freedom to express myself among the people who fear God and pray all day.

In 1989 I moved with my family, a wife and a son, to Athens and eventually to the United States. Although it was difficult in the beginning, the image of America being the land of freedom and opportunity lived up to its name. I found American people very helpful. They assisted me as best as they could. One person who played a big role in my success was a friend and pharmacist by the name of Ira Freeman. He offered me a job in his pharmacy even though I had no experience with computers and I didn’t know the name of the drugs since they were different than what I had learned in Iraq. He even provided me with financial assistance to get me through.

One thing you learn in America is that you have full freedom. Humans with freedom will have more powerful production than humans under oppression. I’m happy in America, but I miss the friends I left behind in Iraq. I’ve written many times that I can’t feel joyful and happy when my friends in Iraq are sad and worried.

One day my father told me Iraq is my homeland. It was called Mesopotamia before, the land of two rivers. My mom said any land that gives you freedom is your land. I ask myself one question. Could I have done all this in Iraq? Would I get the same support to express myself freely, with no restrictions? The answer is no. Only true freedom will make you a professional pharmacist, artist, writer, and musician. How many people living in Iraq now missed that opportunity? Freedom is what makes a country and its people great. Finally, this is my land. I lost my home in Iraq. I don’t want to lose my home here. The way to keep my home is to restore the world to peace.

Front Cover (painting)

WN: Why do you think that America is not very familiar with Iraq’s art?

BATOU: Everyone agrees there was a big arts movement in Iraq long before Saddam came into power. Many artists had traveled to Europe and accomplished such extraordinary work there that they were very well-known there. While American professional observers who deal with art know about the high standards of art and music in Iraq, the general public does not know. The United States and Iraq did not have good enough relations to create programs where Americans can come to Iraq and witness, for themselves, Iraq’s culture or people, or for Iraqis to come to the United States and do art exhibits.

Since there was no cultural interference or exchange with Iraq, Americans didn’t know anything about Iraq’s history, culture, and heritage. That’s the one reason that the US failed with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Yet our cultures are similar in a way. It’s about new invaders who came in with a different culture and changed Iraq to what we see now. This is a repeat of what happened to the Native Americans, when Europeans invaded the Natives’ land and changed their beliefs, religions, and way of life.

WN: Have you visited Iraq since you left? 

BATOU: I once felt that even if I visited Iraq for one or two weeks, that would mean I would have to give up my freedom for one or two weeks, which I didn’t want to do. Then, in 2014, I finally visited the northern part of Iraq for two weeks. It was the first time I was there since I left in 1989. Things were stable and people were generally happy when I visited. I told them, “It can’t be sustained. Things will not end happily.”

WN: What made you say that?

BATOU: The government offices were unorganized and corrupt. You can’t maintain a society with poor politicians and poor thinkers.

Everyone focuses on the Islamic State, but the war in Iraq has been ongoing since 2003. I believe Saddam was only one person and we, the Iraqis, gave him his power. We became his hands and eyes, his army and secret police. We the Iraqis created the dictator. Iraq for the Christians was not a paradise before his rule. We lived among a lack of knowledge and education. Iraq was always a land of fear and discrimination. Maybe the Islamic State did something good. It brought the world’s attention to us. Before then, no one knew or cared about the minorities in Iraq.

The Islamic State has a positive presence in the Middle East. They cause people to examine their thoughts and beliefs about killing others, which were happening even before they entered the picture. Saddam also tried to destroy our identity and culture, but not in this way.

WN: Can you tell us about Minor Dreams and Confessions, two of your paintings?

I painted Minor Dream in the 1990s during the sanctions against Iraq. I used to have family there and you could feel the pain and suffering of the people during that time. I thought about the kids, especially after what Madeline Albright said in regards to half a million Iraqi children dying due to the sanctions that made it difficult to access milk and prohibited other basic foods and medicine items. When asked by the TV anchor if the price is worth it, Albright said, “We think the price is worth it.”

I also painted Confessions in the 1990s, and this relates more so to the Christians of Iraq, when the Arabs conquered Mesopotamia. You know how you confess your sins to the priest and the sins will go away? I confessed so that I can wash away all the sins of Iraq. I shouted and cried, but I am tied up. I cannot reverse the history of Iraq. It’s God’s Will that it falls. After reading the Bible many times, I found that God insulted Babylon repeatedly for having enslaved the Jewish people. The wars, the sanctions, the invasion— they are punishments from God. They are consequences of the past.

WN: How do you plan to restore the world to peace?

BATOU: The way to make a change is through what I do with art and what you do by writing books. We become a voice for the people who cannot express what is in their minds and hearts. Our job is to explore the world through beautiful art. Our job is not to condemn Islam, Christianity, or any other religion, but to provide people with a vision.

For me, art has a universal message. Part of art’s universal message is to deliver beautiful pieces with nice colors, logic, and philosophy for all humans. My colors reflect the tone of the Earth, the language of the universe, the cry and pain of the oppressed people.

As an artist, I go back to that civilization, that beauty, and ask myself, why do I need to restore that Iraq? It’s because it represents the great civilization, the beauty, the knowledge about all humans. My love for the US plays an important role in my art. Since 9/11 there has been less freedom in the US, affecting the way people live and think. One of my goals is to restore that freedom.

Usually artists, whether they are American, Iraqi, or from any other country, don’t like war. Our concern is mostly for the innocent people who will suffer, whether those people are the citizens of Iraq or our troops and their families in America.

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 This interview was hosted by the Chaldean Cultural Center and UofM Detroit Center. http://www.ChaldeanCulturalCenter.org

http://www.paulbatou.com

Keeping up with the Chaldeans

Keeping Up with the Chaldeans is a podcast and vlog created and hosted by Junior Binno and Anthony Toma that highlights entrepreneurs within the Chaldean community. KUWTC was created to help strengthen the Chaldean community by showcasing the diversity of businesses, bringing recognition to those in our community who are unknown and driving support to one another. Each episode highlights a member of the community who shares their story, knowledge and expertise while showcasing their business ventures.

So you ask, who are the Chaldeans? They are an indigenous people from ancient Mesopotamia, otherwise known as the cradle of civilization and modern-day Iraq.  The history of Mesopotamia is measured in millennia rather than centuries. The first cities developed in the south around 3500 B.C. For the next 3,000 years, kingdoms rose and fell, empires expanded and contracted, outsiders conquered and were repelled. During this time, three dominant civilizations held center stage: the Sumerians (3500 – 2600 B.C.), the Babylonians/Chaldeans (1792-539 B.C.) and the Assyrians (1115-612 B.C.).

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The city of Babylon inherited the culture of Sumer and under Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) became the seat of a strong central government and a great cultural and religious center as well. In 612 B.C., Babylon was dominated by the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonian Empire). The Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar II rebuilt Babylon into the greatest city in the world. His most noted contribution is believed to be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Mesopotamia is home of Enheduanna, the first recorded writer in history, the goddess Inanna and Ishtar.

Ishtar Gate
Original Ishtar Gate

Mesopotamians are known for a number of achievements, including inventing the wheel, the first to use writing, to establish a calendar which included 12 lunar months, observe and describe complex patterns in the motions of the heavens (astronomy), and to develop an irrigation system for agricultural purposes.

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Chaldeans are among the many ethnic groups that have been immigrating to the United States since the early 1900s. They are Eastern Rite Catholics, Aramaic speaking, and originating primarily from Iraq. They have come to America for the same reasons as other immigrant groups – in search of better economic opportunities , as well as for religious and political freedoms. Over the years, due to wars and violence, their numbers in Iraq has dwindled and today, the largest concentration of Chaldeans live in Michigan.

By watching “Keeping up with the Chaldeans” viewers will get an inside, candid look into each entrepreneur and their journey to success, learn valuable information, gain knowledge about starting their own business and advice on overcoming obstacles others have faced.

Since its inception in May of 2019, KUWTC has shot nearly 100 episodes highlighting various industries from restaurant entrepreneurs, attorneys, musicians and performers, medical, skincare, nutrition, fashion and clothing, photography, auto sales, insurance, mortgage and more.

You can find Keeping Up with the Chaldeans on Youtube, Itunes, Spotify, Facebook and Instagram. Kuwtchaldeans.com

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Two Sisters Co-Author their First Book

As first generation Assyrian Americans, Josephine and Mary had one goal. They wanted to share their vision of Iraq with the world through the stories that molded their minds throughout their upbringing so people get a chance to see that Iraq is more than a place riddled with war, destruction, poverty, and terrorists.

The sisters were born and raised in the North Park area of Chicago, Illinois, for most of their lives until they moved to San Diego, California. They shared their lives with each other until they got married and now live on opposite sides of the country. This didn’t stop them from creating Before There Were Borders.

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The creation of Before There Were Borders started when Josephine wanted to write a book, a goal she wanted to mark off her bucket list. She wanted to write a story about her culture so people could understand that Assyrians are more than just a chapter in history books. She wanted to show that the Assyrian community is still alive in today’s modern world. Then she decided to reach out to her sister, Mary, and ask for her feedback. Once Mary came on board with the project, the story came alive. Mary’s creativity helped make the story and characters blossom and reach its true potential.

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Josephine and Mary overcame lots of challenges over the course of three months, in addition to living across the country from one another. But this didn’t stop them from completing their mission. Josephine and Mary’s writing routine consisted of waking up early and being on the phone several hours as they formulated scenes and character development while fulfilling their marital and maternal duties. This went on back and forth until the story was edited and finally complete.

In December 2018 Before There Were Borders was published. The novel is a coming-of-age story about an Assyrian-American female named Sara Georges, who shares her experiences growing up as a young girl in Iraq and how she dealt with its culture, patriarchy, and limitations. She tells her story to her American-born granddaughter, who is unaware of the harsh truths of her grandmother’s homeland.

Quite ambitious, the sisters were able to accomplish their goal despite their busy schedules. Josephine studied English at the University of San Diego and specialized in medieval literature along with philosophy and history. She is fluent in several dialects of Aramaic. She can also read and write classical and modern Aramaic. After college, she moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she lives with her husband, Victor, and two young boys. Josephine has a decade of experience in the building industry and project management. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Public Administration at Central Michigan University. Her passions include volunteering in the community, training for races, spending time with her family, reading books, writing, and cooking.

Mary has been married to Zaid for almost a decade and together they have a daughter and son. She currently resides in a well-manicured suburb of San Diego. Mary lives a life that consists of constantly improving herself spiritually, intellectually, and physically.  She hopes she can reach one person and make a positive change in his/her life, which would be enough for her. She’s first and foremost a humanitarian and believes change starts at home and with those within her reach. She tries to contribute to making a big difference in little ways. Mary’s passions include reading books and watching movies, listening to all kinds of music, cooking, decorating homes, and hosting big family gatherings. She is artistically talented with an unforgettable sense of humor.

Since Mary lives in California, I interviewed Josephine on my show about her journey.  Here are some insights she had about the writing life.

What inspired you to start writing?

I was inspired to write since I was a little girl. I used to read all the time and was fascinated in getting lost in a story. It was always a goal of mine to write a book ever since I was young. This also attributed to my English major at the University of San Diego.

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, but have been “professionally” writing for over thirteen years.

When did you start writing?

Believe it or not, I started writing Yelp reviews when I was twenty years old. Then, I was asked to write movie reviews for new releases. I finally shifted to getting creative with different types of writing from screenplays, poems, list stories, and full-on research papers.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I have always wanted to be a writer. It’s a definitely a “calling” since I was 8.

What advice would you give a new writer, someone just starting out?

First, you have to read. Reading gives a writer mental exercise.

I suggest finding your voice through journaling. Start out with a small goal like writing one word on the first day. I promise that you will end up writing more. I recommend getting yourself somewhere comfortable with limited distractions and the writing will come. Try to sit in the same place at the same time and before you know it, you will be writing effortlessly.

Once you find your voice, you can practice executing your voice by writing reviews or writing letters to your friends and loved ones. Then, get creative with whatever writing style that calls you.

How do you come up with the titles to your books?

I came up with my title while I was exercising. Running and exercising stimulates me.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I considered myself a writer when I became a Yelp “Elite” member and got “Review of the Day” (LOL true story).

Describe your writing space.

My favorite current writing space is in my kitchen with the shades open. On my kitchen table. On the table is a cup of tea.  And the shades open so I can watch the sun rise whilst listening to acoustical classical music.

What time of the day do you usually write?

I usually write first thing in the morning before I look at my phone or talk to anybody.

Describe a typical writing day.

A typical writing day starts around 4 AM before I get influenced by anything. I wake up, force myself out of bed, and go downstairs to my kitchen.

I drink some water, make some tea, and put my laptop on the kitchen table with my journal. I review my affirmations of the day, start some initial journaling expressing gratitude, and review my schedule in my planner.

Then, I open my laptop and start writing once I hit play on my music playlist. It’s called “Focus on Work”, which consists of: Alan Shavarsh Bardezbanian, Bach, Beethoven, Café del Mar, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mozart, Lindsey Sterling, Rossini, Thievery, Vivaldi, and so many others. Music is essential for my creativity.

What is the most difficult part about writing for you?

The difficult part of writing is continuing where you left off when life throws a curveball at you.

What is your work schedule like when you are writing?

My work schedule is flexible since I am currently raising my boys and helping my husband with his businesses. But, since my boys, husband and household are my job, I have to focus on writing early in the morning before anybody wakes up and needs me.

What does success mean to you? What is the definition of success?

To me, success means doing what you love whilst positively impacting the lives of those around you. The definition of success is working on a goal you are passionate about and getting it done. Success is simple. We complicate it.

To learn more, visit https://beforetherewereborders.com/

Trusting What Comes

Her father was a taxi driver and her mother a stay-at-home mom. He supported his eight children and they lived a comfortable life in Al Ghadeer, a district in Baghdad where many Christians lived. She remembers wanting to be a doctor.

“My parents and grandparents called me doctor,” said Nidhal Garmo. “They were sure I would become a doctor. That was the dream they had for me.”

Nidhal went to college for just a few months in Iraq before she came to the United States at age 20. She worked as a cashier and studied medicine at Wayne State University. The strong school system in Iraq made the education process for her at WSU “a piece of cake.” Although she received good grades, and felt she was ahead of the game, she didn’t make it to medical school but she did finish pre-med. She became a pharmacist instead.

“God gave me something better than I expected,” she said. “I didn’t know I would be a charity lady. Had I become a doctor, I would’ve been too busy and under too much pressure to do humanitarian work.”

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It wasn’t an easy path. People put Nidhal down for going to school. They said things such as, “Tomorrow you’re going to get married and have a baby. What then would be the use of your degree?”

Well, Nidhal did get married when she was still a student in the liberal arts department. She became pregnant, gave birth to a baby girl, and returned to class three days later. Her husband helped a lot with the baby even though they opened a salon.

“The same people who discouraged me from getting an education now call me asking to help them find a job for their kids,” she said. “They’re impressed with me. Life turns different ways.”

After graduating from college, she earned a position working as a pharmacist for Perry Drugs, which is now Rite Aid. Five years later, she decided to establish her first pharmacy, Nidhal’s Pharmacy, as part of the Sav-Mor franchise in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Her business grew rapidly and was a success.

During the sanctions against Iraq, Nidhal send a lot of medication, money, and other donations for people in that region. Later, the 2003 war caused her to have nightmares. Watching the suffering of the Iraqi people ignited her passion for humanitarian work. She felt she had to do much more. That’s when her missions to Iraq and Kurdistan began, 23 to date.

“I saw things that touched my heart,” she said. “Sometimes it’s difficult – when you get close to someone and when you go back and ask about that person, you learn that person is dead.”

Among many, many things, Nidhal has sponsored 12 containers of medicine and medical supplies, clothing and dry food to doctors, clinics, and hospitals in Iraq and Kurdistan to treat the sick and wounded children refugees there. She helped save thousands of lives through her nonprofit foundation, One World Medical Mission which since 2008 has provided medical assistance, food, and clothing for underprivileged, at risk refugees and IDPs in conflict areas such as Kurdistan Iraq, Jordan, and Honduras.

“There is joy in helping these people and it’s not hard,” she said.

It’s not hard because Nidhal works from her heart, not her mind. She sees the bigger plan in everything and doesn’t allow circumstances to deter her. She once said to me, “My house is big. There’s a reason my house is that size. It’s arranged by God so I could use it as storage for the medical containers and other donations.”

She’d also said, “I trust God. When I don’t have money, I talk to God and within 30 minutes or so, I receive a call or email that guides and assists my situation. God does not disappoint anyone! Just wait and see what will happen!”

Trusting what comes is sometimes not easy to do in a western culture that encourages us to push and pull rather than look inward, listen and embrace. Trust what comes. Embrace it. Love it. Be grateful for it. And miracles will happen.

For more information about Nidhal Garmo and to help her with her mission, visit https://owmm.org/

A Night in Nineveh

Nineveh was an ancient city on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq. It is one of the oldest and greatest cities in antiquity. The area was settled as early as 6000 BC and by 3000 BC had become an important religious center for worship of the goddess Ishtar.

“Nineveh was the superpower of her day,” my pastor once said during a church sermon. “It required three days to circle metropolitan Nineveh. And the Ninevites lived large. They enjoyed the best chariots, the finest food, and the most exotic entertainment. It had an extensive business and commercial system like none in the world. In addition, it had ruled the world for 200 years and was the strongest military power. Sounds familiar?”

Yes, very much so.

Nineveh is where Jonah was swallowed for three days and three nights by a whale. It’s where he was called to preach, to help its people repent and change their ways. Despite its great power, this ancient city was attacked and reduced to rubble by a number of groups as Nahum had prophesied. Nahum was a minor prophet whose prophecy is recorded in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. By 612, the city was left lost and buried until its rediscovery by archaeologists in the mid-19th century.

What happened in recent times to that region is truly tragic. After the advancement of ISIS in 2014, most of Nineveh was emptied of the Assyrian Chaldean Syriac people for the first time in thousands of years. 12,970 homes, 363 churches and 140 public properties were destroyed. The people who fled ended up living on the streets and in tents in the city of Ankawa, Kurdistan. Every effort was made by ISIS to destroy one of the oldest and most influential cultures in world history, bulldozing cemeteries, desecrating ancient churches and burning irreplaceable books. Without a country, minority groups were, and still are, bombarded from every angle with Arab, Kurdish, Iranian, Syrian, and western influences.

In response to this catastrophe, a young group of Americans of Mesopotamian heritage quickly formed a nonprofit organization called Shlama, which means “peace.” Peace is what they ultimately wanted to give back to their community so that they can thrive and prosper in their native lands. Today, most families who remained in Iraq have moved back to their villages. Shlama continues to be fully committed to supporting them in rebuilding their lives.

The organization’s board members are very creative. They provide a spreadsheet that states the name of the donor, the amount they donated, and a link to a short YouTube video that portrays how and for whom the money was used, with photos of the receipts.  In each video, the recipient(s) express their situation, thank the donor by name and address how the money has touched them. This not only shows where the money went, but it also creates a relationship between the donor and the recipient.

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Currently Shlama is organizing a mission’s trip to Iraq in March and before that, they’re having a fundraising event on March 1st called A Night in Nineveh where I’m honored to be the guest speaker. I’ll be sharing stories about the women of Ancient Mesopotamia, the history of education and schools in that region and healthcare and doctoring, and I’ll be talking about the marriage customs of the olden days. At this event, there will be lively music, great food, and a number of fun stations where you get to experience the colorful and rich traditions of ancient Mesopotamia.

The name Mesopotamia was changed to Iraq by the British in the early twentieth century when they occupied the region. Up until the 2003 US-led invasion, the general public was not aware that this area is the cradle of civilization. Writing, the first school, law, literature, a map of the world, and the idea of dividing time and space into a multiple of 60’s started in this historic land. Man’s most important invention, the wheel, was devised in Mesopotamia, as was plumbing, the plow and the sailboat. Iraq is the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, supposedly the site of the Garden of Eden, and where many biblical stories occurred. The first writer in recorded history was Enheduanna, a woman from ancient Iraq. She lived, composed, and taught roughly 2,000 years before Aristotle and 1,700 years prior to Sappho. Before the “golden age” of Greece.

It’s unfortunate that the region where science, astronomy, and numerous inventions were a prominent way of life has become the exact opposite of what it once was. But it’s inspiring that the youth connected to its ancestors have not forgotten their heritage and are highlighting it in celebratory and humanitarian ways.

For more info about the event, visit https://www.shlama.org/events

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