A baby girl named Eileen Aldake was born this week. Like every name, hers has a story. And like almost every story, this one includes painful chapters, as well as chapters brimming with joy and hope.
My husband and I first met Eileen’s parents and siblings a year and a half ago in the Lincoln airport. They looked travel-weary that afternoon, a little bit like deer caught in a blinding headlight.
They’d been on the run, persecuted by ISIS in Iraq. They’d lost friends and loved ones to genocide and left others behind, unsure when, or if, they would see them again. Their community had been fractured into a thousand shards. They’d traveled more than 6,000 miles to arrive in a foreign land as refugees, their belongings packed into six suitcases.
Since that first chaotic day we met the Aldakes in the airport, we’ve gotten to know them, not just as our “sponsored family,” but, as the weeks and months have passed, as people we now call friends. We’ve played soccer in the park, shared watermelon and platters of dolma, colored princess and unicorn pictures, cheered Real Madrid while we sipped sugary chai tea.
We’ve watched as their kids have learned English and settled into their new school. We’ve witnessed Afia juggle the demands of four young children while taking English classes and learning to drive. We’ve observed Azzat manage near full-time work as a translator along with full-time college, steadily making progress toward earning his degree.
I can’t imagine doing even half of what they have accomplished over these last 18 months. They have not only survived in this foreign land they now call home; they have thrived.
A few weeks ago Brad and I sat in the Aldakes’ living room enjoying a plate of homemade kulicha, as we so often do when we visit. We were talking about the baby, due to arrive in late June. When Azzat asked me what my favorite girl’s name was, I told him if we’d had a girl ourselves, Brad and I had planned to name her Eileen, after my maternal grandmother.
Azzat turned to Afia, and they conversed in Kurdish for a few seconds. Then he turned back to Brad and me. “It’s Eileen then,” he announced. “We will name the baby Eileen.”
Brad and I protested. “No, no, no,” we insisted. “We were just making conversation! We should definitely not name your baby!” This was an important decision, we said. Didn’t they want to choose an Iraqi name – maybe a name that had special meaning in their Yezidi culture?
Azzat stood firm. “Eileen,” he said. “She will be called Eileen.”
On Sunday morning of this week, Eileen was born. Azzat texted me from the hospital to get the correct spelling of her name for the birth certificate. On Wednesday of this week we celebrate the Fourth of July, the day each year that Americans remember our nation’s defining principles and values and the rights we cherish so deeply: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
How fitting it is that tiny Eileen Aldake made her way into the world this week, of all weeks.
Eileen Aldake, born to Iraqi Yezidi parents who arrived in this country as refugees seeking asylum, is an American citizen, named after my maternal grandmother, the daughter of Irish immigrants. How apropos that we celebrate both the birth of this precious baby and the country that offers her and her family freedom, security, opportunity and religious liberty.
How often I take those “certain unalienable rights” for granted. The Aldakes, persecuted for their religion and culture, have a much greater appreciation for these rights than I, from my position of privilege, ever will.
Back when I was in elementary school, I was taught that America was a melting pot – a blending of many different peoples and cultures into one entity known as “America.” Turns out, that metaphor wasn’t quite right. We are not a country comprised of an indistinguishable mass of people. America is not a bland blurring of watered-down sameness.
Rather, we are a tapestry, an infinite number of threads – cultures, ethnicities, traditions, music, food, fashion, languages, religions, customs – woven together to create a vibrant, rich, varied, eclectic, beautifully unique America.
America is America because of our defining principles and our “certain unalienable rights,” this is true. But America is also America because of our people. This country has always been and continues to be comprised of immigrants (with the glaring exception, of course, of the indigenous people, who we drove from their own land, and the African-American people, who we brought here enslaved and against their will). Our immigrant heritage is in large part the very reason America is what it is today.
How perfectly fitting, then, that baby Eileen is the daughter of Iraqi immigrants and, at the same time, named for my maternal grandmother, daughter of Irish immigrants who, too, traveled thousands of miles to seek out a better life. How perfectly “American” her name is: Eileen Aldake — two diverse stories, two diverse histories, threads woven together into a uniquely beautiful tapestry. How perfectly fitting that she was born this week, of all weeks, when we celebrate America the beautiful.
My birthday is this Wednesday – the Fourth of July – and I can’t think of a more meaningful birthday gift than the arrival of this sweet baby who bears the name of my Irish-American maternal grandmother. Not only am I deeply touched that our friends named their precious baby Eileen, it’s also a gift this week to celebrate tiny Eileen Aldake and her dear family, who are the embodiment of so much of what makes America truly beautiful.