Christians from Iraq finally celebrate holiday in America

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First Christmas
Milad, left, and Lina Homo watch their daughters, Melva and Angelina, open their Christmas gifts. The family celebrated their first Christmas in the United States on Dec. 25, 2017, after coming from Iraq in May. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)
Michael HawthorneContact ReporterChicago Tribune

A year ago, Milad Homo feared his family never would be able to celebrate Christmas in America.

The Assyrian Christians had waited more than three years for a chance to emigrate from Turkey, where they had fled after Homo was threatened by a carload of men in black hoods as the family left a Baghdad church. Homo, his wife and two daughters had left all but a few possessions behind in Iraq, struggling to get by in a Turkish city packed with fellow refugees while praying they could someday join his mother, sisters and brothers in Chicago’s tight-knit Assyrian community.

Their bid for asylum from religious persecution and genocide had appeared to be finally moving forward last year. But rumblings about new delays after the U.S. election turned to outright panic when the family was caught up in President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which barred citizens from Iraq and several other predominantly Muslim nations from entering the country.

It took nearly three months of political pressure and geopolitical wrangling to drop Iraq from the travel ban. Even after that, many Iraqi Christians in America have been on edge, especially after the Trump administration moved to deport hundreds of people back to war-torn Iraq.

Homo and his family ultimately managed to cut through the roadblocks, arriving in Chicago in May and embarking on the heady experience of being immigrants in a country vastly different from their own.

“It’s amazing to be in a place where we are free,” Homo said Monday at the family’s cozy apartment in West Rogers Park. “We escaped from something very hard, for us and for our children. The best gift is now we can stay far, far away from (Iraq) and have a better life.”

As his two daughters dove under a Christmas tree to unwrap presents, Homo explained how extended family and random acts of kindness have helped them get started in their new home.

Family members provided furniture, a TV and a network of supporters in the Assyrian community. Catholic Charities gave them the fully decorated tree after helping Homo and his wife, Lina, navigate tasks such as getting a driver’s license and enrolling Melva, their oldest daughter, in school.

The charity also found a spot for Lina to take English lessons at Truman College and advised Milad how to apply for jobs. Though Target and Walmart turned him down, he got a big break when a friend of one of his brothers recommended him for a job as a dental assistant.

“The first week was so difficult, and I still need the navigation device to get to work,” Milad Homo said with a laugh.

He already speaks fluent English, a subject he said he studied intensely during high school before the Persian Gulf War and later during dental school in Baghdad. Lina, who taught high school history in Iraq, is quickly catching up.

Meanwhile, Melva, 9, learned English like a YouTube-obsessed Gen Zer, picking up words and phrases while watching Disney movies online in their Turkish apartment.

The presents Melva and Angelina, 4, gently unwrapped Monday were decidedly American: Barbie and Skipper dolls, My Little Pony figures, a plastic tea set. They excitedly spoke an easy mix of English and Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language that once was common throughout the Middle East.

There is nothing left for them in Iraq.

Homo’s mother left after his father was shot to death while driving a cab in Baghdad before the U.S. invasion in 2003. His siblings followed her during the next decade.

Life already was tough under Saddam Hussein, Homo said, but it became even more difficult to survive as ISIS took over vast swaths of Iraq and targeted what was left of an already dwindling Christian population.

Months before they fled to Turkey, he said, his wife narrowly escaped a car bomb in their neighborhood. The men who later confronted him outside their church called him by name, Homo said, and told him his family had one more chance to leave Iraq alive.

“We feel like we finally are in the right place,” he said. “Our girls can see their future here. And they are safe.”

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