Loom Chicago knits friendships in a refuge from grief and fear

By Jenny Lee

Heaps of fabrics and colorful quilts surround a small group of women who are engrossed in discussion – a discussion so fervent that it could last for days. Some wear hijabs while others have indigo dyed silk scarves draped around their necks. The women bring different cultural backgrounds and distinct ideas and opinions to the table, causing minor conflicts at times. Yet they have gathered at a Lincoln Square church to share a journey; their passion for knitting.

These knitting enthusiasts are refugees from several different countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal and Congo. As part of Loom Chicago, a social enterprise of the Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program, they gather every Tuesday to share designs, burnish their skills, socialize and make friends. Most importantly, they gather together to knit their way out of the grief and fear stemming from the harrowing experiences in their home countries.

Video: Refugees from several different countries gather to express their passion for knitting at a Lincoln Park church every Tuesday. (Jenny Lee/MEDILL)

“Refugees come [to the U.S.] because of different reasons, but most of the women here are escapees from severe problems in their countries, like war or political unrest, ” says Michelle Benner, 40, a volunteer who has been helping Loom with the Tuesday workshops for more than two years.

And these problems are usually deep rooted, complex, emotionally draining, and not entirely behind them.

Among the refugee women is Saleemah Hammadi, a 53-year-old Iraqi who left Baghdad with her husband four years ago to flee the endless violence in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War that left the country in rubble.

During the turbulent years in Iraq, her husband Hakim Hammadi, 60, was a legal adviser working for the U.S. forces in Baghdad. He spent three years, from 2007 to 2010, assessing civilian casualties and collateral property damage, and helping the army with the required monetary compensation process.

The two years following his service, however, were full of death threats from the forces in opposition to the U.S.  So the Hammadis, aspiring freedom and security, decided to seek asylum in the U.S. – even if it meant leaving behind their two sons and daughter, Qusay, Ali and Rasha. The parents were able to secure Special Immigration Visas (SIVs), which were given to a limited number of Iraqi nationals employed by the U.S. government.

“After the war, everything was destroyed. Currently, there are millions of orphans and widows. And day by day, year by year, the number of terrorists grows significantly,” says Hakim Hammadi, who vividly recalls the shower of bombs that devastated their neighborhood. “This is the result of one bad, dirty operation of the U.S. government that tried to change Iraq.”

Saleemah and Hakim Hammadi are at Loom Chicago's Tuesday workshop. (Jenny Lee/MEDILL)
Saleemah and Hakim Hammadi are at Loom Chicago’s Tuesday workshop. (Jenny Lee/MEDILL)

Hammadi particularly condemns the Bush Administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi military shortly after the invasion of Iraq was declared over on May 1, 2003. He explains that the decision, which was meant to pave the way for peace and stability in the region, wound up spawning an array of insurgencies against the U.S. forces and severely fragmenting the two major sects of Islam – Sunni and Shia.

Still, Iraq remains gripped by a whirlwind of violence and human rights violations; killing, wounding and displacing a massive number of people. The Costs of War project at Brown University estimates that between 2003 and 2015, at least 165,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by direct war violence and twice as many civilians may have died due to a lack of healthcare and breakdowns in basic infrastructure. According to Transparency International, the country is also one of the most corrupt in the world.

Since they arrived in Chicago, the Hammadis have been striving to bring their children to the U.S. All three of the children have filled out refugee applications, had two interviews with the U.S. embassy in Iraq and sworn an oath that they are being threatened. Despite their agonizing three-year wait, they are yet to hear a word from the U.S. State Department. The Hammadis say they are hopeless.

“No green lights,” Saleemah Hammadi says in Arabic. “There are heavy rules and regulations especially for people who want to come to the U.S. and the procedure is usually longer.”

Loom artisans create knit scarves to sell in markets and boutiques throughout Chicago. (Jenny Lee/MEDILL)
Loom artisans create knit scarves to sell in markets and boutiques throughout Chicago. (Jenny Lee/MEDILL)

The Hammadis are haunted by the thought that death may come to their children at any time, just like what happened to their two favorite nephews. Every call from Iraq makes them tremble with fright.

They try to conquer their worries and fears by focusing on their new lives in Chicago. They engage in Muslim community activities, help newcomers from Middle East countries and actively participate in refugee resettlement programs like Loom. Saleemah, who joined the group three years ago, not only designs and creates beautiful knit scarves but also manages online orders on Loom’s website. And Hakim translates for Arabic-speaking women who are not proficient in English.

“Because of Loom, I’ve become happier in Chicago. We respect others and they respect us,” Saleemah Hammadi says. “All the sisters here at Loom are my family.”

Photo at top: Refugees from six different countries participate in the Tuesday workshops organized by Loom Chicago, a refugee resettlement program of the Catholic Charities. (Jenny Lee/MEDILL)