George Knox knows how difficult life can be for recent immigrants. “A lot of new immigrant groups go through a period of cultural conflict when they’re susceptible to discrimination and bullying,” says Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Center, based in Peotone, 40 miles south of Chicago. This period of adjustment, Knox says, leads some immigrants to form gangs.
In the late ’70s, one of the most prominent immigrant gangs in Chicago history, the Almighty Assyrian Eagles, emerged in Albany Park following new waves of immigration by Assyrians fleeing persecution in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. “Populations who are dislocated,” says Bob Benjamin, 71, an Assyrian-American communications director who grew up in Chicago, “tend to generate rootless, disconnected youth and gangs.”
The Eagles have faded from the Chicago gang landscape—a sign that Assyrians, Middle Eastern Christians who trace their origins to an ancient Mesopotamian civilization, have a more solid foothold in the city. But the memories of the street-tough crew remain.
A female staffer at the Assyrian National Council of Illinois who asked to remain anonymous recalls in the ’90s when Latino gang members would drink and intimidate Middle Eastern residents near her mother’s Albany Park apartment. One night, her mother heard gunfire—the Assyrian Eagles had retaliated. From that day on, she felt safe in her neighborhood.
“The Eagles were really fearless,” remembers Joseph Abraham, 50, the Assyrian chef-owner of Semiramis Lebanese restaurant (4639 N Kedzie Ave, 773-279-8900) who immigrated from Lebanon during the gang’s early years. “They got guns and they got a reputation, and other gangs knew to stay away from Kedzie and Lawrence.”
Joseph Tamraz, 51, Iranian president of the Assyrian American Civic Club of Chicago, says the Eagles faded out in the ’90s. He’s proud to report today’s generation of Assyrian-American youth tends to be better assimilated, pursuing college and professional careers.
“Jesus spoke [Assyrian mother tongue] Aramaic, and Hammurabi was an Assyrian who wrote one of the first codes of civil life,” Tamraz says. “Assyrians have always loved peace and respected the law.”
TASTE OF HOME Benjamin recommends the char-broiled quail at Middle Eastern restaurant Juliana (3001 W Peterson Ave, 773-334-0000). “On live music nights,” he says, “they sing in all the languages of the Middle East.”