Olawale Idreez

Transcript of Olawale Idreez
Interviewee: Olawale Idreez
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Place: Chicago, IL
Date: September 24, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Time: 18:32

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: This is Dorothy Nygren and I’m here with a very nice gentleman from Nigeria. Would you state your name and what country you’re from?

OI: My name is Olawale Idreez; I’m from Nigeria, West Africa.

DN: Thank you. Oh, the date is September 24, 2014. Olawale, could you give us a little bit about your life as a young boy in Nigeria. Did you live in a city or outside a city? Did you have brothers or sisters? What did your father do? What kind of school did you go to? Just give us a little idea about your life.

OI: OK, like I said my name is Olawale. People call me Wally for short. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria on February 26, 1957. I went to a school in Nigeria. I was born, raised, everything in Nigeria. It was a good place. I went to a school called Jibril Martin High School in Lagos where I graduated in 1978. My father and mother are good people, especially my mother, which I adore so much. She was my best friend and she passed away after I came to the United States.


In January of 1980 I moved to this great place, the United States of America. I first came to New York, where I stayed for three months. Then I moved with friends to Peoria, Illinois. Peoria is like eight hours from Chicago. I went to Junior College in Peoria from 1980 to 1982. I was supposedly going to graduate university school in Peoria to a very fine school, but I could not afford to pay for that private school in Peoria. So as destiny would have it, I moved to Chicago in September of 1982 where I got admission from the Illinois College in Peoria straight to Northeastern, Illinois at Foster and Kimball. I spent four years there getting my degree in bachelor of accounting.


Then one thing happened. I was supposed to be going for my CPA exam. At that time I already had admission in that school in political science. A very good story happened in 1987. The first black mayor Chicago, Mayor Harold Washington, came to my school in 1986. He was campaigning for election in 1987 before he died in the office. So I looked at the way he was speaking, the way commanding English language; he was very charismatic and got my attention. I just changed my mind from CPA exam to political science. I came to find out I loved politics. I got into politics and that’s what I do now. The act of writing, the skills of writing that I developed back in 1987 until 1989 when I graduated with my masters from Northeastern that was prelude to political work. I love politics and that’s what I do in Chicago, Illinois. The skills, the love of writing give me a taste to advance that skill into publishing in my own magazine right here in Chicago. It’s called Africa-U.S. Today magazine and I love doing that.

DN: That’s wonderful. Now to go back you told us everything.

OI: Yes I did; everything essential.

DN: To go back to your early life in Lagos. That’s where your early education was. What did your father do?

OI: My father was a very humble carpenter. He was a carpenter and very good at what he did. He was not that rich, but he was very good at what he did. He was the head of that department.

DN: Did you mother stayed at home to help raise the kids?

OI: My mother was a big heavy trader, in fish, in the fish industry. She was very famous as a fishing trade woman. People respected our children because of that; it is the way of the community.

DN: So from a very early age, you had an education in how important it was to have a connection to the community.

OI: Yes, yes, it was, especially with my late grandmother. She had two big emphases: education and religion.


DN: When you were in Lagos, what was your religion?

OI: Muslim. I was born as a Muslim. As you probably know, Nigeria is divided into three different religions; Christian which is like 40-45% of the Nigerian population; Muslim the other 40-45% and Ibo, the traditional, the other 5-10%. And that is what is in Nigeria now. Some have switched to Muslim; some to Christianity. Nigeria is a very good country.

DN: You were living in Lagos until you were how old?

OI: Twenty three.

DN: Now did you see any conflict between Muslim and Christianity.

OI: Back in those days everybody used to get along. Muslim – Ramadan. Muslims celebrated Christian Christmas. Everybody showed up in the family. Especially after the civil war in 1980, Nigeria came back together. There was an oil boom in early 1980s. People were enjoying so much. When there’s money, when the economy is so good, people tend to get along pretty good. You know, like Adam Smith would say in The Wealth of Nations.


DN: So then up until you were twenty three, you were a practicing Muslim.

OI: Yes, I was born into Islam.

DN: And when you were twenty three, is that when you came to the United States? You came as a student?

OI: Yes, half as an immigrant and half as a student. When I got to Peoria, I changed my category from immigrant to student.

DN: And now are you a resident or a citizen?

OI: A naturalized citizen.

DN: When did you become a naturalized citizen?

OI: Since 1988

DN: Let’s go back to when you’re in Peoria and you were a student and you talked about all of that, and you got interested in political science and the magazine and so on. Then you moved from Peoria to Chicago, and now you’ve been in Edgewater for awhile.

DN: And how do you find the people in Edgewater?

OI: I love Edgewater. I’m very proud of it when I bring my friends to Edgewater. It is very friendly and very peaceful community. They all get along. It’s one of the areas where people don’t worry about race as an issue, even if the reality is that it does exist. It does happen in other parts of the city….

DN: And now, are you still a practicing Muslim?

OI: No, no, I departed from Islam to Christianity back in January of 1988.

DN: Let’s talk a little bit about your magazine because it’s very important in your life to try to communicate with people. It’s called Africa-U.S. Today. Can you talk a little about that title and its significance?


OI: When I started at Northeastern Illinois University and was supposed to be taking accounting, Mayor Washington came to Northeastern and was speaking and changed the course of my life. So I started taking political science and that’s where I developed the skills of writing. I had a very strong professor that I will not forget. He said everyone would get an A. D is not an option. Because of that kind of discipline, that made me stronger. So for awhile I put everything I have into writing. Every time I submitted a paper I would get A. That got me, something to pursue in life.

I developed my writing and published my own local news. It used to be called Africa Today newspaper. I used to just print a tabloid and throw everywhere all over the city, until somebody called me from Nigeria, “Why are you wasting all your time, all your money, your resources, making a newspaper that people throw on the floor? Why don’t you make money out of it?” Sometimes when people chastise you or hit, it’s not because they hate you. They just want the best out of you to come out. So I took the advice literally. I changed it to a magazine. I thought it was a joke. I told people that I published that magazine because I have a passion for it. My wife told me, “Passion doesn’t pay bills. You have to make money. That’s what you have to do.” So again I took the advice literally, and I started publishing the magazine. In this life we are. You know life is like a horizon’ it changes all the time. It rotates all the time. Look at me. I went into accounting, and then I changed into Africa Today. Then I established Africa-U.S. Today, at 5337 N. Ravenswood Avenue, which can be read online at www.issuu.com/jesmithphoto.

Now the world is moving to digital. Everybody is going computerized, going to digital now. You can be writing in Chicago and people can Google your magazine or what you do in Canada, in Nigeria, in New York. And they see your picture even as we speak. So ….

DN: You are adapting with the times.

OI: Oh yes, yes. I am adapting with the times.


DN: I’d like to ask you your impressions when you came here as an immigrant. Was there anything that seemed particularly strange? What was your impression?

OI: Oh you don’t want to me to say that. There’s a very famous story when I first came to New York. I arrived at JFK, the airport, in New York on January 12, 1980. That day it was very cold. I did not know the difference between winter and summertime where I came from. So here I was, dressed in a nice suit when I arrived at the airport. It was about five below degrees. People looked at me like that, “Are you crazy?” I mean it was pretty cold. I did not expect that coming from Africa. It seemed very strange coming to this country.

DN: A very big adaption for you!

OI: Oh man, it took a lot to adapt to the weather in this country.

DN: What about the size when you were in New York, the pace of the city? Was that a little strange to you?

OI: New York. I have a story about everything. I have a story about that. All right. I came to realize my own philosophy about New York, Peoria, and Chicago. New York is too fast for me. Peoria is too slow for me. Chicago is in the middle. Every time you see my facebook, I always put,”I love Chicago.”


DN: I’d like to ask you if you feel like a Nigerian; or an American? Or some place in between? What would you say your identity is?

OI: Well my identity will always be Nigerian, Lagos. Everything we did. I can never write a story without relating it where I came from, my roots. I had a good life when I was living in Nigeria. But hey, just like the pastor says, “If God wants you to move, just like he told Abraham, he wants you to move from where you are. It may not be even you; it may be the Holy Spirit working through you.” And before you know it, “Hey! How did I get here?”

DN: Do you think you’d like to go back to Nigeria to live?

OI: I’d love to go back to Nigeria to make a difference. There is a proverb in our language; “Ile ni aabo isinmi oko” [English translation: "Home is where you come back to, after you sojourned in foreign land.] No matter what you achieve in [a] foreign country, your home is still the final place to come.


DN: What do you think your heritage from Nigeria, your roots are? What’s important about your upbringing of living in Nigeria; that you were say is different than maybe an American would feel?

OI: The kind of value, the kind of culture that we were raised with. One typical example: I remember my grandmother. She believed in what she believed in. And whatever she believes in, she wants everybody that’s around her to believe the same thing. The kind of value, the kind of culture… We call her “Disciplinarian” like former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. For example: my grandma, she was a Muslim. She wanted everybody to be a Muslim. She would not cook for us; if you do not go to Mosque to pray, you would not eat in that house. (Chuckles)

DN: She was strict.

OI: I happened to be one of her favorites. I would always be kind…. So you always must listen to her. So yes, I always followed her instruction, her steps. But my habits, when I got here, things changed. However, the culture that she instilled in me does not change.

DN: That made you who you are right now.

OI: That made who I am right now. In whatever I do.

DN: What do you see to be your mission in Nigeria if you were to go back?


OI: Oh thank you, that is a good question. Everything about me is politics. I love politics in this country. I still hope one day to go to play politics [in my country] and change this around. See that man? (Referring to Pastor Kings) One of the things he taught us to use to use your mouth to prophesize, as in the bible. I was at church where we are talking about Abigail and David and Saul and how Abigail prophesized in David’s life. Yes, I would love to prophesize. Maybe I will be like that prophet.

DN: This is your story so is there anything else you would like to say while we are talking?

OI: Well I think you asked me if I wanted to go to Nigeria. Yes I would like to go to Nigeria to make a difference. But right now I am enjoying the politics of Chicago. The election is November 4, Tuesday. You always see me at Edgewater Historical Society every election as an election judge. I enjoy that. I enjoy politics. And I want to take that training out to Nigeria.

DN: On that note, I’m going to stop the interview. Thank you. It’s been a wonderful interview.

OI: Thank you, Dorothy.