Skokie’s Highland School serves up Assyrian Culture Night
Children from the Assyrian National Council perform songs and dances Feb. 28 as part of a Coming Together in Skokie event at Highland School. Programming on Assyrian culture has been taking place throughout the village. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
A full house watches children from the Assyrian National Council perform songs and dances Feb. 28 at Highland School as part of this year's Coming Together in Skokie program. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
Nicol Odicho and daughter Hanan Ismail enjoy the Assyrian Church of the East Youth Choir Feb. 28 at an Assyrian culture celebration at Highland School, part of Skokie's Coming Together in Skokie program. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen and wife Susan, a founder of Coming Together in Skokie, watch children sing and dance Feb. 28 at Highland School. The event was part of a village-wide celebration of Assyrian culture. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
Children from the Assyrian Church of the East Youth Choir sing Feb. 28 in a Coming Together in Skokie event at Highland School. The program also featured author Celia Barker Lottridge. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
Children from the Assyrian National Council gather for a song and dance Feb. 28 during a celebration of Assyrian culture at Highland School. The event was part of the village's Coming Together in Skokie program. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
Nahrain Brendaro from the Assyrian National Council performs a song and dance Feb. 28 as part of Coming Together in Skokie's 6-week initiative celebrating Assyrian culture. The event was held at Highland School. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
Marilyn Odisho from the Assyrian National Council dances to Assyrian music Feb. 28 during Assyrian Culture Night at Highland School. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
Children from the Assyrian National Council perform to a packed house Feb. 28 at Highland School. The event was one of many over six weeks celebrating Assyrian culture as part of Coming Together in Skokie. I David Banks~for Sun-Times Media
by Mike Isaacs, misaacs ( a t ) pioneerlocal.com. March 5, 2012.
Many audience members in Highland School’s full house last week pulled out their cameras to capture the slice of Assyrian culture presented on stage.
This was a family night for many of them with children sitting on parents’ laps, clapping to Assyrian music, swaying to the Assyrian songs.
By all accounts, Highland’s contribution to this year’s Coming Together in Skokie, an annual village-wide six week celebration of a different ethnic culture, was a splendid success.
“It’s very informative and educational for people to know about other ethnicities,” said Sargon Isaac who attended the event with three generations of family. “To learn about the history of other people is so important.”
“It’s a great idea when they started it a few years ago,” said his wife, Hilda. “To recognize a culture and to educate other people about it brings everyone together.”
It certainly brought this family together.
Isaac and Hilda are Assyrian and from Iraq, but they have been in America for well over 40 years and most of them in Skokie.
Their children graduated from Skokie School District 68 and went to Highland School. Their youngest, Paul, said he had not been back to Highland for 15 years.
“It’s pretty strange,” he said.
Highland School labeled its evening event — attended by Mayor George Van Dusan and his wife, Susan, the latter one of the key founders of Coming Together in Skokie — Assyrian Cultural Night.
Divided into two parts, it included children from the Assyrian National Council and from the Assyrian Church of the East Youth Choir offering some lovely authentic music. Author Celia Barker Lottridge then discussed her heralded book, “Home Is Beyond the Mountains.”
In District 68 alone, said Highland School Librarian Gail Bernero, who developed the Feb. 28 event, about 7 percent of all students are from Assyrian speaking families.
In 2011, more than 3,000 people attended Coming Together in Skokie events when the spotlight shone on the Filipino culture. This year, Coming Together in Skokie leaders believe that total will be topped.
“This program is what makes Skokie so wonderful and such a special place to live,” said Bernero before the entertainment got under way.
Highland fifth graders have read “Home Is Beyond the Mountains,” a children’s book, which tells the story of 9-year-old Samira who is driven out of her small village with her family when the Turkish army invades northwestern Persia.
Fleeing into the mountains, the family confronts a journey so miserable that only Samira and her older brother survive. The children move among temporary shelters before they end up in an orphanage to live out their childhoods.
Or so they thought.
New orphanage director, Susan Shedd, takes 300 refugee children on foot back to their home villages — a journey of 300 miles — through the mountains and their difficult terrain.
The book is fiction, but it’s remarkably authentic and packs a great a story. The author spent much time researching its details, she said, and the key character of Susan Shedd is based on a family member.
“I haven’t met a lot of people who know the history,” said Lottridge. “They like the story and they like the characters but they don’t actually know a lot about the background.”
Although Lottridge is not Assyrian herself, she has plenty of ties to its people and culture. Her great grandfather and her grandfather were missionaries to the Assyrian people. Her mother and three sisters were born in Persia.
The book, she said, came to life in part because of the stories her mother told her as a child.
“My mother always remembered her childhood,” she said. “She always told me stories about when she was a little girl. She told me about her mission; she told me about how they made bread; she told me about the games they played.”
But it was later learning the story of her Aunt Susan, her mother’s oldest sister, that drove the main idea for the novel. By the time Lottridge heard it, she was already a writer.
Her aunt returned to Persia after World War I ended to become director of an orphanage. Like in the book, the orphanage was for Assyrian children who had escaped war and had been living in refugee camps.
“Susan was 26 years old and she was a ball of fire and she wanted to help and she wanted to go back and be with her people and do some good,” Lottridge recounted. “She wanted to do something to honor her father.”
Like Susan Shedd, Aunt Susan devised the plan to return 300 children to their native homeland. Her success makes the story all the more remarkable and a spiritually soaring read.
The author last week showed photos of her family — the people who inspired the book and the details that give it so much life.
It took Lottridge four years to write because of the extensive research not including, of course, all the stories her mother told her.
Her mother must have done a good job.
Lottridge said she received a call from one reader who didn’t even known he was crying while reading the book until his wife told him.
“The beginning of the book where it describes her in the village and in the house reminded him so much of where he came from that it made him cry,” Lottridge said. “I thought to myself that’s a tribute to my mother’s storytelling. She told us so much that this man recognized his own childhood. When I heard it, I thought, ‘Thank you mother.’”
For more information on remaining Coming Together in Skokie events, access.