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
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.
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.
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.
WASHINGTON — A new international forum aimed at bolstering communication and knowledge sharing among Assyrian organizations supporting the homeland launched on Nov. 14 with representatives spanning Lebanon, Syria, Germany, Iraq and the United States.
After more than a year of brainstorming the concept and pitching members to join, the Homeland Coalition kicked off virtually with a meeting of five organizations and seven representatives. The coalition is part of broader global efforts by non-profit groups supporting Assyrians to gather around the same table.
“We believe it’s more effective and efficient to serve our people, especially in the homeland, when we’re connected and closer to one another,” said President and Co-Founder of Etuti Institute, Savina Dawood.
The concept of the forum originated with the Etitu Institute in the spring of 2019. The group began noticing some of their work was overlapping with other group projects. It became difficult to avoid the problem, Dawood said, because there wasn’t an organized communication line between organization leaders.
Promises of groundbreaking new coalitions are nothing new to the Assyrian community. Many attempts that have been touted as revolutionary have fallen apart before even launching. Before starting a new coalition of their own, Etuti’s leaders worked to identify why previous attempts had failed. They concluded that the introduction of voting for a hierarchy of leadership fueled internal divisions and led to their closure. The politics would often lead to infighting and overshadow the very work they set out to accomplish, Dawood said.
To avoid internal conflict, the Homeland Coalition was structured informally and with flexibility. The group doesn’t run on a governing body or voting for approvals. There are no special registration requirements or mandatory group projects. Participating organizations are welcome to come and go as they please and have the right to decide whether or not to share what they are working on. After discussions, members can choose if they want to collaborate. In short, the key to the coalition is simplicity.
“Sometimes we don’t realize that these small steps are key pieces of the big puzzle,” wrote Shlama Foundation Board Member and member of the coalition, Ranna Abro.
The informal structure is aimed at achieving three goals: bringing similar-minded groups to the same table, creating an open dialogue of projects and future plans, and sharing knowledge, resources and skills acquired from years of on-the-ground experience.
To participate, organizations must fulfill three requirements: they must be working toward the homeland, their work must be philanthropic in nature and they must be registered in their respective country or at least in the process of registration.
So far, eight organizations have agreed to participate: Etuti Institute (Iraq and the US), Shlama Foundation (Iraq and the US), Assyrian Society for Helping and Development (Syria), Assyrian Aid Society – America (Iraq and the US), Gabbara (Armenia) and the Assyrian Church of the East Support Committee (Lebanon). Two new organizations, Shopra Group (Iraq) and Assuritu (Iraq), are also involved.
Media organizations are allowed to participate, although in a limited capacity. As all meetings are off the record, media personnel function strictly as observers and can ask questions at the end of discussions.
At Nov. 14’s inaugural meeting, participants agreed to meet every quarter and to allow only two representatives per organization. During the lull between meetings, communication remains ongoing through emails and a WhatsApp group. Emergency meetings can take place if requested.
To create a space where all organizations are on the same level, talks are facilitated by an outside group. The Assyrian Policy Institute led this month’s meeting and will facilitate meetings for the foreseeable future. The next meeting is scheduled for February.
Even after the first meeting, participants told the Journal they already found similarities in their work and agreed to further discussions on how to avoid overlap.
“I truly believe we can be much more productive, effective and efficient in our work individually and together as organizations in this path, when we are together, when we are connected in communication, we can share and collaborate,” Dawood said.
CHICAGO — Biden for President Michigan, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s official Michigan chapter, established a Chaldean/Assyrian Advisory Council on Tuesday in an effort to reach Chaldean and Assyrian voters in the state less than one month out from November’s presidential election.
Biden’s campaign hopes to sharpen its appeal to Michigan’s Chaldeans and Assyrians, a large minority community in a crucial swing state.
Talks of creating the council have been active for several weeks, according to council member Crystal Kassab Jabiro.
“One of our goals is to really share… a dignity of life approach that we see coming from the Biden council.” Jabiro said, describing the importance of spotlighting issues including women’s reproductive health and “equitable and affordable medical care.”
“Many [Chaldeans and Assyrians] are on Medicaid and Medicare. Many of them are low income,” she said.
Jabiro also expressed council-wide concerns with Trump’s demonstrated fight against Obamacare and its subsequent implications for the protected coverage of preexisting conditions, stating, “We feel like he’s coming for these people.”
The council also wants to bring voters’ attention to immigration policies, she said, citing ICE raids on Chaldean community hotspots in Detroit earlier in Trump’s presidency which resulted in the detention of more than 100 Iraqi nationals.
The Chaldean Chamber of Commerce estimates that 121,000 Chaldeans and Assyrians live in Michigan. In 2016, Trump won the state by a margin of only 0.2% — just over 10,000 votes.
“When you’re talking about an election being won or lost by fewer than 15,000 votes [in 2016] and you have [121,000] Chaldeans in Michigan — of those, maybe 30,000 eligible voters — that can make a huge difference,” Oshana said.
The Chaldean/Assyrian Advisory Council will work on several community outreach projects — including phone banking and “friend banking” — in an effort to mobilize voters in the community and encourage early voting, according to a statement released by the group on Tuesday.
The group also has plans to create a Chaldean/Assyrian Women for Biden council to be spearheaded by Jabiro. She confirmed the council is working on a town hall set to take place next week.
In April, the non-profit humanitarian organization selected four new officers to lead their District of Columbia chapter. The move increases its presence among non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political advocacy groups and representatives based in the country’s capital, said the chapter’s new President, Nirvana Habash.
“If you have a presence in D.C., you’ll have this access to political representatives,” Habash said. “Beyond that, having a presence in D.C. gives you an opportunity to reach other groups that are really prominent in the area and I’m talking religious groups, racial groups, and political groups.”
A ten-year veteran of the country’s capital, Habash’s work has spanned United Way Worldwide, the British Embassy and the board of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program through FEMA.
In January, Habash she put in touch with AAS board member Karmella Borashan. AAS wanted to take the chapter in a new direction and Habash was tasked with helping find a new slate of officers.
“AAS-A had one member in D.C., however we have always been interested in strengthening and activating the chapter more than what it was,” Borashan said. “Due to the presence of many NGO hubs in D.C. and the political engine residing in D.C., we have a strong need as Assyrians to have presence there either for the fundraising aspect of our job or to be a voice for our people with our representatives.”
Habash reached out to younger Assyrians in the community that each brought different strengths. Eventually she also agreed to serve as an officer, and together the four new officers met to decide who would fill each leadership in each role.
On April 23, new officers were announced:
Nirvana Habash – President Jamie Cernek – Vice President Julia Rodgers – Treasurer Nora Matti – Secretary
“Our Executive Committee has worked very hard to get this team in place,” said AAS-A President Dr. Antoine Varani in a release. “We worked the conference calls and the Zoom video meetings until we knew we had the right people in the right place.”
The Assyrian Aid Society of America was founded in San Francisco in 1991. The non-profit has raised over $14 million in donations and grants and collaborates with the Assyrian Aid Society-Iraq to fund reconstruction, educational and medical projects. According to their website, their immediate focus is on the thousands of Assyrian families displaced by ISIS terrorism in both Iraq and Syria.
In D.C., there are about 100 Assyrians that live in or around the area, Habash estimates. The number is hard to know for sure because she admitted the nature of the community is transient.
“We have people who come here for a couple of years and then we have people who stay here for half of their lifetimes,” she said. “Once you’re brought into the D.C. Assyrian community, though…those roots are extended back to D.C. Even though if you count us up we might be small, it feels like the D.C. Assyrian reach is hundreds.”
For now, Habash said the chapter is building a foundation that starts with creating a handbook, writing job descriptions and forming a governance structure. Officers are also developing their messaging and branding strategy in tandem with the national organization.
“We will not be taking meetings early on with NGOs or on the Hill because we are not necessarily ready for that,” Habash said. “We really entrust the national board to continue managing relationships with NGOs and political representatives because that’s their area of expertise.”
Early events will instead concentrate on fundraising and letting the wider community know that the chapter is heading in a new direction.
One of the first events Habash would like to organize is an art show modeled after last year’s ‘Diaspora in Bloom’ show organized by Akadina Yadegar and Nardin Sarkis in San Jose.
“That’s a no brainer because people love to learn about different cultures and heritages through art,” she said. “An art show would really open the doors to non-Assyrians to come learn more about us in the D.C. region.”
Habash sees the opportunity to engage with non-Assyrians as a strength of the D.C. chapter.
“Everyone in DC, for the most part that I’ve encountered, really cares about learning about other people and their identities beyond their own experiences,” she said. “We’re an indigenous group and people want to help us preserve our culture and our heritage.”