More than six decades of a sisterhood and going strong
By Vanessa Denha Garmo
It all started as a youth group and evolved into a sisterhood that has lasted more than 60 years. “We wanted to date and our parents didn’t want us to date,” recalled Josephine (Saroki) Sarafa, an original Socialite member. “We started a youth club so our parents would allow us to get together and they loved that we were hanging out with each other because deep down they wanted us to marry Chaldeans.”
Sarafa was among a small group of Chaldeans who were born in America or who emigrated as children. They were teenagers in the 1950s. “We attended each other’s birthday parties and graduation parties.”
They came from large families and the boys and girls were cousins and friends. They played baseball on Sundays at Palmer Park or Belle Isle. “We wanted a regular teenage life,” said Josephine. Mike George started the youth group and served as the group’s first president. “Michael was a leader and he really formalized our group,” said Josephine.
“Our parents encouraged us to hang out. They saw that we were having fun. We were the sparks of the community. We were the youth.”
“We were good kids,” said Julie. “We would go out on Saturday night and go to Mass at 2 a.m. at St. Aloysius church in Detroit.”
“We were brought up as good Catholics,” said Mary (Denja) Chigi.
“We had pizza at Famous Pizza restaurant on Woodward across from the Fox Theater,” said Julie (Najor) Hallahan.
They began to formalize the group and started meeting at the first Chaldean church in America – Sacred Heart – located on Euclid and Hamilton at the time. They named the youth group the “Sparks”.
“We actually had bylaws and took notes at meetings,” said Mary.
“We had parties at each other’s homes and our moms were more than happy to make us food,” said Josephine.
The women began to branch off into their own group called the Coronets. “We thought of ourselves as princesses and we crowned ourselves the Coronets,” said Josephine, who was the third person to serve as president of the Sparks Youth Group.
“We put on talent shows and invited our parents,” said Mary.
The original Socialites originally named the Coronets started out with 15 women. “We always got together at Najat’s house,” recalled Julie (Najor) Hallahan, an original Socialite.
The original included: Najat (Dickow) George, Paula (George) Hanoosh, Nancy (George) Talia, Josie (Saroki) Sarafa, Vickie (Saroki) Sarafa, Sally (Essa) Vanderveer, Margaret (Essa) Jelsch, Virginia Denja, Mary (Denja) Chigi, Judy (Binno) Abbo, Ruby (Najor) Huhn, Julie (Najor) Hallahan, Farial (Najor) Dickow, Theresa (Najor) Bogos, and Rosemary (Hakim) Abate.
“I remember I ordered a cake for one party with the number 12 on it because 12 of us attended and I had our names written on the cake,” said Najat. “We even had a song about our group,” said Julie. “Farial Najor Dickow used to sing it.”
Once again at Najat George’s house, a Socialite who married a Spark – Mike George – a few of the original members and a couple of women who later joined, reminisced about their group that evolved into a lifelong friendship. “We made a pact to never gossip about anyone,” said Josephine. “We talk about our lives, our families and exchange recipes,” noted Mary.
Some of the men at the time joined the military including Mike George, but eventually the women began to get married. Some married men they met in the youth group, others did not.
Some married Chaldeans and others did not. “These women are like my sisters,” said Julie. “We have shared so much with each other.”
“I have seven brothers and no sisters and these women have been there for me. Najat threw me a bridal shower,” said Firyal Yono.
They have gone through many life stages together – being single, getting married, having children and coping with death.
“We were in each other’s weddings,” said Mary. They even remembered being the first Chaldean kids to have their communion in America. They celebrated the Sacrament at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit.
“When I married Raoul, these women immediately welcomed me into this group,” said Paula Denja, who is from Spain. “The second time I met Najat was at a party and she was dancing. I had so much fun. I thought I was in a movie at the time. I saw Najat in this beautiful dress dancing to Arabic music. She immediately welcomed me into the group.”
“Ruby and Najat were the dancers of the group,” said Julie.
Najat has entertained the group more than any other member. “I have had 103 parties at this house throughout the 40 plus years I have lived here,” said Najat.
“Paula learned Arabic dancing and she taught us how to dance to Spanish music,” said Najat.
“I will never live on a lake but I truly appreciate these get togethers overlooking this beautiful lake,” said Mary. “She has a house conducive for parties and she has the energy to put them on.”
“Najat treats us like we are royalty,” said Josephine.
“If it wasn’t for this group. I would miss out on so much,” said Ameera Zachary.
Today, they typically meet every Thursday morning at Ellen’s Café in Sylvan Lake. “We are taking the winter off because of the weather but will be back together in March,” said Mary.
Julie came to America just before her seventh birthday. Her family lived near the Saroki family and she became fast friends with Josephine. “I met Najat when I was about 14 or 15 years old,” said Julie. “She invited me to hang out with the girls. I have been part of the group ever since.”
Julie and Josephine attended the same college and both became educators. “We have been close friends since our childhood,” said Julie.
“I remember Josephine insisted we participate in some kind of Easter duty,” said Ameera. “She always incorporated our faith.”
As they sat around the dining table at Najat’s house, Julie passed around a photo album of old pictures and Paula brought along photos from her sister-in-law, Virginia. “She was always so protective of the photos. She was so worried about me taking them out of her house,” said Paula about Virginia.
The women attribute the longevity of the friendship to loyalty and love.
“We genuinely like each other,” said Firyal. “We talk about our joys and problems.”
“We actually love each other like sisters,” said Julie. “We are not catty.”
“We have never betrayed each other and we have common values” said Mary. “Najat has been the glue in this group.”
“Najat has kept us together,” said Paula in agreement.
“We never ever gossip about other people,” said Josephine.
The women hoped their own daughters and granddaughters would form the same friendships.
“It’s much different today than when we were younger,” said Nawal Shallal. “These women welcomed me into the group when I was newly married and new to the country. They have been a big part of my life. I wish all women in all generations could have friendships like this.”
“I think the generations today are lost generations,” said Najat.
The Socialites today are a mix of women from varied backgrounds. Some were stay-at-home moms and homemakers, others worked full-time jobs and had careers that lasted decades.
“We know with this group, there is always someone to lean on,” said Firyal.
“We truly are happy for each other when good things happen and sad when something bad happens,” said Josephine. “We have no resentments towards each other.”
Fighting back tears, Paula shared how her Socialite sisters helped her through a tragic time. “When I lost my son, these women were here for me,” she said. “Najat and Mike got all our friends together and my family came in from Spain. I will never forget that. Years earlier she threw me a surprise birthday party.”
“It was for your 40th,” said Najat.
“She was there for me in the good times and bad times,” said Paula.
Sharing a similar situation Julie chimed in. “When I lost my daughter 12 years ago, it was around Najat’s 70th birthday party. I didn’t go but Najat called me the next day and was crying on the phone. She told me how much she missed having me there.”
After a two-hour conversation over lunch at Najat’s house, it was apparent that nothing would ever break the bond among these women.
“We truly enjoy being with each other,” said Nawal.
“We like to talk to each other,” said Firyal.
“There is no jealousy among us,” said Najat.
“We don’t compete with each other,” said Josephine.
“We are there for each other in joyous occasions and sad occasions,” said Mary. “There is nothing superficial in this friendship.”
“We genuinely like each other,” said Paula.
“We are family,” said Ameera.
“We are sisters,” said Julie.
The Socialites: Past and Present
Mary Jane Farida