SKOKIE — Gary Berger never thought retirement would be like this.
Not that the Evanston resident, an entrepreneur and pharmacist who has been involved in numerous businesses, pictured himself laying on a beach in his twilight years. But Berger, 65, who opened the Assyrian American Pharmacy on the east side of Skokie two years ago, may be engaged now in the most important work of his life.
As part of his various business ventures, Berger owned five pharmacies — along with owning restaurants, a floral company and even a Global Reef Supplies import business in Highland Park that he operates with his daughter.
But the Assyrian American Pharmacy is a different business by any standard, and Berger knows it. It’s as much a wellness center as it is a pharmacy. That combination makes it a valuable resource, especially for the newly-immigrated Assyrian American community, which receives critical care when it otherwise might not get it.
“No, I never thought this was where I was heading,” said Berger at his storefront facility at 4043 Main St. “But this was meant to be.”
Not long ago, he took six years off from his business ventures to tend to his ailing mother at a nursing care facility. He also helped other seniors there with Medicare and insurance issues, almost becoming a de facto consultant at times.
The experience left Berger wanting to return to the pharmaceutical industry where he knew there was a need. He opened a “closed pharmacy” — a pharmacy unavailable to walk-ins — to try to provide help with medications and other critical care to those who need it the most.
“That pharmacy became this,” Berger said. “It was the closed pharmacy that eventually led me here, although I didn’t know it at the time.”
Berger learned about the challenges facing the Assyrian refugee community from one of his mother’s caregivers, Astar Oraha. She became a close friend, like a sister to him, he says.
He remembers visiting an Assyrian church in Chicago at her request to administer flu shots.
“I went there and gave about 10 flu shots even though there were 600 people who were in church,” he said. “We (he and the Assyrian community) didn’t know each other then. We didn’t have the trust.”
They do now.
Berger opened the Assyrian American Pharmacy with the support of Dr. Rouel Georgis, an Iraqi physician and major general in the Iraqi military under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Georgis provided critical medical care to all Iraqi citizens who needed it under the most difficult conditions.
“He’s a hero in the Assyrian world and saved thousands of lives,” Berger said.
When he became a refugee here, Georgis decided against getting his medical license because of his age. But at 83, he still plays a key role in advocating for Assyrians and in helping them get the care they need through this new pharmacy.
“Being able to speak to them in their own language is very important,” Georgis said. “If they did not come here, many would not be able to get that level of care anywhere else.
They are so grateful for this pharmacy.”
Some of those customers might even lose their lives without such a resource. Providing basic medical information or referring patients to the right doctors is a routine part of the life of the Skokie pharmacy. Georgis has received calls at all hours of the day and night, and the pharmacy has handled a myriad problems ranging from Medicare and insurance complications to seeing the right practitioners.
Calling the Assyrian American Pharmacy a drug store, then, is hardly adequate since it fills such a deep void for many displaced Assyrians.
The pharmacy also hosts important wellness fairs and other awareness events. Berger and company aim to expand the pharmacy and its services, since they say the need is growing every day. Providing diabetes screenings is especially important, and can be better accommodated with more space.
Berger, and his wife, Elyse, whom the entrepreneur calls “the glue behind me,” are especially proud of their family of employees.
About 15 employees work at the Assyrian American Pharmacy, 12 of them Assyrians themselves, many of them refugees.
Sentiya Farhad, 23, of Niles, came to this country in 2008 with her brother but without her parents.
“It’s very special to be able to help so many people here,” she said. “I know we make a difference.”
Farhad and so many others who work there know the challenges many customers face in being in a new land often without family. “If my parents had been here, it would have made things a lot easier for me,” she said.
Lizan Sliwa, a nurse at the pharmacy, has worked there only for a few months. But it doesn’t feel that way.
“It’s like home now,” she said. “What’s done here is so vital. It’s a blessing for people.”
That’s why Sara Parkes, an architect by degree, decided to run the business side of the pharmacy rather than build buildings for now.
She worked in the pharmaceutical industry before since her father was a pharmacist for years.
“When you see people come in here and how grateful they are for what we do for them, it’s amazing and fulfilling,” she said.
That’s just how Berger sees it, too.
“It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
He no longer has to worry about gaining the trust of the Assyrian American community. Last year’s Coming Together in Skokie event, which focuses on a different culture every year, highlighted Assyrian culture for nine weeks. When Berger showed up at an event, Assyrian Americans lined up to shake his hand just to say thank you.
“I really consider myself an Assyrian now,” he said. “This is an Assyrian pharmacy and almost our entire staff is Assyrian. The people who work here are family, and the people we try to help are family, too. It’s where I belong.”