From Mideast To Midwest: 5 Chicago-Based Arab Women Who Are Redefining What It Means To Be A Global Citizen

BY Alex Aubry / Jul 21 2019 / 18:34 PM

In America’s heartland, BAZAAR meets a generation of Middle Eastern women who are contributing to Chicago’s cultural and civic life through the power of reinvention

From Mideast To Midwest: 5 Chicago-Based Arab Women Who Are Redefining What It Means To Be A Global Citizen
Sebastian Böttcher

On January 3, 2019, Rashida Tlaib made her way up the stairs of the US Congress dressed in her mother’s intricately embroidered thobe. That day, she became the first Arab Muslim American woman to be sworn into the House of Representatives. By the time she made it to Capitol Hill, Rashida had established her career as an attorney fighting for civil rights, affordable healthcare and raising the minimum wage. A single mother of four and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, she’d arrived in Washington DC to represent the State of Michigan. That a powerful voice such as Rashida’s could emerge from the country’s Midwest came as no surprise to a region that’s home to the largest concentration of Middle Eastern immigrants in the country.

Many settled in Midwestern cities such as Chicago, Illinois, the state with the largest Muslim population in the country. An important part of the city’s fabric today, their presence can be seen in charitable organizations dating back to the 1960s, as well as Arabic, which is taught to more than 3,000 students in Chicago’s public schools. From this once invisible minority has emerged a new generation of women, who are contributing to Chicago’s cultural and civic life through the power of reinvention. Each makes the point that to be a global citizen today means navigating complex geographies while celebrating the bonds that link us together.

Azadeh Hussaini: Iranian-American Artist, Curator & Educator

Artist Azadeh Hussaini in an embroidered dress by Chicago designer Beata Kania

The daughter of noted Iranian artist Reza Hosseini, Azadeh Hussaini was born in Atlanta, Georgia in the mid 1970s, where her father was studying for his BA in fine arts at Georgia Tech. She learnt to paint under her father’s guidance and went on to pursue a BA in Fine Arts at Tehran’s Azad University in 1995. At 19 she held her first show at Tehran’s Daryabeigi Gallery, where she sold all her paintings, in addition to winning five commissions. “That early experience encouraged me to pursue painting as a career, but I also knew that I still had to work hard to prove myself,” says the artist, who moved with her husband to the United States in 2006, where they initially settled close to relatives in a suburb of Virginia.

In 2008, Azadeh’s husband accepted a position at a Chicago hospital and the couple moved to the city, where their son was born a year later. “When we got here, I instinctively knew this is where I wanted to live, because it felt familiar and reminded me of Tehran,” says the artist the next day at her studio, where works in various stages of completion are propped up against walls. She points to stacks of Iranian newspapers and cardboard boxes that await her attention. Today, these materials form the basis for the artist’s wall-mounted sculptures that explore her journey as an immigrant. “Compelling art doesn’t just ask questions, but also addresses universal concerns such as the refugee crisis, the immigrant experience and global warming,” says Azadeh, noting that over the course of her life she’s moved 22 times. Frequently packing her belongings between layers of newspapers in cardboard boxes, these materials eventually became the language with which she expresses her experiences.

Azadeh wears a geometric sheath by Melissa Serpico Kamhout

“All these materials represent my life as an immigrant because these papers hold my memories,” adds the artist, who in 2018 cofounded Didaar, an organization supporting Chicago-based Iranian artists and art historians through lectures and workshops. When it came time to celebrate her 40th birthday, she decided to embark on a walking tour of northwestern Spain with members of Chicago’s Theater Y. “Shortly afterwards they invited me to become a board member,” says the artist, who since 2017 has also served as Theater Y’s curator, where she organises exhibitions related to its plays. “They work with playwrights from around the world who touch on universal experiences,” says Azadeh, of an approach to sharing stories that reflect her own identity. “I’ve always believed that I can learn just as much from different cultures, as they can from me. It’s why I try to find the best in people no matter where they come from.” 

Azeh Atout: Jordanian-American HR Consultant & Volunteer Firefighter

Azeh wears a jersey dress by designer Katrin Schnabl

On May 4, 2002, Queen Rania of Jordan took to the stage at Pennsylvania’s La Roche University, to deliver the keynote speech during its commencement ceremony. As she spoke, she singled out one particular student amongst the graduates that day. “I am quite sure that La Roche student Azeh Atout never dreamed she would someday be honoured as the Firefighter of the Year. She became the first woman to win this award and I'm proud to say that she is one of 25 Jordanians participating in the Pacem in Terris Program,” noted Queen Rania, as Azeh listened quietly amongst the audience while looking back on the journey that brought her to this moment. 

“It was pretty surreal for me as a young Arab Muslim woman, because I never thought I’d be in the news let alone mentioned by a queen,” says Azeh, who was born in Amman to Palestinian parents. The year she would graduate from high school, she came across an ad in the newspaper for the Pacem in Terris Program at La Roche University. Founded in 1993, the program offers scholarships to students from war-torn and developing nations to study at the university. “I applied together with thousands of other Jordanian students. Only 13 finalists received visas to come to the United States, so I knew it was an opportunity that I couldn’t take lightly,” says Azeh, who flew to Pennsylvania shortly after graduating from high school in 1999.

Certified firefighter Azeh Atout in a draped velvet dress by Anke Loh and ring by Gillion Carrara

While focusing on pursuing a bachelors degree in accounting and business administration, Azeh also struggled to find a community to call her own, until she became a resident assistant at a dorm during her sophomore year. “One of the job requirements included going through fire safety training. When I told my boss how much I enjoyed it, she recommended that I apply for a volunteer position at the local fire station,” says Azeh, who underwent rigorous training sessions for 88-hours over the course of 11 weeks. She would find at the fire station a close-knit community that became her surrogate family. “Then September 11th happened and many firefighters died trying to save people at the Twin Towers. I worried about how I would be received at the station so I stopped going,” recalls Azeh, whose absence was immediately felt by the station’s team and chief, who encouraged her to come back.

“That day I saw the good side of people in the face of tragedy,” says Azeh, who in 2004 received her masters in HR administration, before working her way up the corporate ladder as a compensation analyst. A year later, she met her husband Nayan Shah on a flight from Pittsburgh and eventually moved to Chicago in 2005, where they’re raising their daughter Leila and son Adam. “My husband is Indian-American, I’m Jordanian-Palestinian and our kids are growing up in a world where having a multi-cultural background is increasingly the norm,” says Azeh, who volunteers at Chicago’s annual Palestinian Film Festival, the longest-running event of its kind in the United States.

Khitam Masoud: Palestinian-American Founder of Blessons for Women Foundation

Blessons founder Khitam Masoud poses in a brocade jumpsuit by Chicago designer Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and wood cuff by Gillion Carrara

“I’m passionate about helping women because of the adversities I’ve encountered throughout my life,” says Khitam Masoud, the founder and director of Blessons for Women, a non-profit organization helping women rewrite their stories. “Turning tragedies into teachable moments can be a very powerful tool,” says Blessons’ director, who was born the eldest of seven children to Palestinian parents in Sacramento, California. Her life changed at 16, when her parents tried to marry her to an older cousin without her consent. Faced with few options, she took them to court to file for emancipation as a minor and won her case in 1998. After graduating from high school, she received a scholarship to California State University where she pursued a degree in corporate communications and marketing.

As she struggled to maintain her grades while balancing two jobs, she was diagnosed with rare cancer that would change the course of her life yet again. “I remember sitting in the doctor’s office thinking how could this happen to me. I was a 26-year-old who played sports and never smoked,” recalls Khitam, who went through a series of surgeries and treatments at the University of California’s hospital in Berkley. “I made the decision that if I beat cancer, I’m going to leave California to start over somewhere new and do all the things I’ve wanted to do in life,” says Khitam, who moved to Chicago in 2007, where she continued working in the restaurant industry while trying to complete her higher education. A few years after arriving in the city she joined Imerman Angels, an organisation that provides one-on-one cancer support to those fighting the disease.

Khitam wears a trapeze dress by Abigail Glaum-Lathbury

“I became involved with the charity because they bring people together, to make sure no one goes through cancer alone as I did,” adds Blessons’ director, who would recruit the largest number of runners for the charity’s team during the Chicago Marathon. In 2016 alone, she brought 200 runners together for the charity event, which raised close to $400,000 for Imerman Angels’ programs. Her experience with the charity gave her the confidence to establish her own non-profit organisation that same year. “When you’re able to view painful lessons as blessings, they become blessons. So I started my charity to give women the opportunity to advance economically and better their lives because I struggled to obtain a higher education with limited resources,” says Khitam of her organisation’s mission, which has helped hundreds of women overcome difficult circumstances to achieve their dreams.

In addition to providing scholarships, Blessons also organises free mentorship programs, therapy sessions and self-care workshops for women. “Many of our members have endured hardships such as cancer, mental health conditions, physical and emotional abuse or are first-generation immigrants. We want these women to know that no matter what happens to them in life no one can take away their dignity,” says Blessons’ director, who since 2016 has fundraised over $100,000 through “This charity changed my life. My dream now is to open a Blessons House that can serve as a safe space, where women can find encouragement and support to become their best.”

Vivian Khalaf: Palestinian-American Immigration Lawyer & Activist

Immigration attorney Vivian Khalaf wears a dress by Anke Loh and Bambi Breakstone neoprene coat, accessorized with brooches by Beata Kania 

In January 2017, some 20 Chicago lawyers converged on Terminal 5 at O’Hare International Airport. Each held up a sign offering free legal services to anyone needing assistance, following President Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries. Among the lawyers and activists who were there to appose the ban was Vivian Khalaf. Since opening her practice in 1993, the immigration lawyer has spent the past 25 years assisting immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Born in Jerusalem, Vivian came with her parents to the United States as immigrants in 1967. Only six months old at the time, she settled with her family in Denver, Colorado. When Vivian was 12, her father got a job at Abu Dhabi’s National Oil Company and she moved with her mother and siblings to Ramallah, where she attended a Quaker school established by America missionaries in 1889. 

After graduating from high school, she moved to Chicago to attend the University of Illinois. While there, she majored in political science with a minor in history, to better understand the colonial and geopolitical forces that shaped the map of the Middle East. In 1987, she landed a part-time job at an immigration law firm run by Irish-American attorney James Fennerty. “He became my mentor and was well known in Chicago’s Palestinian community for providing free legal services to those who couldn’t afford them,” says Vivian, who went on to pursue a law degree at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology. By the time she graduated in 1991, she was already married and pregnant with her second child. “At the time I was working long hours at a law firm and went into labour at the photocopy machine. I knew then that I needed to take my career into my own hands,” says the attorney, who went on to open her own firm, specializing in immigration law for Arabic speakers. “At the time there wasn’t anyone providing those services at a rate people could afford. But I still had to prove myself, because a lot of people hadn’t seen a Muslim Arab female lawyer before,” recalls Vivian, whose practice quickly grew and eventually merged with a larger firm in Chicago. 

Vivian in a geometric A-line dress by Melissa Serpico Kamhout

Since then, her firm Khalaf & Abuzir has opened offices in Ramallah and Beirut, where she frequently travels to meet clients in addition to other parts of the Middle East. Today, Vivian’s actively involved in a number of organisations such as the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. “It’s a charity that’s dear to my heart because they’ve saved thousands of children by providing them with urgent medical treatment,” says the attorney, who’s also on the advisory board of the American Middle East Voters Alliance. “We’ve been led to believe that our vote wouldn’t make a difference, but with the election of the first generation of Muslim female representatives to Congress, we now feel empowered to speak up,” says the attorney, noting that Arab and Muslim Americans are no different than other communities. “I always say I’m going to die with my boots on. I’ll continue to advocate for fairer immigration laws, to ensure this country remains a welcoming and safe haven for future generations.”

From the June Issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia