Planting Vegetables

Rafi was always proud of his vegetable garden. His general personality was one of attentiveness to his loved ones and those around him. He took that same attitude to his vegetables. Rafi did not have a large garden. In fact, it was just a porch with some planters that he made from wood where he bought soil and then created small areas where he grew tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and a few other vegetables. But it's not always about the size of garden that matters most but its how much you get out of what you have. Rafi always seemed to find a way to get a bountiful harvest. He made sure the plants would be watered at the right time and at the right amount. He even tried to scheme to find ways to keep one particular squirl out of his little patch. Nurture defined much of Rafi's life. He nurtured that little garden of his so it grew sweet vegetables that produced plenty for a little area. He liked to give those who visited a few tomatoes or cucumbers and made sure you knew his vegetables were loved. Come to think of it, he really just extended his nurturing spirit from people to plants and back again.

Memories of Jiddu By Naveen Altaweel

Every time we visited Jiddu (In Chicago) for Christmas and Thanksgiving every mourning I woke up 

Mar Mattai Monastery

The story of Rafi really began in a remote monastery called Mar (St.) Mattai Monastery, or St. Matthew Monastery, located on Mount Alfaf in northern Iraq sometime around 1940. The monastery is ancient, dating to the 4th century AD when the Sasanian Empire once ruled Iraq. The story goes that Mar Mattai fled to Mount Alfaf after Julian the Apostate, ruler of the Roman Empire, began to persecute Christians. It was a refuge for Christians who fled persecution and became a place of scholarly learning. It was also a place where some of Rafi's ancestors were buried. Christians in Iraq believe the monastery gave them a special closeness with God.

That closeness was demonstrated by his mother Najeeba (Frangoul) Altaweel sometime around 1940 when she visited the monastery. There she prayed to God to give her another child after Rafi's sister, Salema, had been born. Najeeba had married later in life and having a child at her age was not easy. But she was a woman of faith and soon she found out that her prayers at a monastery so dear to her and generations of Iraqi Christians was soon answered. Soon after her visit, she learned she was pregnant. She had also made a promise when she was there, which was she would not cut the hair of her child for few years if God granted her a child. His baptismal name was Matthew, after the monastery and famous saint. 

After Rafi was born, he would go on to have quite the locks, with his hair growing longer than even his sister's before eventually his mother cut it. Few believed Rafi when he told this story years later, considering his hair issues later in life, but luckily there was a photo of him and his sister that proved otherwise. Mar Mattai would go on to have a special place in Rafi's heart. Years later, he would ask about the monastery's welfare and would fondly tell stories about spending summers there with his family. Christian families, particularly from Mosul, would often sleep in the monastery over the summer months, usually outside in the courtyard. It was also at that beautify monastery on the mountain that the story of Rafi began.

First Impressions: Daddy Hero

Memories of one's childhood can be a funny thing. They seem selective, often focusing on some specific episode, sometimes even mundane. But memories of our childhood can be powerful and set the tone to our future years. Perhaps one of the most lasting impressions I had of my father as a child was remembering one day when we were living in Iraq. We had gone to a friend’s house and I remember as we were sitting and talking to our friends and family, we heard a loud crash outside. In a moment, I remember my dad racing outside and even before I knew what had happened he had gone to the aide of someone involved in a car accident that resulted in that crashing sound. After some time, my father came back inside, his hands all bloodied, and I remember him walking calmly to the bathroom to wash himself. I asked if the person involved was ok and he said the person will be fine. My father seemed so resolute in his actions and instinctive in his response, which for a child seemed so powerful. I remember thinking to myself how proud I was of him for helping someone who needed his help and how selfless he was. I thought to myself this was the dad I wanted and someone I can be like.

Coming to America

 It's not easy leaving the place you are from. It's even harder when the government you work for doesn't want you to leave. In 1982, Rafi knew he had to take his family away from Iraq. The land of his birth and heritage had become a war zone that threatened his family. He feared for their future so he decided he had to take everyone away. Eventually, through his connections with friends in the United State and Chicago in particular, he was able to determine where to go. But to get there, he had to leave a comfortable life, give up his standing in society, and leave so many family members and friends behind. Any honest assessment of this decision at the time he chose to leave would show Rafi did not, at first, benefit leaving Iraq at a time when the country was still relatively wealthy. He would go from being a director of an important surgical ward to a doctor without credentials to practice medicine in the US without years of more exams. But leave he did. He did find work more stressful in the US and sometimes challenging dealing with American work culture. He always use to say this took a toll on his health and it probably did. But sometimes you have to sacrifice all that you have worked for so that others can live better. That is what Rafi thought in 1982 as he and his family made their way to the US. History would show his decision was, in fact, better for everyone.