Assyrian Americans held a vigil Saturday in north suburban Morton Grove to honor the victims of a wedding fire in their Iraqi homeland that killed more than 100 people, with the death count still rising, on Sept. 26.
Local Assyrian organizations are also helping to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid victims.
Morton Grove Village Trustee Ashur Shiba noted that Skokie, Morton Grove, Lincolnwood, Niles, Glenview and Chicago's Rogers Park and environs are home to about 100,000 Assyrians who have fled from northern Iraq, and some had family members in or near the town on the Ninevah Plains, not far from Mosul, where the fire at the wedding occurred.
"People here have family members in this town," said Alex Karana, of Chicago, president of the Assyrian American Bar Association. "Every Assyrian has a tie to that area. Assyrians are indigenous to that land, especially in the Ninevah Plains."
Karana spoke at Saturday's vigil, telling those in attendance that he had been in Iraq with a group called Ninevah Rising, which he described as promoting Assyrian culture and connecting Assyrians outside Iraq with their roots, when the fire occurred, and he visited the site the next day and took photos of people making their way toward funerals for the victims.
The photos show a Christian cross on what Karana said was a church and cemetery site. Assyrians are Christians and live as a minority in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, predominantly a Muslim country, where Shiba said they are treated as second- and third-class citizens.
The complex struggles in the area are illustrated by the fact that the historically Assyrian town in which the fire occurred is called Bahkdida by its Assyrian inhabitants, though the Kurdish Regional Government calls it Qaraqosh and Iraq calls it Hamdaniya, Shiba said.
Shamiran Echi, president of the Chicago chapter of the Assyrian Aid Society, said the Assyrian Student Association led the Morton Grove vigil in collaboration with the aid society.
Echi said chapters of the aid society set up a fundraiser in the United States, Canada and Australia, all home to Iraqi refugees, and raised $400,000 within a couple of days of the fire for food and medicine for fire survivors.
Echi said mobile clinic teams run by volunteer paramedics helped burn victims in their homes in cases where they weren't admitted to a hospital.
The aid society is planning a Saturday fundraiser at the University of Chicago Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures in Hyde Park, chosen for its exhibit of Mesopotamian history.
Echi said she hopes to continue to help families who lost caregivers and breadwinners. That includes psychological help for those who will need it, she said.
"We have a family that a mother, father, [and] siblings passed [away], and there's only a six-year-old girl left," said Echi.
Shiba explained the Assyrian population in Iraq started falling during the Gulf Wars in the 1990s and then around 2014 when ISIS was active in Iraq.
"The Assyrian population got decimated," he said.
The years following Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003 brought civil war and lawlessness, he said.
"(Assyrians) had no choice but to flee Iraq, he said, adding many came the United States and Australia. "This is like an ongoing genocide and of the culture and the people."
He expressed worry that such a reduced Assyrian population in their homeland could withstand disasters such as the wedding fire.
"I haven't slept," in the past week, he added.
The Associated Press reported Oct. 2 that the death toll from the blaze had risen to 113, and that Christian leaders had called for an international investigation into the cause. One Syrian priest, it reported, blamed widespread corruption in Iraq, and the influence of armed militias on the government, as contributing to factors that enabled the fire.
Pioneer Press Reporter Richard Requena contributed to this story.