Long road to citizenship pays off for Mokena man
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent September 26, 2012 1:22PM
Nabil Halaby smiles with his United States Certificate of Naturalization at St. Mary's Parish where he is a deacon in Mokena, Illinois, Wednesday, August 1, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 28, 2012 6:01AM
Now that he’s retired, Nabil Halaby is fulfilling his dreams.
No, not traveling the world. He’s already done that, under what sometimes were tough circumstances.
Instead, Halaby, 69, of Mokena, became an American citizen in June.
A Palestinian and Catholic — “by birth and culture,” he said — Halaby sees his citizenship as “the freedom, the ability to practice your religion in the open.”
It wasn’t always that way. During the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, Halaby’s family fled their homeland for Jordan, making him a refugee at age 5. He remained in Jordan until 1962, when he left to find work in Kuwait, where he worked and saved for three years so he could attend college in the United States, as his cousins had done before him.
“That was the goal,” Halaby said. “I think I saved about enough for one semester.”
It eventually took him six years to earn a political science degree at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, in part because of extra studies to improve his English and in part because he worked his way through school at a variety of jobs.
He married Bernice “Cookie” Strom, of Chicago’s Roseland community, in 1970. The couple traveled to Kuwait in 1971 so Cookie could meet Halaby’s family.
“While we were there, two things happened,” Halaby said. “My wife became pregnant, and I was offered a job.”
Halaby had worked for Consolidated Contractors Co. for two years prior to leaving for college. The company asked him to return, so he and his wife moved to Kuwait. They raised five children there and later in Saudi Arabia, teaching them Catholicism.
“We practiced religion at home,” Halaby said. “That’s where it starts. Freedom of religion is very important.”
In 1990, at the beginning of the Gulf War, Cookie and the kids left for the United States. Despite the difficulty of separation, Halaby stayed in Saudi Arabia, working for Al-Yusr/Townsend & Bottum and traveling several times a year to be with his family.
“In about 16 years, I must have made 50 trips going and 50 trips coming back across the ocean,” Halaby said.
He retired in 2006, returned to the United States, and in 2007 began studying to become a deacon.
Halaby joined the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary’s Church in Mokena.
“That’s my fraternity, more or less,” Halaby said. “They made me feel one of them.”
In August, 2011, after four years of study, Halaby was ordained a deacon, a cherished accomplishment he ranks at the top of the list, with his citizenship.
“I think a deacon is as special as a citizen,” Halaby said. “To me, a deacon is more important for one reason: very few are called to do this.”
Halaby’s calling came after a car accident in 2000 in Saudi Arabia that sent him to the hospital for a month with a ruptured aorta that required two operations to repair.
After his release from the hospital, Halaby was having a meal with friends when one of them said, “You’re lucky you’re alive. God was not ready for you. Seems like he wants you to do something on earth.”
So he nurtures the sick and dying, welcomes children to the church through baptism, and serves the church any way he can.
He also is enjoying the freedoms that come with being an American citizen.
“Shall we say that citizenship complemented my ordination?” Halaby said.