By Almagul Serikbayeva
Gathering around the traditional “dastarkhan,” a celebratory table filled with national food, brought a sense of belonging and comfort to Chicago’s Kazakhs community as they came together at the Qazaq Cultural Center in Elk Grove Village on Jan. 28. Weekend meetings here almost feel like home as people share experiences in their native language.
Daulet Orynbayev, 34, came to the United States in 2018 as a tourist. In New York, he had the idea to open a cultural center for the Kazakh community. His young age, however, made him doubt his ability to bring people together, so he put the idea on hold for two years.
“When I moved to Chicago for work, the thought of the center came back to me,” he said. “Many here wanted it to be open, but nobody wanted to be responsible.”
In 2020, Orynbayev’s father died. It was difficult for him to find an imam, someone who leads prayer in a mosque. Thus, he had to seek assistance from the larger Kyrgyz community.
“The Kyrgyz imam heard Kazakhs speaking Russian,” he said. “This surprised him, and he asked, ‘How will you raise your children?’”
There’s a Kazakh proverb that says, “Tilsiz ult bolmaidy,” which translates as no nationality can exist without knowing its native language. Orynbayev said that moment he realized he had to open the cultural center no matter what.
“There are people who haven’t visited Kazakhstan for more than 10 years,” said Orynbassar Abu, 32, a friend of Orynbayev. “Here they feel like at home.”
Abu said the center helps local Kazakhs to revisit and remember their language, traditions, religion and historical roots. For some of them, it’s also like having a big family, he said.
The Qazaq Center officially opened in September last year. According to Orynbayev, around 100 Kazakh families are residing in Chicago. Currently, the center serves as a place for this community to have social gatherings, traditional celebrations, Kazakh language lessons and other events.
Almagul Serikbayeva is a social justice graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Instagram at @imstillalma.