Nestled inside the mountains of southeastern Turkey’s Tur Abdin, a new pizzeria opened on June 3 to a crowd of local politicians, government officials and residents from as far as Europe.
Those in attendance celebrated the business, İzla Pizzeria Arkah, and praised the return of its owners Gevriye Cil and Morris Dal, who left Germany a year ago to return to their native village of Arkah.
The restaurant, which took 10 months of construction and features panoramic views of the region’s rolling landscape, opened amid a surge of local investment that has driven tourism to the region. Nusaybin District Governor and Deputy Mayor Ercan Kayabaşı said the province of Mardin, the eastern half of which is located in Tur Abdin, is making strides toward becoming the capital of tourism.
“New businesses are opening every day,” Kayabaşı said during the restaurant’s grand opening and later continued, “Although Nusaybin is a rural neighborhood, such beautiful businesses are opening that I believe it will become one of the most important tourism destination centers in the future.”
Tur Abdin consists of more than 80 villages and was home primarily to followers of the Syriac Orthodox church. Many Assyrians, however, were forced to abandon the region in the 1980s and 1990s during Kurdish and Turkish clashes, made to choose between leaving their homeland or death if they refused to lodge and feed fighters from either side.
The situation became more stable in the 2000s, and encouraged families that had previously fled to Europe to return and rebuild their homes and businesses; but recent threats by Turkey of a military incursion into northern Syria have unsettled some locals, who are bracing for another round of violence.
A Chicago-based Assyrian political group last month appointed a new executive director. Ashur Shiba was named new chief of Vote Assyrian, effective immediately. He previously served as one of four executive board members. With the new role, he’s become the group’s first-ever executive director.
“We’ve lost quite a few board members over the years,” Shiba said, citing some members that have gone on to run for office or others that will serve as community center directors. “We had to have someone realign and restructure Vote Assyrian.”
Founded in 2015, the group began registering Assyrians to vote. Within one election cycle, it had reportedly registered almost 5,000 new voters, a large number for an area where just a few thousand votes can sway a local election.
As the organization grew, it started hosting candidate forums for both Assyrian and non-Assyrian candidates, and later organized workshops to certify community leaders as deputy registrars.
The group most notably led a 2020 campaign for the US census to encourage Assyrians to check the “Other” box under the Ethnicity category and to write in “Assyrian.” The initiative, aimed at recognizing Assyrians as a distinct ethnic group and to better understand community population figures, was formally recognized by the State Department.
Shiba, who joined Vote Assyrian in 2018, wants to steer the group back to its roots of registering and educating voters, especially about the importance of primary elections.
“People typically don’t vote in the primary elections, they vote in the general elections,” Shiba said. “The general election is very important, but picking a local board that runs the city you actually live in is just as important. We’re able to win more seats that way and we’re able to get more representation.”
The organization has big plans for the future, he said. By the end of this year, it hopes to reopen the Assyrian Chamber of Commerce and break the tape on a new Assyrian Mental Health and Drug Addiction Center.
“The opportunities in front of us are greater than ever, yet the challenges we face grow with every new opportunity,” Shiba said. “Non-Assyrians have started to take notice of us. Prior to Vote Assyrian, there weren’t any Assyrian elected officials in the area. Today, there are six in the Cook County area.”
Assyrians that hold elected office in the Chicagoland area
Naema Abraham School Board President, District 219
Shamoon Ebrahimi Alderman of the 8th Ward
Sargon Guliana Board member, District 72
Tony Kalogerkas Trustee, Village of Golf Former trustee of Morton Grove
Will the Eastern Christian church overcome internal division and walk down the road to progress?
By Robert DeKelaita | May 2022
The Church of the East has been through turbulent times across the centuries; conquests, persecution, genocide, and the destruction of whole communities. Despite the many difficulties, the Church survived largely among the very people that formed its foundations and are most associated with it, the Assyrians, maintaining its own unique Christian faith and cultural heritage. This month, bishops of the Church of the East have come together to lessen their difficulties and end the most recent schism.
Since 1920, the Church of the East was headed by Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII , who had been patriarch since his consecration at the age of 12, having succeeded his uncle, Mar Polous Shimun in a line of hereditary succession going back hundreds of years. As a result of Mar Shimun’s involvement in his nation’s political struggle in Iraq after the First World War, he was exiled to Cyprus by the Iraqi government with the support of the British in 1933. In 1940, he came to Chicago and lived there until moving to California in 1954. Unlike their patriarch, most of the Assyrian members of the Church of the East had lived in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
In 1964, a dispute erupted between the patriarch and Metropolitan Mar Toma Darmo, who had been consecrated by Mar Shimun for India. Mar Toma was critical of the patriarchal hereditary succession that he felt was advocated by his patriarch, and of the ‘modernization’ being advocated by Mar Shimun in the West, including Mar Shimun’s switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. The dispute between the patriarch and Mar Toma led to a schism within the Church in 1968, when Mar Toma came to Iraq and was elevated to the position of a rival patriarch in Baghdad.
One year after his consecration as patriarch, Mar Toma died. Mar Addai II succeeded Mar Toma and became patriarch from 1972 until his death in Arizona in 2022. Though the two hierarchies had no Christological disputes, they operated independently of each other. Mar Shimun had difficulties of his own within his Church and in 1975, after his resignation and subsequent marriage, he was assassinated in California and a new patriarch, Mar Dinkha IV, who had been the bishop in Iran, was elected in 1976 in London.
The two patriarchs, Mar Addai II, who resided in Baghdad, and Mar Dinkha IV, who resided in Morton Grove, Illinois, tried but failed to reunite their Church. With the passing of both Mar Dinkha and Mar Addai, and the selection of a young, American-born, new patriarch for the Assyrian Church of the East in Erbil, Mar Awa III, expectations of a reunion grew. The new patriarch made clear that resolving the 1968 schism was a priority and so Chicago, the patriarch’s birthplace, has become a place to attempt to solve the problems that occurred in 1968 Baghdad.
Why is this attempt important? Many speculate that there has never been a time when the Church’s faith and cultural heritage have been in greater danger of losing their existence. For the first time in its history, most adherents of the Church are no longer in the East, but in the West, where the Church of the East’s role as a religious, social, and cultural gravitational force is of paramount importance. Although Mar Awa was consecrated in Erbil and has brought back his patriarchal seat there, the survival of the Church in the West is critical.
If the Church is unable to organize itself and tackle issues that have threatened larger denominations, such as the growing secularism and assimilation into larger societies in the West, it is doubtful that it could live on – either in the East or the West. On the other hand, the Church and the Assyrians in charge could view ending the schism as a challenge they are both willing and able to undertake and solve before moving on to greater tasks; improving their pastoral skills and reach, enhancing their administrative services, building better and more innovative relations with parishioners, introducing necessary liturgical reforms, and establishing libraries and schools for their coming generations and priests.
The current schism offers the Church – both clergy and parishioners – an opportunity to get on the ‘right side’ of history and eliminate this internal division. This effort is viewed by the Assyrian public as a litmus test of sorts, a symbolic gesture of competence in handling difficulties. If the Church is unable to heal its own wound, its chance of succeeding in other matters is questionable. Indeed, Assyrian Christianity , as a unique religious and cultural institution, could be on the road to extinction one misstep at a time. And the inability of Church leaders to ‘fix’ this internal division is a step toward extinction.
On the other hand, a healing of the schism would present members of the Church and outsiders as well a symbolic and concrete indication that this accomplishment is a step toward a renaissance. A renaissance, like extinction, will not come all at once. It will come in steps, sometimes big and sometimes small, but always in the right direction. One direction that is right is the recent attempt to end the existing schism. A recent article in Asia News noted that the “union, formal but also practical, is the only way to face the danger of [the Assyrian Christians’] slow but inexorable disappearance that has hung over them for decades.” (Asia News, April 23, 2022)
Being mindful of this, the six bishops have indicated that they are hopeful and positive about their chances to end the schism and reclaim their glorious past. That past is important to the Church, the Assyrians, and the world. It is also an essential part of the collective memory of Assyrian Christians.
Assyrian Christianity is linked to the apostles. According to the Doctrine of Mar Addai and Mar Mari, Assyrians witnessed “the signs which Mar Addai did, and those of them who became disciples, received from them the hand of the priesthood, and in their own country of the Assyrians they taught the sons of their people, and houses of prayer they built there secretly…”
The advancement of the Christian faith came gradually in Assyria as it competed with and even adopted the ancient faith practices of the Assyrians. As the Christian creed grew, competing doctrines explaining the nature of Christ developed and eventually led to the formation of two prominent churches on Assyrian soil; the Church of the East, centered in the heartland of Assyria, and the Syriac Orthodox Church, mainly out of Antioch and in Western Assyria. Both the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church based their liturgy in the Syriac language and grew out of the same cultural and linguistic environment rooted in the Assyrian population and landscape.
As the ancient state structure of Assyria disintegrated, the hierarchical structure of the Church became the lead organizing force for the Assyrian population. The Church of the East developed both a provincial center in Assyria, centered in the cities of Nineveh, Arbela (modern Erbil), and numerous other Assyrian towns and villages, and a more cosmopolitan church in central Mesopotamia, in the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, where the Sasanian empire reigned prior to the arrival of Islam . From central Mesopotamia, under both the Sasanian empire and later the Abbasids, the Church’s missionaries went forth to convert non-Christians into its fold.
Starting from the Sixth century, the Church of the East began the greatest missionary enterprise undertaken by any Church. At its Apex, the Church of the East’s members in Asia outnumbered the Christians of the Catholic and Orthodox churches combined as its churches dotted the landscape from China to the borders of the Byzantine empire. The Church of the East converted Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Persians, Indians, Chinese, and other peoples in Asia.
Unlike European Christians, who were supported by powerful monarchs with military might, the Church of the East used intellect and diplomacy to win converts. “For behold,” states Mar Timotheus, Patriarch of the Church of the East (780-823 AD), “in all of the lands of Babel, Persia, and Assyria, and in all of the Eastern lands and amongst Beth Hinduwaye (India) and indeed amongst Beth Sinaye (China), amongst Beth Turtaye (Tatars) and likewise amongst Beth Turkaye (Turks) and in all of the domains under this patriarchal throne – this [throne] of which God commanded that we be its servants and likewise its ministers – that one who…is from eternity, without increase, who was crucified on our behalf – is proclaimed, indeed in different and diverse lands and races and languages.”
Patriarch Mar Timotheus personified the spirit of the Church of the East at the time; a love of learning and intellect combined with energetic zeal to spread the Christian faith and to grow and strengthen the Church. Through the efforts of Mar Timotheus and many patriarchs, bishops and priests like him, the Church of the East left its mark on the spiritual and physical landscapes of various countries in Asia. Today, millions of Christians in India trace their membership in the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church to the missionary efforts of the bishops, priests, and monks of the Church of the East from Assyria.
The once-thriving community of the Church of the East, however, was unable to maintain its existence like the Christian communities of the West. Inter-Christian rivalries, periodic persecutions by Muslim rulers, and, finally, the Mongol invasions of Timur in particular, devastated the Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church. Timur’s massacres and pillages of all that was Christian reduced Assyrian Christianity to a miserable state in the Middle East.
At the end of the reign of Timur, Assyrian churches were nearly eradicated. In two locations, however, they survived; in the provinces of Christian Assyria (in the districts of Beth Garme, Adiabene, Arbela, Karkh dlbeth Seluq [Kirkuk], Nuhadra [Dohuk], Nineveh [Mosul], etc.), where the church had acquired much of its sustenance, and in the Hakkari mountains of today’s southeastern Turkey as well as in Urmia and Salamas in today’s Iran, where the Assyrians lived largely an isolated existence until being evicted by Kurds and Ottoman troops during the First World War.
Additionally, the Indian members of the Church remained faithful in the Malabar district in southern India. All the other diocese of the Church of the East were lost.
The Syriac Orthodox Church suffered much as well. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, Bishop Bar Hebraeus found “much quietness” in his diocese in Mesopotamia. Syria’s diocese, he wrote, was “wasted.” Only a few, according to a scholar of the Syriac Orthodox Church, survived the “blood-soaked decades.”
Despite all the difficulties and calamities they had endured, Assyrian Christians survived and persisted. In the Sixteenth century, the Church of the East splintered because of internal disputes, resulting in the formation of the Chaldean Church, which came into union with Rome. The Syriac Orthodox Church also fractured and from it was formed the Syriac Catholic Church in the seventeenth century. Still later, the Church of the East splintered again, resulting in the formation of the Ancient Church of the East in 1968 being now addressed in Chicago. The split between the two sides of the Church of the East is based on administrative, rather than Christological differences.
In Chicago, bishops from both sides struggle together in the hope of reviving confidence in their ancient Church and, perhaps for the first time in decades, taking a concrete step toward the much-anticipated reunification. One announcement asks parishioners to pray for the bishops so that they can “restore the Church of the East to its glory.”
If the history of the Church of the East, and of the Assyrian people, inspires the bishops, they will likely find a way to take a step in the right direction toward reunification and end of the schism. They will likely recall the glory of their ancient Church, realize the dangers they face as a people and a faith community, and become inspired, just as their ancestor Patriarch Mar Timotheus, to build and strengthen their Church and to become a stronger gravitational force for their people in the diaspora and the Middle East.
No doubt, the turbulent centuries and the recent experiences of the Church and its people will be recalled and contemplated by the bishops as they consider the judgment of future generations if they fail.
All eyes are watching and waiting for hopeful signs of the end to the schism and a new beginning. It is now in the hands of the bishops to lead their Church and people to overcome a challenge that may seem modest but could have great consequences that may “restore the Church of the East to its glory.”
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the The Assyrian Journal.
Only after Aysen Sameer Uoshewh was stung in the face five times did he realize he was ready to become a beekeeper.
As his face grew swollen and he couldn’t open his eyes, he was forced to stay home for an entire week. But those pains, he said, were encouraging.
“One of my biggest fears when I started beekeeping was that I would have allergies and couldn’t work,” he said. “I was lucky to find out I didn’t have any.”
For years, beekeeping was just something Uoshewh did to help his grandfather, Touma Yusuf Mamuka, in the northern Iraqi village of Qaramlesh, an agricultural area in the Nineveh Plain located less than a 45-minute drive from Mosul.
But as the coronavirus pandemic sidelined his usual academic studies and pickup games of volleyball, the work with his grandfather increased and with it, so did his interest in bees.
IRAQ’S HONEY HISTORY
Beekeeping in Iraq has existed for 8,000 years, according to UNDP Iraq, when Sumerian tablets carried recipes that used honey to treat skin infections and disease.
Increased conflict, displacement and the use of chemicals beginning in the nineteenth century severely reduced the practice. It wasn’t until the 1980s that beekeeping once again flourished as new technologies simplified the production process. At one point in the 1990s, over 500,000 hives were active across the country.
At one point to sidestep sanctions placed on Baghdad following the Gulf War, it became trendy for families to buy and maintain personal beehives on their rooftops.
It’s a trend that appears to be reemerging. The cultural and environmental importance of bees can’t be understated, said Dr. Hashim Najim Khthur al- Zuhairi, the head of the beekeeping department of plant protection in the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture.
“There are a lot of benefits that are countless,” Zuhairi said. “This wealth must be taken care of because it is very important in the country and is considered the same as any wealth in Iraq.”
There are about 6,000 registered beekeepers today with the Ministry of Agriculture, Zuhairi said. He hopes that number increases through increased workshops on the education of proper beekeeping and the emergence of new technologies.
BUILDING A BEEKEEPING EMPIRE
Beekeeping in Uoshewh’s family traces back to 2003. As an agricultural professor at the University of Erbil, Uoshewh’s grandfather was assigned on a project to study bees. Mamuka’s research led him to invest in bee cells. He soon recruited family members for help maintaining the growing hives. By 2014, he managed a small empire of 30 hives.
At the height of this project, however, it was abandoned as the rapid advance of the Islamic State (IS) into Qaramlesh in 2014 forced Mamuka’s entire village to flee.
Three years later when Mamuka returned, he found the hives destroyed.
With the help of his grandson in 2017, Mamuka slowly began rebuilding the colony. It took years to grow back the hives, Uoshewh said, as they faced a number of fresh challenges, including decreased amounts of rain that make it difficult to plant flowers and the illegal importation of synthetic honey claiming to be 100% pure that drives down costs.
The Ministry of Agriculture is now trying to tackle another growing issue, the spread of diseases among bee hives.
“The beekeepers need supplies that can be provided by the Ministry of Agriculture in a subsidized or free form so that it will become popular,” Zuhairi said.
The Ministry received requests to develop laboratories dedicated to combating diseases that affect bees, he said. These sites would also provide artificial insemination to produce fertilized queens.
Iraq isn’t alone in fighting these challenges. The Ministry receives support from international aid groups to champion campaigns to revive the practice. The Zhako Small Village Project (ZSVP), with support from UNDP Iraq and the government of Germany, selected 200 households in 2017 across the Nineveh Plains and Dohuk to receive a small number of hives along with safety clothes, tools, training and business management including marketing honey in offseasons.
INTRODUCING NEW TECHNOLOGIES
The market is now swelling with new beekeepers, Uoshewh said. To keep up fresh competition, he helps his grandfather install new technologies, including a device that detects the purity of honey, designing different styles of cells to improve efficiency, and digitizing recordkeeping of each cell to review which are spreading diseases and which are producing the most honey.
They also find other ways to monetize their business, creating and selling online candles with the beeswax.
Sales blossomed as Uoshewh introduced his grandfather to an online marketplace that was craving the honey. They recently began shipping orders internationally.
The family now produces enough honey to make beekeeping a full-time profession. That’s not an easy feat to accomplish. Beekeeping is largely season. The grandfather-grandson duo are busiest in the springtime, working around-the-clock to produce enough honey to sustain them through the slower winter months.
The constant labor does have its minor drawbacks. Uoshewh admits he gets stung at least once a day. “It’s a little pain, and then it just goes away,” he said, and admitted he no longer notices the relentless buzzing of the colony.
Mary Shamaon, a student at Niles North High School in a suburb of Chicago, looked across a 16-foot-long blank canvas with a paintbrush in hand. Along with 30 Assyrian students, staff and alumni, she was about to embark on a month’s long project to create a mural for her school that would bridge ancient Assyria with its modern history.
It was an intimidating moment, recalled group leader Ramina Samuel, because in a few months the canvas would be unveiled to administrators, other students, and the local community in a hallway leading to the school’s library.
And their artistic experience as a group included a few virtual workshops.
“How can you trust us to hold a brush and put something on this canvas,” Samuel recalled Shamaon saying to Noora Badeen, an Assyrian artist in Chicago tasked with helping the group complete the artwork.
THINKING OUTSIDE OF THE BOX
The coronavirus pandemic brought to the suburban high school of about 2,000 students a new reality of remote learning and online meetings. The school’s Assyrian club sponsors Samuel and Carmen Albazi had to think creatively about getting the students together.
Their first few attempts were fruitless, Samuel admitted. In the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year, they tried a cooking show and discussions on Assyrian history. But attendance waned. They even began combining activities with nearby Niles West High School. Nothing seemed to work, she said.
It was during this moment of desperation that Samuel and Albazi discovered the LatinX club working on a unique project of their own: a mural that showcased their community’s history. The project sparked an idea in Samuel and Albazi to paint an Assyrian mural.
Caroline Benjamin, the school’s student activities director, jumped at the idea. The group was paired with Noora Badeen, an Assyrian artist in the city that had experience painting murals. Badeen was asked to help the group come up with a theme, teach ancient Assyrian patterns and then apply those skills to a mural that would live permanently inside the hallways of the school.
And she had to do most of the teaching virtually.
“We were dealing with the pandemic and with getting vaccinated or people getting sick,” Samuel said. “To complete such a large scale project during the pandemic, I think that’s a highlight.”
BRIDGING ANCIENT WITH MODERN
Drawing has been a hobby of William Yonadam’s for a long time, he said. That’s why he was eager to participate in the project.
Yonadam, an Assyrian custodian at the school, along with Assyrian alumni and staff, were extended an invitation to participate in the project early in the process. They joined students for virtual meetings hosted by Badeen twice a month to identify a theme for the mural and how to include their Assyrian American experiences.
They settled on blending ancient Assyria with its present and future. The mural wasn’t just something for them to relate to, a participate told The Journal, it was an opportunity to share their culture with others.
“As Assyrians we are now visible,” said Ghanima Birkho, an Assyrian custodian who joined the project.
As coronavirus restrictions loosened, meetings turned into weekly in-person workshops. The group learned ancient art patterns and a small scale of what the mural could look like was created before paint was put on canvas.
But it was difficult to pull the project off, Samuel recalled, as artists had to work in shifts.
“We had limitations of how many people could work on the project and we had to be careful about space and wearing masks and gloves and disinfecting,” she said.
INCREASING ASSYRIAN VISIBILITY
Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, founder of the world’s first known library, stands at the center of the piece, a nod to the group’s educational theme. And it’s purely by coincidence, Samuel said, that the mural now leads students to the school’s library.
“The process of creating the mural taught me a lot more about my people and my ancestors and my culture,” said Oliver Albazi, a former student at the school. “If it can teach me more, it can undoubtedly teach anyone who has the pleasure of passing by it in the halls.”
The name of the mural, “Upstream, We Take Flight” came at the very end of the process in May 2021. Blue waves blanketed against the bottom of the canvas represent going against the flow of a river, a brief on the document said, and an eagle soaring among skyscrapers is seen “flying toward the future.”
“We usually go to museums and see this art from a bigger scale, a larger picture of what relics we have, but to see the details, for example the beard of Lamassu and the features, Badeen really helped us see the art from a new perspective,” Samuel said.
A small ceremony to unveil the mural included the principal and staff. In September, the group showcased the work to other students and teachers. That same month, parents and the wider community were invited to a grand ceremony.
“The mural achieves visibility of the Assyrian students and as a result, their culture,” Samuel said. “A piece of the students became visible to others. It’s a visual for them to relate to and also convey a message.”
Assyrian Club of Niles North High School
Founded around 1993, the Assyrian Club of Niles North High School meets weekly and organizes trips to libraries, museums and cultural events including a cooking workshop at the Assyrian Kitchen to experience the “world’s oldest cookbook.” Membership is open to all students, not just Assyrians, because Samuel said it’s “a way to spread our culture and celebrate our identity.”
By Joe Snell | January 2022 | Photos and videos provided
A new scholarship initiative for high school seniors in Iraq’s Duhok Governorate seeks to memorialize late Assyrian leader Ashur Eskrya, who passed away on April 9 due to complications from the coronavirus.
The project comes amid an education crisis gripping Iraq. Dropout rates in Iraqi schools are on the rise due to armed conflict, displacement, economic hardships and a surge in COVID cases. A World Bank report in October found that schools across the country were closed over 75% of the time and remote learning opportunities were limited.
“Effectively, students in Iraq are facing more than a lost year of learning,” the report said.
The crisis is heightened in Assyrian communities with the added transportation cost of students from outlying villages into larger towns and the translation and printing of textbooks into the Assyrian language.
Organized by the Assyrian Aid Society (AAS), the Ashur Sargon Eskrya Scholarship Fund will help fill some of those gaps so that an Assyrian education continues in the homeland, AAS told the Journal.
“The scholarship not only takes some financial pressure off students and their families, but also instills a greater sense of belonging and encouragement to continue their higher education,” said AAS of America Executive Board Member Natalie Babella.
Through the fund, scholarships will be awarded to 16 high school seniors across five Assyrian high schools in the Duhok Governorate: Nsibin in Nuhadra (Duhok), Zahrira in Deralok, Zakhoota in Zakho, Shameil in Shiyoz and Urhai in Sarsing.
“This scholarship aims to highlight the achievements of those graduates that scored 90% or higher, entering university for disciplines such as dental school and engineering,” said AAS-A Vice President Renya Benjamen. “Their achievements speak to the high standards of our Assyrian schools.”
Born in 1974, Eskrya graduated from Baghdad University and later became a civil engineer. In 2003, he joined the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq (AAS-I). He was named the organization’s president in 2010, guiding the humanitarian nonprofit in the tumultuous years during and after the Islamic State (IS) genocide, including surviving an assassination attempt.
Eskrya was an advocate for the protection of Assyrians in northern Iraq and the formation of an autonomous region for Assyrians in the Nineveh Plains, taking his case as far as New York and Geneva.
“The Assyrian Aid Society will honor his memory by continuing the work he loved so much of helping those in need and helping the Assyrian nation thrive in our ancestral lands,” Babella said.
AAS-I, a relief organization founded in 1991, organizes home and business reconstruction projects, builds medical facilities and provides refugee relief and specialized coronavirus care to local communities among other projects.
Education is a priority for the organization, Babella told the Journal. Buses transport children from outlying villages to Assyrian schools in larger towns. The schools hire Assyrian teachers and other staff members. And specialty software translates state-approved textbooks into the Assyrian language. In total, 26 AAS-I funded schools provide K-12 schooling in the Assyrian language and serve over 2,600 students.
In 2016, AAS-I was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
By Joe Snell | December 2021 | Photos and videos courtesy of Shlama Foundation
A new women and children’s clothing shop in Batnaya, a village in the Nineveh Governorate of northern Iraq, sits among heaps of rubble and Islamic State (IS) graffiti. The business is part of a slow trend to revive the area, which was largely destroyed by IS and subsequent fighting by US-led forces.
Sandra Yacoub is among the many Assyrian Chaldean Syriac residents that fled Batnaya in August 2014 as IS overran the area. She first traveled to Simele and eventually landed in Beirut. As she realized her refugee case had stalled, she returned home to find her village in ruins. Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) estimates that about 1% of the village remained standing.
Determined to live in her homeland, and with retail experience she picked up in Lebanon, Yacoub decided to open a clothing store. Her project was supported by Shlama Foundation, a nonprofit based in Erbil. In total, the shop cost $5,400 to build.
But Yacoub now faces a new hurdle of finding customers. Once home to over 5,000 people, today the village houses about 500, largely because it still sits in rubble. Those that have returned are resilient. The first man to come back two years ago lived in the wreckage of his old home among stray dogs and a caved-in ceiling.
The money is simply not there to remove the debris, Noor Matti, a Shlama Foundation Board Member, told the Journal. And work to repair houses and restore electricity and water is regularly delayed because of a lack of resources and booby traps laid by the extremist group.
USAID last year provided two power generators and helped clear some of the rubble to get the village back on its feet. The debris of seventy homes were cleared at a cost of about $3,000 each; but 250 homes still need to be removed.
There are reminders everywhere of IS. Buildings and debris lay covered in graffiti. And a prison for IS family members is nearby. It was supposed to be relocated to Mosul city, but the process has yet to be finalized.
“The IS scars are still there, and they’re the most visible in Batnaya,” Matti said.
Where is Batnaya?
Batnaya is in the Tel Kef District in the Nineveh Plains, about 15 miles north of Mosul and south of Alqosh.
A soccer tournament in honor of the late Assyrian leader Ashur Eskrya wrapped up last week in Duhok.
Sixteen teams from across northern Iraq participated in the competition representing towns and cities including Mangesh, the villages of Dawodiya, Malabrwan, Hazargod, and the Semele region.
“The tournament is meant to be a celebration of Ashur’s life and the annual Akitu soccer tournament where he would pitch the ceremonial kickoff,” said Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A) Vice President Renya Benjamen who, alongside her husband Dr. Joseph Danavi, supported the Duhok brank of Khoyada, AAS-A and the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq (AAS-I) in organizing the tournament. “This tournament is a vibrant display of two grassroots organizations we are very close to, the Assyrian Aid Society and Khoyada Student and Youth Union, collaborating to provide joy to the youth and pride to the competing villages,” Benjamen wrote to the Journal.
The championship match on Aug. 23 began with a minute of silence followed by speeches from political and organizational leaders. The son of the late Eskrya, Sennacherib Ashur, welcomed the players by kicking the ball from the center of the pitch. The team of Brewer beat Hazargod 3-2. Trophies and medals were given to the teams as well as individual prizes.
Fouad Touma received the award for the best player of the tournament. The top scorer of the games was Fadi Iyad and Artin Khoshaba won the award for the best goalkeeper.
Eskrya passed away on April 9 due to complications from the coronavirus. Born in 1974, he graduated from Baghdad University and later became a civil engineer. In 2003, he joined AAS-I and became president in 2010, guiding the humanitarian nonprofit through some of its most challenging years during and after the ISIS genocide.
Through AAS-I, Eskrya led reconstruction projects, built and maintained medical facilities, provided specialized coronavirus care and refugee relief, organized rural initiatives such as building irrigation channels, and fought for educational opportunities for Assyrian youth. In total, 27 AAS-I-funded schools provided K-12 schooling in the Assyrian language and served over 2,600 students. In 2016, AAS-I was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The election of a new patriarch for the Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) is back on the books, according to a statement Wednesday from the church’s governing body. The proceedings are slated for Sept. 5 in Erbil.
In a statement from the Bishop of California and Secretary of the Holy Synod Mar Awa Royel, the event will begin with the current patriarch Mar Gewargis III Sliwa stepping down due to health reasons. The church hierarchs will then elect the 122nd Catholicos-Patriarch.
Gewargis was born in Habbaniyah in 1941. He studied from the School of Education at Baghdad in 1964 and then for 13 years taught English across the country. Gewargis was elected patriarch of the ACOE in 2015, succeeding Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV who died that year after a 39-year term. At the time, Gewargis was the only Assyrian metropolitan still living in Iraq.
The patriarchal seat of the church left the Middle East in 1933 for Chicago. The construction of a new patriarchate in Erbil began in 2006. The seat returned to the Middle East with Gewargis.
In February 2020, the 81-year-old Gewargis announced his intention to resign due to health reasons. A special session of the Holy Synod was convened in April 2020 to organize a new election. But the election was postponed earlier this year due to a surge in coronavirus cases in northern Iraq.
Earlier this year, Gewargis welcomed Pope Francis to Erbil. It marked the first visit by a pope to the country. Before giving his final blessing during a mass at Erbil stadium, Francis thanked Gewargis for holding his seat in the city and “honoring us with his presence.”
“Together with him, I embrace the Christians of the various denominations, many of whom have shed their blood in this very land,” Francis said. “Yet our martyrs shine together like stars in the same sky. From there they call us to walk together, without hesitation, towards the fullness of unity.”
The consecration and enthronement of the new patriarch is scheduled for Sept. 13 at the cathedral church of St. John the Baptist in Ankawa.
A new community center in Alqosh aims to support local clubs and activities.
The Mar Mikha Center, a $2,500 initiative, was furnished by the Shlama Foundation with desks, chairs and 15 meters of bookshelves.
“It will be a place that supports the young people and will help culturally and educationally,” said Qasha Salar Hanona of Alqosh.
Located in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq about 30 miles north of Mosul, Alqosh is a town of roughly 4,500 residents. Many Assyrians fled to the area from Mosul and Baghdad after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The project, supported by the Alqosh community of Florida, was chosen because “there were no proper and modern facilities” to support activities that promoted culture and education, Shlama told the Journal.