Posted on: January 22, 2020 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Carolyn Thill

COM 101 Student

No one on the bus heading to Jordan, Lebanon had paperwork yet to leave Iraq.  Boys could not be on the bus unless they were serving in the military.  Soldiers with machine guns came aboard for inspection.  John Youkana and his brother had to hide in a special place on the bus where they would not be seen.  If the soldiers had found them, they would have been shot and killed. 

Youkana was born in Bagdad, Iraq, and has a sister and a brother.  He is a 55-year-old high school graduate with no college degree.  Youkana was raised Catholic while living in an Islamic neighborhood.  His family was lower-class,  and his mother was not allowed to work.  His father was a manager for a department store comparable to Sears. 

The house was small for a family of five with only one bedroom.  The children had to sleep either on the floor or the couch.  Youkana today lives in Chicago and  has three children of his own  with his wife, Shameran. They proudly raise their children accoriding to their Catholic beliefs.  An outsider may say, “Don’t talk to these people; they came from Iraq and because the wife worked for the devil himself, Saddam Hussein, they could be terrorists waiting to take over America.”  This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Their home immediately reflects their beliefs with a 3-foot statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.  Shameran has a flair for cooking middle eastern food and making guests feel at home as she prepares a dinner as elaborate as a Thanksgiving feast.  John and Shammy have quite a lot to be thankful for.  As unique as the delicious homemade chai tea is that they prepared from a 2-story, old fashioned silver tea pot, so are their courageous stories of living through horrendous events inside Iraq and managing to escape turmoil and dangers while they tried to put together a new life for themselves.

When Youkana was a small boy, he thought Iraq was a decent place to live.  “The economy was thriving.  There were no taxes and gas only cost a couple of cents per gallon,” explains Youkana.

  Although his family was too poor to afford air conditioning, he found it fun to sleep up on the roof tops when temperatures wouldn’t soar over 100°.  “Kids had fun as they would jump from roof to roof to visit each 

other.  We were all good 

friends regardless of our religious backgrounds,” stated Youkana.

There were no after school activities, so he played a lot of ball in the streets.  He also used to take apart motors from lawnmowers and rebuild them into mini dirt bikes, which he then rode around the neighborhoods.  His hobby earned him a job when he graduated high school in the States.

One day, as Youkana played with his friends, he recalled that he saw a bunch of people gathered in an area that looked like Times Square. “I thought maybe a game had occurred.  So, I climbed a pole to see.  What I found were people being hung in the streets.  They were placed in a circle, 10 at a time.  There may have been around 250 people hung that I saw in my lifetime,” says Youkana.

Life in Iraq was changing quickly for the worst.  Cops walked up and down the streets, and if people did not like you, they would make up stories about you to the authorities.  Youkana explains, “You could be stoned to death just for being a Christian, or from a lie told about you. Fortunately, we did not have any enemies, but whenever there were fun gatherings, we no longer were invited to attend because we were not practicing Muslims.”

Youkana’s mom decided they needed to get out of Iraq.  They started to give away their belongings.  With sadness, Youkana recalled, “I remember my mom was crying, and dad had to leave his job.  He used to bring home so many fun toys from his job.” 

Defection was frowned upon by Iraq’s government.  John did a lot of work for the Cardinal like painting his church and his house, and doing miscellaneous repairs for him.  He made a deal requesting paperwork to be created in place of payment for Youkana and his family to secretly leave Iraqin 1972.

At that time,  Youkana recalled reports saying, “Saddam Hussein killed the original king and took over.  Saddam got rid of anyone against him.  He also got rid of any foreign companies and anyone that was not Islamic.”  Youkana was shocked hearing these reports and then his mother said, “It is time to sneak out of this country.” 

They took a bus to Jordan Lebanon.  From there they went to Beirut and visited the Embassy.  Lots of Christians were on a two-year waiting list to get to Australia or America. “The Vatican was beautiful,” Youkana remembers.  Here they received the paperwork that brought them to America where many of his relatives also lived.

Upon arriving in America, family members waited in a warm car to pick them up.  John was shocked by the weather.  “It was snowing.  I had never experienced snow before,” says Youkana.  “We were very cold as we had nothing but the clothes we wore on our journey.”  

They stayed with relatives, made some money by shoveling snow, and worked with the US government to be put up in a studio apartment.  “Making friends was hard at first,” Youkana explains, “I encountered a few fist fights, but things did get better.”  His dad and mom both got jobs for a steel company, working separate shifts so someone could be home with the kids. The Youkanas continued to help more family and friends to come over to the States.  As he grew older, his mother received word that another close friend and her family had escaped Iraq and moved to England.  However, England was not so fond of Syrians.  His family urged him to go there, marry the young girl, and bring her back to live in Illinois.  The young girl was Shameran.  After some time, John and Shammy grew very close and did eventually fall in love.  He landed a great job as a manufacturer for Avery Deninson where he has been employed for the last 30 years.

Youkana’s advice for anyone going through what he did is this: “Do not take my story for granted, or anything you have, especially your freedom.  You cannot punish yourself for anything you cannot control.  You cannot control what bad people do, but you can control what you can do!”

Carolyn Thill is a COM 101 student of Professor Lisa Couch. This article was written as an assignment on empathy. Carolyn can be contacted at thillc@student.morainevlley.edu.