Tag Archives: #featured

Law scholarship for Assyrian American students names winner

By Joe Snell | October 2022

One of the nation’s sole scholarships reserved for Assyrian American students pursuing a law degree has named its 2022 winner.

Ronnie Kawak, an Assyrian attending the Indiana University School of Law, was selected among applicants from across the country to receive the Kalogerakos Family Law Scholarship, a $2,500 need-based award that can be used toward tuition, books and other expenses.

“Growing up outside of the community and really trying to establish this connection, scholarships like this let me feel like I’m welcomed and I’m not somewhere where I’m not supposed to be,” said Kawak, who was born in Virginia and later grew up in Indianapolis. 

The scholarship, launched last year, is administered by the Assyrian American Bar Association (AABA). The group was founded five years ago and comprises 100 members in a dozen states as well as five countries. 

Adriana Rahana, a law student at the University of Illinois Chicago, was last year’s award recipient. 

There are at least 10 scholarships offered by organizations across the country that are reserved for Assyrian American students, but Tony Kalogerakos, one of the founding members of AABA, felt it was important to create a need-based award dedicated to the law.

“Since we are all immigrants, we don’t always know what route to take,” he said. “It’s advantageous for any community to have more lawyers. And the current national discourse about immigrants in general makes it even more imperative that we create and supply a pipeline for legal training for Assyrians.”

Kalogerakos in the past offered the scholarship through his law firm, Injury Lawyers of Illinois, LLC. But it was important, he said, to provide the scholarship through AABA to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest so he wasn’t alone in selecting the winner. 

To win this year’s award, Kawak had to complete an application form, submit two letters or recommendation and write a 500-word essay on how he plans to use his legal education to address an issue in the Assyrian community. 

Kawak’s winning essay explored the history of Assyrians in establishing law and then compared it to the responsibility of Assyrian Americans in continuing this tradition. 

“One thing I want to do is dedicate my career to benefitting our nation and encouraging others to do that,” Kawak said. “Experiences like this scholarship really helped prove to me that this is a community that will accept me and you.”

Wine festival in northern Iraq passes on Assyrian heritage to next generation

By Joe Snell | October 2022

Wine making in the Assyrian village of Dehe is a tradition that goes back centuries.

But as hundreds of people departed this northern Iraqi village in recent years due to armed conflicts and a lack of job prospects, some feared the tradition had left with them. 

With the support of Assyrians in surrounding communities, a new wine festival seeks to retain Dehe’s storied history, pass it on to young people and keep the wine flowing. 

“The people of Dehe don’t have support, they don’t have young people anymore,” said Maryam Shmoil, an Assyrian from Iraq who leads the youth and women empowerment organization Assuritu. “If we don’t support each other, there will be no more Assyrians there.”

Every corner of Dehe, a village in the Sapna valley near Iraq’s border with Turkey, is brimming with stories. On one street, a church dates back to the 5th century, another to the 10th century. And during the Seyfo genocide in World War I, many Assyrians fleeing Tyari, an area in the Hakkari region in Turkey, sought refuge here. Its population continued to grow, and by 1961, over 600 people called Dehe home. 

But the village was destroyed during the Anfal campaign, an operation carried out by Iraq’s Ba-athist regime in the 1980s. All families in Dehe reportedly fled. People slowly returned in the 1990s and early 2000s, culminating in an initiative to build 56 new homes and other infrastructure. It’s estimated that by 2012, about 250 people moved back. 

But ongoing Turkish bombings into northern Iraq have since scared many away. Today, fewer than 30 people live here, and nearly all young people are gone.

Winemaking in the Middle East dates back to biblical times. Assyrians in the ancient empire beginning in 2,500 BC were renowned for their expansive planting of vineyards and the production of wine. It was a major part of the ancient empire’s economy.

Assyrians today continue the tradition, gathering grapes in home gardens and monasteries to produce simple blends. Some villages, including Dehe, continue the traditional methods of semi-drying grapes under the sun before gathering them to be squashed in a hawisla, or large bucket. And the traditional fermentation process takes about 40 days, unlike the two-week period that is used today by introducing different strains of yeast.

Shmoil had the idea of hosting a festival in the village two years ago to support those still in the area that were making wine in the traditional way and to pass on its heritage to younger generations. 

“Our youth are far from our traditions,” Shmoil said. “We are developing and improving things, but we need to do this without forgetting our traditions. We have to learn and protect it.”

After a year-long delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event, organized by Assuritu and the Kolokhta Association, took place on Sept. 16-17. The first day began with introductions and activities for about 30 participants that had arrived from nearby communities including Duhok, Sapna, Bebedeh and Khomaneh. Yousif Odisho, an Assyrian from Bebedeh, presented a lecture about the references to wine in Assyrian literature. 

Participants then heard about Dehe’s history and how its people are living today. In the evening, participants split into groups to collect both black and white grapes. 

Local villagers began the second day with workshops on the ancient and traditional winemaking processes. A new hawisla was then built and the collected grapes were loaded inside. Groups took turns stomping them, sometimes dancing khigga while doing it. 

Some of the elderly people of the village gathered to watch in amusement and clap along to the music. 

“A man from the village came up to me during the event and said bisema raba (thank you very much),” said David Gewargis, an Assyrian based in Duhok. “You could tell they were really happy to see us and to see youth being active, gathering, dancing and having fun and doing an activity.”

The experience brought tradition to life for Gewargis, who has never witnessed the winemaking process first-hand despite his mother being from a village in the Sapna Valley.

“We go to Assyrian houses and they tell us they make wine and start explaining it, but to actually witness the process step by step is different than when you hear about it,” he said. “You’re closer to the tradition and you’re passing on that knowledge, that heritage.”

The wine will now ferment for 40 days before villagers package it for selling.

This year’s festival was simple, Shmoil said, and that’s why she’s reluctant to call it the first annual event. Instead, it laid the seeds for a much larger week-long gathering in the future, and one that travels to different villages each year, including Barwar and Nahla.

Moving the event to different sites is important, she said, because Dehe isn’t the only Assyrian village with a declining population and unique traditions.

“This village has a great history,” Shmoil said. “If we want to protect our identity, we have to protect our villages.” 

*Photos contributed

Book review: Strong case made for Hanging Gardens of Babylon in ancient Nineveh

“The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced” (2015) by Stephanie Dalley

This review was written by Jessi Arabou from the Assyrian Cultural and Social Youth Association (ACSYA) based in Sydney, Australia. Keep up with ACSYA cultural preservation and awareness projects here: ACSYA

This is by far the most convincing and compelling argument among other texts for the location of the elusive ancient world wonder known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The book takes viewers on a journey in a detective-like narration by methodically eliminating all previous locations with indicators towards archaeology inferences and cuneiform inscriptions and presents the case for its location in the ancient city of Nineveh. The author’s erudition is exquisite. What makes her argument more legitimate is the magnificent feat of ancient engineering that is meticulously presented and supports such a structure to properly function.

The book is presented as a mystery, so this review will not disclose any spoilers. This is a must-read book on the lost wonder of the ancient world.

Where to purchase: Amazon

About the author: Stephanie Dalley is a British Assyriologist and scholar of the Ancient Near East. She is known for her publications of cuneiform texts and her investigation into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. She proposed the site was situated in ancient Nineveh and was constructed during the rein of King Sennacherib. Dalley also published her own translations of the Babylonian myths ‘The Descent of Ishtar’, ‘Gilgamesh’ and ‘The Epic of Creation’ among others. Dalley is today an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University.

About ACSYA: The Assyrian Cultural & Social Youth Association is an independent non-profit organization headquartered in Sydney, Australia. Established in 2014, the organization strives to revive the Assyrian culture through field trips, exhibitions, workshops and training sessions.

Assyrian language course passes crucial hurdle in Chicago-area school district

Niles Township High School District 219 is on the verge of becoming the first public high school system in the US to offer Assyrian as a world language.

By Joe Snell | September 2022

In a major decision over seven years in the making, a committee tasked with reviewing and implementing curriculum changes to a Chicago-area public school district voted this month to recommend an Assyrian language and culture course.

The course, which would mark the first accredited Assyrian language program in the country offered at a public high school, now moves to the district’s Board of Education to hear on October 11 and a vote in November. If approved by the Board, it will become an official course offered in the district’s public high schools. Students could then register for the course beginning January 2023.

“This is a course that is not only something our district will offer, but it’s something that is possible for any school in the state,” said Caroline Benjamin, a school administrator in Chicago’s District 219. “This truly becomes a blueprint for other districts.”

Niles Township High Schools, or District 219, includes Niles North and Niles West. Total enrollment at both high schools is over 4,700 students and composed of about 30% Assyrians, according to estimates by D219 Suraye, an Assyrian parent group in the district. 

Any changes to the district’s course offerings must first receive approval from the Curriculum Standards for School Improvement (CSSI) Committee. The process to receive approval from the body can take years and many meetings.  

In the case of the Assyrian languages curriculum, work began in 2015. The idea was born out of a D219 Suraye parent meeting, co-sponsored at the time by Benjamin. The group was advised by school officials to begin the process by conducting a survey of interest of over 1,000 8-10th grade students.

Despite reported interest, progress on implementing the program together was slow as regular turnover in school administration meant Assyrians frequently started near the beginning to win over new educators. And some school officials were concerned that the course would take students away from other language programs, an educator told the Journal.

A trial of the course was offered in 2017 as a summer elective. Ten students enrolled in the class taught by an Assyrian staff member. The summer option continued for three consecutive years and became a virtual option in 2020 following the spread of COVID. 

But parents wanted more. The course needed to be held during the school year, one parent said, and it had to be offered full-time in the fall and spring. 

So advocacy continued. Benjamin recalls going back to the school’s administration saying summer elective courses weren’t enough. This time, however, things were different. The course had reportedly grown momentum with the addition of Ramina Samuel, a school counselor at Niles North and current co-sponsor of the Suraye parent group.

“Ramina came in and started asking the right questions and started pushing in a way that took people out of their comfort zone,” Benjamin said. “They started realizing, ‘These people aren’t going away, these people aren’t going to stop.’”

A full-time curriculum was presented to CSSI in the fall of 2021. The committee responded favorably, according to notes obtained from the discussion, but admitted their hands were tied — as long as the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) didn’t recognize Assyrian as a world language in their annual school catalog, an accredited course at a public high school couldn’t be offered.

“That was not something at that time that seemed possible,” Benjamin said. “We didn’t have the team that we do have now advocating at that level.”

Assyrian activists and political leaders mobilized. Village of Lincolnwood Trustee Atour Sargon and Assyrian Policy Institute (API) Director Reine Hanna pressed state representatives to nudge the Assyrian curriculum onto ISBE’s radar. 

“The significant progress made in recent weeks is the result of many years of advocacy and persistence by advocates and community members,” Sargon wrote to the Journal. “Had the community not pushed for it in the face of immense obstacles, we simply wouldn’t have reached this stage in the process.”

With the support of State Rep. Jen Gong-Gershowitz, who co-chairs the newly established Illinois Assyrian Caucus, a December 2021 meeting was arranged with ISBE. 

The state board approved thirteen Assyrian courses, which have since been added to the Illinois State Course Catalog that is slated for release this fall.

Despite state approval, the course still needed a CSSI recommendation to be included in the district’s class offerings. A second committee meeting was set for March.

In the weeks leading up to the presentation, the Suraye parent group worked with community activists to drum up support among school officials. During a February meeting with the district’s Board of Education, Assyrians presented over 800 letters of support from community members.   

During the second CSSI meeting, Assyrians presented updates on the ISBE approval along with the letters of support. CSSI had no more questions about the curriculum, according to meeting minutes, but as changes to the district’s course catalog only gets approved once a year in September, the proposal would again have to be put on hold.

As the proposal sat in summer limbo, World language teacher Thomas Neal, together with Samuel and math teacher William Sargool, worked in detail on what the curriculum could look like. The group also worked closely with Assyrian schools in Australia that had already developed a K-12 program and launched a text book series to teach the language. 

After six months, Assyrian parents and educators presented for a third time to CSSI on Sept. 13, but with another hurdle to overcome: the committee had many new faces and nearly tripled in size. Renewed questions were asked, including if this course would lead to an enrollment drop in other world languages. Following the meeting, and despite pushback from some CSSI members that was challenged by Charlene Abraham, a new Assyrian member of the committee, the curriculum was finally recommended to be presented to the Board of Education for approval as a two-year language option that would fulfill the student’s world language requirement. 

The requirements for the appointed teacher of the curriculum are still in discussion. At the state level, the teacher would need a PEL (Professional Education License). Further requirements including endorsements and additional teaching courses will have to be decided by the district.

And as parents and educators wait for the Board of Education’s final vote next month, work is already underway to take this curriculum to the national level. 

One thing is certain: District 219 is poised to become the first public high school district in the US to offer Assyrian as a world language. 

“This didn’t start connecting until the right people were hired in the right positions,” Benjamin said. “That’s why bringing people into spaces like schools where they reflect the community truly matters. It couldn’t happen with just one person advocating.”

An earlier version of this article cited eight Assyrian courses approved by the Illinois State Board. That number was since found to be thirteen.

An earlier version also cited the district’s Board of Education voting on the curriculum Oct. 11, but the vote is in November, the board will be hearing about the curriculum in October.

Book review: Assyrians flourish following collapse of ancient empire

“Assyrians Beyond the Fall of Nineveh: A 2,624 Years Journey” (2013) by William Warda

This review was written by Jessi Arabou from the Assyrian Cultural and Social Youth Association (ACSYA) based in Sydney, Australia. Keep up with ACSYA cultural preservation and awareness projects here: ACSYA

Researching online articles, literature or history books at your local library about the Assyrian people post ancient empire consistently stopped at the sacking of the capital city, Nineveh, at 609 B.C. Only sporadic references accounting for the existence of the Assyrians could be found. Author William Warda, in his novel, “Assyrians Beyond the Fall of Nineveh: A 2,624 Years Journey,” presents a case for the continuation of the Assyrian people that survived the empire’s decline and flourished under subsequent empires.

The book not only presents evidence of continuity but also delves into cultural and inherit ancient traditions that were carried on by the custodians of the land while under subsequent classifications as vassal states and semi-independent kingdoms. The presence of culture intertwined with the Assyrian identity are the main precursors and are presented as salient identifiers.

Warda uses a plethora of references and sources to augment the case for continuity. While there are minor reflections on the lay out, presentation and a small number of references (which have not stood the test of scrutiny), the overwhelming vast catalogue of information is more than enough to dissect and use.

*Following the writing of this review, there has been an overall increase of resources available which shed further light for the case of continuity following the collapse of the ancient empire. Viewers of the recent documentary “Assyria A.D.” can take solace in that this book lays the groundwork for the inevitable conclusion and that they will also find shades of the movie laced throughout the book.

Where to purchase: Amazon

About the author: William M. Warda is an Assyrian writer and community activist. Born in Iran in 1941, Warda told the Los Angeles Times he was a 4-year-old boy in Urmia in 1946 when he saw his village plundered, his father shot through the head and his 6-month-old sister bayoneted by Turks. He was prevented from burying his father’s corpse. Arriving in the United States in the 1960s, Warda wrote dozens of article about Assyrian history. He served as the president of the Assyrian American Association of Southern California from 2006-2010. He later joined the organization’s board of directors. Warda passed away last month.

About ACSYA: The Assyrian Cultural & Social Youth Association is an independent non-profit organization headquartered in Sydney, Australia. Established in 2014, the organization strives to revive the Assyrian culture through field trips, exhibitions, workshops and training sessions.

ACOE youth conference returns to Chicago, sets record participation

By Joe Snell | August 2022 | Photos contributed

The first Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) youth conference was held in Chicago in 1985 and consisted of about 80 people, according to Qasha Gewargis, a priest of the church and president of the National Executive Committee for the church’s youth groups. 

Thirty-seven years later, as the event returned to Chicago after nearly a decade absence, that number swelled to a record-setting 650 participants. 

“After COVID, people are yearning to meet new people and for their lives to be interactive once more,” said Peter Azzo, 22, a member of the conference planning committee who has participated in every conference since 2013. “But also as a youth, we’re becoming more organized and I think it’s having an impact at the parish level.”

The five-day event, held in Chicago from June 30-July 5, drew attendees from California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Texas and Canada and included lectures on growing closer to Christ, self-evaluation workshops and a meeting with the newly-elected patriarch. 

1985: The beginnings of youth conference

Before 1985, communication between North American ACOE parishes was limited to a handful of yearly meetings, according to Sargon Sarkis, who was president at the time of the Mar Gewargis youth group in Chicago.

The youth conference was developed by the church’s late patriarch Mar Dinkha and led by Sarkis, Gewargis and a handful of Chicago youth leaders in an effort to connect young people across parishes. The first event was held at the Mar Gewargis church and included an outdoor picnic, evenings parties and meetings on how to support parish projects. 

“We sent letters to other youth groups to participate,” Sarkis said, and confirmed that enthusiastic responses were received from others parishes in Chicago, New York, California, Detroit and Canada. 

The conference has since been held annually. Attendance has steadily grown as the host city started alternating and with the establishment of a National Executive Committee.

But Gewargis said the conference mission has remained the same: bring young people to Christ and bring them into their Assyrian identity through learning the language, culture, reading and writing and promoting the Assyrian entity as a whole.  

Conference returns to the Windy City

Chicago was slated to host conference in 2020, but the global coronavirus pandemic sidelined those plans. 

Development, however, continued around the conference theme: “Be Rooted,” after John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

The theme is in the vein of “a plant or a tree being rooted,” Gewargis told the Journal. One lecture discussed how the holy scriptures help one become rooted into the church and into Christ. Another was on self evaluation and preparedness in understanding your personal relationship with the Lord.

Attendance at scheduled events was mandatory as each participant had to join five lectures and prayer services. 

Due to the large turnout, lectures were divided between two age groups: 21-years-old and older, and those 20-years-old and younger. A separate hotel was booked across the street as new lecture rooms had to be reserved. 

Attendees also explored the city, taking in boat tours and on the final day, visiting the Six Flags theme park.

The newly elected patriarch of the church, Mar Awa Royel, who was on a US tour before returning to Iraq this month, handed out medals and took photos with each participant. 

“[The patriarch] being with us showed another standing of our patriarch with our youth, especially in the diaspora,” Azzo said.

Royel was elected in September as the church’s new patriarch. He is the first American-born leader of the church and only the ninth new patriarch since 1780. He moved last year from California to Iraq to head the patriarchal seat. Construction on the new patriarchy headquarters is scheduled to finish by next month.

Assyrian Church of The East Youth Association National Executive Committee members alongside chapter presidents and vice presidents of US and Canada parishes.

Growing North American youth presence

The National Executive Committee is an arm of the church that oversees the country’s parish-level youth groups. It’s made up of a president, vice president and three representatives from each of the church’s three US dioceses (Eastern US, California and Western/Southern US). 

Canada returned to this year’s conference after over a decade absence. About 40 youth attended from the country. Gewargis confirmed that representatives from the Canada diocese will soon be added to the National Executive Committee and they are discussing for the country to host the conference as early as 2025.

Conference attendance is not open to everyone. Participants must be active members of their youth parish, having attended at least 50% of their bible study classes and church services. 

“Our goal is to strengthen and educate our youth, not just bring them once a year to a vacation,” Gewargis said. “We didn’t want them to join the youth conference and then forget about it the rest of the year. It’s like a reward for them to go to church, to go to their bible study programs and attend Assyrian bible classes. Otherwise it would be in vain if we just gathered once a year to have fun.”

The requirement has made increasing participation even more impressive. Last year’s conference in Los Angeles drew 450 participants, a record at the time. This year’s event raised that record by another 200 attendees.

Local parishes are typically notified two years prior to their hosting of conference. Next year’s event will take place in California and 2024 will move to Arizona. There are also discussions to host an international youth conference next August in Erbil, Iraq.

“Throughout my experiences at this conference, one thing that has solidified in me is that as a unit, we work better,” Azzo said. “Those five days at the conference you feel more connected to your faith, to your brothers and sisters in Christ, and also as Assyrians you see that if we work all together, our days look brighter and our future is much more clear.”

Returning to Tel Keppe 

My journey from Metro Detroit to the village of my ancestors

By Christina Salem | July 2022 | Photos contributed

After many delays at the tail end of January, the announcement had finally arrived — I was selected to participate in this year’s Gishru birthright trip to the Assyrian homeland, a two-week tour of villages and cities in northern Iraq. 

I was filled with excitement. Being able to connect to my roots gave me a sense of wholeness that left me speechless in the plethora of breathtaking moments. I was flowing in a way only my intuition could guide me. 

Accompanying me on my journey was one of my closest friends, Andrew Najor II (Drew). His father’s friend put us in touch with a relative that would safely take us around Tel Keppe, a town near Mosul.

The town of my father and paternal forefathers, with the land, once held sacred for being a hill of stones, turned into a cell for Islamic State (IS) fighters. Squatters from the extremist group still roam nearby. 

We were told, wrongly, that a visa was required to get into lands guarded by Federal Iraq. It made us question if the journey would be worth it. After much deliberation, however, we asked when would we ever be able to take such an opportunity? 

Once in Iraq, we were connected to Massoud Ayar, a businessman who lives in Nohadra and runs two tahini factories. Little did we know we had run into his wife at the Delal Bridge in Zakho a few days prior. 

Through Ayar, Drew and I were able to discuss a last minute excursion to Tel Keppe that would include breakfast and a tour of his factories. 

Our Gishru group leader Suzan Younan spoke to Ayar about what precautions would be made to keep us safe as the town is still a sensitive travel area. 

Toward the end of the night, she approached Drew and I and whispered: 

“You’re going to Tel Keppe.” 

We shared a look of excitement I can only describe as internally screaming. All of the stories I had heard from my father about Tel Keppe would become real in 12 short hours. 

On the day of our trip, we arrived at his home and were served with the utmost hospitality and kindness as we were fed a delicious breakfast and sampled the tahini made in his factories. 

Any uneasiness I felt about safety was erased when Ayar showed me his family photos. I saw my university classmates standing behind him. I knew in that moment that with Ayar, we were in safe hands.

Ayar not only knew our families, he even cited their extended relations. He could tell us  where their homes were located within the village.

As we left his home and our journey to Tel Keppe began, we moved through KDP checkpoints with ease. When we finally arrived at the village, Ayar pointed out former IS members as we passed. 

I was filled with many emotions. My father always spoke of the richness of his family history on both sides — the Salem’s and the Gabbara’s. I would get to see where and how my grandparents first encountered each other and fell in love, the love my father always described as unconditional. 

Our tour began at the family home of Ayar’s wife. The home was in the process of being remodeled as it was looted years’ prior by the extremist group. It was stunning even in its metamorphosis —  20 bedrooms with multiple bathrooms in each room. It was nothing short of a multi-family mansion. 

We climbed to the rooftop, and I remembered my father often told me they slept here during the hot summer nights. The entirety of the village was in our view. And what a sight it was, it felt ethereal. The air was different. Crisp and flowing through our hair. We basked in the sun’s rays and took in the moment. 

We descended from the rooftop and continued our tour. Names of families I had grown up near in Metro Detroit, their legacies continued in the diaspora, were once neighbors in the homeland. 

Our tour next moved to the houses that belonged to Salem. I had no expectations but many surprises. In the home belonging to my ancestors, there was destruction and trash, but it stood vacant. 

On the outside, handprints stamped in white paint, some Arabic writing and, noticeably different than other houses that had their address spray painted, a rusty metal address sign. 

I needed this sign as a piece of our home I could reclaim. I began tugging at the wall, tears streaming down my face, using every ounce of determination to dismantle and recover this piece of my family history. Ayar’s burly bodyguard stepped in to assist, slicing his hand in the process. 

We were then swarmed by children asking why I was crying and what the commotion was about. Drew explained this house used to belong to my family and that I wanted the sign. 

He told them to return with a hammer. One of the children returned a few minutes later with a hammer that Ayar’s driver used to pry the sign free. It was finally mine. 

My last name Salem came from a story my father always used to tell me. One that said we would always come back in one piece.

Assyrian mother, daughter caught amid chaos of Highland Park shooting

By Joe Snell | July 2022

“I want to go back outside, what happened to the parade?” Isabel Badalpour recalls her daughter, 7, crying as they rushed inside her parents’ home in Chicago’s northern suburb of Highland Park. 

Shaking as she closed the front door behind her, Isabel, an Assyrian, watched through the window as people darted across her lawn and hid in her driveway while clutching strollers and mangled lawn chairs. 

Isabel and her daughter are among hundreds of families that fled the scene of Monday’s mass shooting in Highland Park during the city’s annual Fourth of July parade, an event Isabel has attended every year since she was a child. 

“Seeing this happen in your own home, you don’t know how it feels until you see it,” she said. “And then looking at your child and realizing you have to run in that moment, that was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever had to go through as a mother.”

The city of Highland Park is just north of Chicago, home to over 30,000 people and near Assyrian communities that reside in Chicago’s northern suburbs, including Skokie.

Isabel was at the center of Monday’s violence, only two blocks from the start of the parade, when she noticed something unusual — as she took a photo of her daughter, an unmarked police car sped by. 

“It started coming toward the parade really fast and I thought that wasn’t normal, there were kids everywhere, why would they do that?” she said. 

A friend told Isabel that someone might be running around with a gun. Seconds later, the pair looked up the street to see a large crowd sprinting toward them.

“I froze for a second,” Isabel said. “My heart dropped. I grabbed my daughter and felt this gut wrenching feeling. I didn’t know how to tell her without scaring her, I didn’t want to traumatize her. I was shaking for at least two hours… I wasn’t sure if the guy armed was in the crowd running toward us.”

Police had instructed parade-goers to run from the scene, Isabel later learned. And the gunman had fired his weapon from atop Ross Cosmetics, the business she works at.

Seven people died in the shooting, and more than 30 were wounded. The gunman, arrested after he was spotted by a police officer and following a short chase, was charged with seven counts of first-degree murder. 

Despite the shooting, Isabel said she will never leave her Highland Park community. She was born and raised in the city and has attended the town’s Fourth of July parade every year since she was young. It’s a tradition she’s since passed on to her daughter.

But their early memories of the parade will be starkly different. Isabel recalled one year when the parade was canceled because it was hailing. She now fears her daughter will get older and find out “it wasn’t rain” that canceled this year’s parade, “it was gunshots”.

“I don’t ever want her to find out.”

Inaugural Assyrian conference kicks off in Washington

By Joe Snell | July 2022 | Photos by Stephney Martin

It was on Reine Hanna’s birthday in 2015 that she learned the Islamic State (IS) had invaded the Khabour region of Syria, the birthplace of her parents. 

“My coworkers surprised me with a birthday cake and I saw it and started crying,” Hanna said. “I couldn’t understand why I get to live in a place where I’m safe, where I have all of these opportunities and somebody that’s just like me… everything is uprooted; their work, their dreams, their jobs, and their families separated.”

Hanna shared the story at the welcoming session of the Assyrian Policy Institute’s (API) inaugural Washington conference. The three-day event began June 16 and comprised of meetings with state representatives, exhibits on ancient and modern artwork, panels on language preservation and discussions on the future of Assyrians and other minorities in the Middle East and the diaspora.

The event comes amid increased pressure facing Assyrians to leave their homeland, confronted with growing attacks by IS sleeper cells, efforts by authorities to silence government critics and threats by non-Assyrians to seize Assyrian lands with impunity.

“The stakes are higher than ever,” Hanna said. “We’re at a turning point for our community and we have to assess the broader situation for what it is. We have to understand what’s worked in the past and what we need to do differently.”

While Washington’s coronavirus restrictions were largely lifted, lingering pandemic guidelines remained. This forced the API to adopt hybrid meeting formats while on Capitol Hill, limiting attendance at some talks while holding others outdoors. 

Author Alda Benjamen discusses her latest book, “Assyrians in Modern Iraq,” in a conversation moderated by Lincolnwood Trustee Atour Sargon. / Photo by Stephney Martin

The first day of the conference gathered nearly fifty attendees to meet with members of Congress on the hill to share stories and discuss community priorities. 

Modesto City Planning Commissioner Carmen Morad spoke on the importance of community-led advocacy. Participants later met with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (IL) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA).

At an outdoor session, Rep. Josh Harder (CA) announced the relaunching of the Assyrian Congressional Caucus. The caucus was formed in 2018, chaired by Harder’s predecessor, Rep. Jeff Denham. Harder now leads the caucus that includes membership from Eshoo, the only Assyrian-American serving in Congress, and Schakowsky, who represents one of the largest Assyrian communities in the US.

“We’re here to be as strong an advocate for Assyrian issues as we can,” Harder said in a statement. “We’re going to get more folks involved to make sure that the Assyrian voice is heard.”

The second day of the conference welcomed over a hundred more attendees and included a screening of the Assyrian short film Grace that tells the story of a father living in Iraq during the reign of IS. He attempts to protect his daughter from extremists by playing a game of hide and seek. The film was nominated for a Short Form Drama prize during the Australian Academy Cinema Television Arts (AACTA) awards.

Bedril Diril, an Assyrian from Turkey, gave remarks about his family’s fight for justice following the murder of his parents in southeast Turkey. Presentations were later given on topics about the future of Assyrians, the impact of genocide on Assyrian identity as well as language preservation. Dr. Alda Benjamen discussed her new book, Assyrians in Modern Iraq

A separate room invited participants to a virtual reality experience by Yazda, a global Yazidi organization, called Nobody’s Listening Exhibition. The space highlighted the suffering and plight of the Yazidis during the reign of IS as participants chose one of three storylines: a young girl or boy abducted by extremists and a story through the eyes of an IS fighter.

In the evening, a pop-up video exhibition by Diaspora in Bloom curators Akadina Yadegar and Nardin Sarkis showcased prominent movies, television, music videos and contemporary video art by Assyrians in the diaspora that highlighted what the curators called “the evolution of Assyrian society and popular culture.”

Sargon Donabed on a panel discussing the early history of Assyrian-Americans. / Photo by Stephney Martin

Isa Yaramis, the President of the Assyro-Chaldean Association of France, welcomed guests to the conference’s final day. Panels were led by Joseph Hermiz, Dr. Arianne Ishaya, Dr. Ruth Kamber and Dr. Sargon Donabed and explored the early history of Assyrian-Americans in the United States. After the panels, attendees participated in roundtable workshops to discuss the future of Assyrians in the Middle East and the role of diaspora in sustaining these communities.

Donabed said the conference addressed issues connected to his Assyrian Studies Association, an organization launched in 2019 for which he helped found and is now a board member.

The question becomes “who gets to create, participate and propagate the narrative or narratives of Assyrians and their history and culture,” Donabed said. “The conference is a good example of the ways in which people can utilize their own power to affect positive change.”

This positive change, however, has yet to translate to a brighter outlook. Security and economic concerns remain in much of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, pressuring Assyrians to uproot their homes. A growing list of land theft cases drags Assyrians into sometimes years-long legal battles that often provide no resolution. And reported electoral injustices deprive Assyrians of proper local and national political representation.

In the diaspora, Hanna said communities are contending with cultural preservation and maintaining a sense of community despite being scattered.

For now, Hanna said, prospects across the board are bleak. 

“We need to recalibrate and also start expanding our focus and tackling issues that are relevant to Assyrians in the United States and wider diaspora,” she said.

API was formed in 2018 and advocates for the rights of Assyrians and other minorities in the Middle East, including Yazidis and Mandeans. The group, composed of 12 board members, told the Journal it is revamping its focus. It will remain committed to “amplifying the voices of Assyrians in the homeland,” Hanna said, and expanding on issues concerned with the diaspora. New offerings will include improving access to cultural resources and language preservation.

“Wherever we can help fill the gaps and speak to legislators and emphasize the importance of cultural preservation, we’ll be doing that,” she said. 

The focus on diaspora is important for Berta Kaisr, an Assyrian in Canada. Kaisr said the conference refreshed her desire to speak on Assyrian issues and advocate for better conditions, both in the homeland and Canada. 

“Being at the conference and simply belonging under the name of Assyrians/atouraye without needing to prove myself was a priceless feeling,” Kaisr said. “Especially living in a city now where I don’t have an Assyrian community, I need to speak louder and insert our people in conversations we are often left out of.”

Assyrians from Canada and Michigan at the opening session of the conference. / Photo by Stephney Martin

Assyrian awarded Medal of Valor by Simon Wiesenthal Center

By Joe Snell | July 2022

An Assyrian activist on June 26 was presented the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor at a ceremony in downtown Chicago, joining the ranks of US Congressman John Lewis, journalist Ann Curry and Sir Winston Churchill. 

Photo by Rine Photographics

Juliana Taimoorazy is the founder of Iraqi Christian Relief Council, an organization that supports displaced Christians and other minorities throughout Iraq and refugees in neighboring countries. She is also a UN delegate at Geneva. Last year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

“I don’t see the medal for me, the medal is for my Assyrian people and for all those that continue to suffer,” Taimoorazy said. “Every time I look at it, it is my duty, my responsibility to answer the call.”

The Medal of Valor, presented annually at sites in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, recognizes individuals for their humanitarian work and for “stepping up against hate.”

“Many people have no idea about the plight of the Assyrian community,” said Simon Wiesenthal Center Midwest Director Alison Slovin. “How often do we talk about the genocide or oppression of others? That’s why it’s important to highlight the work of people like Juliana because we all need to be activists against the hate in this world.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is an international Jewish human rights organization established in 1977 to honor ambassadors for peaceful coexistence. ABC7 Chicago, home to Assyrian journalist Diane Pathieu, was also awarded the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Community Service Award.

“It’s important for the Simon Wiesenthal Center to recognize the plight of others because so many stood silent during the holocaust when we knew what was going on,” Slovin said. “We cannot remain silent ever again against any genocide or oppression of any people.” 

Photo by Rine Photographics