July 2018 | By Nardin Sarkis
Watching the World Cup and Olympic Games with no country to root for, being unrepresented at the United Nations.
These are just a handful of experiences that the world’s few stateless peoples experience growing up. They constitute some of the first touchstone moments that begin the realization in individuals that they belong to a stateless nation – and therefore will navigate the world differently.
As an Assyrian, this realization came early. I was constantly reminded by my family and community that while I have an ancestral homeland, I no longer have a country.
I was born an American, grateful for the refuge it offered my family and eager to take advantage of its freedoms, yet I knew that America was just a happenstance of refuge. In the four generations of my family tree, Russia, Iran, Italy, Iraq, Belgium, Australia, England, and Sweden had all played a role as “foster country” or “adopted country” to my extended family.
As I tried my best to embrace my American identity as an adolescent, I was also confronted with uncommon interactions with the vast diaspora of my scattered nation. For example, summer visits to countries around the world to meet my mother’s cousins or father’s childhood friends became pilgrimages to a world that had become inaccessible due to politics and paperwork beyond our control. I had even grown accustomed to being introduced to annual visitors, with faces I did not know from countries I had not seen, as “auntie” or “cousin”.
Massacres and revolutions had dispersed Assyrians around the world. Respecting the customs of the countries that take us in while simultaneously clinging to our language and heritage had become our way of life. For the first generation born in the diaspora, though, this realization of a worldwide network of people without a place to call home felt daunting. It rendered assimilation inevitable. After all, once my grandparents and parents are gone, how was I to sustain these global relationships of people who once lived side by side?
All of these notions of diaspora, identity, and continuance clouded my mind as I came of age during the technology revolution, and in the heart of Silicon Valley no less. I watched with widened eyes as my father and uncle helped each other to carry in our first clunky desktop computer. I was quick to create an AOL instant messaging account and patiently wait for my mother to get off of the phone so that I could dial-up the internet. As if it was instinct, one of my first google searches was “Assyrians around the world”. Like a victim of natural disaster reaching the help center to find lost family members, I would search for churches, cultural organizations, singers, and any Assyrian group I could find online. I perused for hours, adding friends and followers from all corners of the world to interact with this invisible world we had all been told of: our virtual homeland.
Suddenly, my community of a few thousand in California did not feel so small.
My parents would come to use these technologies in a much more personal way. At first anxious about sites like Myspace, they would eventually join Facebook and use it more frequently than my sister or I did. Facebook groups dedicated to the nostalgia of old neighborhoods or summer camps quickly formed. Photos and comments from long lost neighbors surfaced, alongside inboxes bursting with memories and messages from peers unheard of for 30 years. Skype calls connected family members whose faces had gone unseen for decades due to the harshness of borders and bureaucracy. From each corner of the world, the exiled used these social networking tools to make the connections they so desperately longed for. Message by message, like by like, they began rebuilding separated families and communities.
Today, a new approach has surfaced from these initial connections. What was once a disparaged and meager community scattered around the world has found a “public sphere” online. Issues of the moment and breaking news regarding our communities can be immediately discussed. We can stream the opening of a new community center in Australia just as easily as we can watch a gut wrenching Facebook Live video of Assyrians being expelled from our ancestral homeland. In both times, we are instantly connected.
Media groups have formed to disseminate information using these tools of mass communication. Perhaps more importantly, though, individuals can now find each other and make connections otherwise restricted to nations with borders.
Like any community or forum, these tools are not without their challenges. Faceless accounts troll pages with inflammatory comments, those too anxious to accept the future nervously typing on their anonymous keyboards. As any forum, these discussions can be used for advancement or division with the trend skewing towards the former.
Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have created centers of gravity for Assyrian conversations. Memes arise poking fun at the universal ironies in our culture, blogs of academics are discussed and shared widely, and personal connections are made. No longer are ideas trapped within a community of hundreds but are instantly made accessible universally.
The Assyrian artist who lacked an audience can now express herself, the Assyrian academic whose ideas felt unwelcome in the local parish can now freely exchange essays, the minister with a meager following can reach the faithful globally, and the LGBTQ Assyrian who felt like a minority within a minority can now find solace in an online community. Each expression of Assyrian identity can be more fully developed through a “virtual homeland” and we are only beginning to see this potential.
Efforts such as Assyrian Podcast, Shamiram Media, The Assyrian Journal, AX, Assyrian Star, Mesoportrayal, SurayeSwipe, and more have helped to create the much needed platforms to exchange ideas and discourse. In lieu of corner cafes or a physical public sphere, we have embraced social networks as replacements.
With the World Cup in full swing, perhaps Assyrians alongside other stateless peoples around the world will not feel unrepresented when their flag is not competing on the world stage. Instead, they will take to Twitter to find their Assyrian followers and online villages they have created that are eager to welcome them and discuss their shared feelings of longing (and perhaps create a meme or two). Just maybe, they will find representation on an Instagram account like Mesoportrayal and feel for the first time like they are home.
The physical struggle for self-determination in the Assyrian homeland continues; but for generations of the diaspora, we can now experience a momentary homeland – .com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are soley those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Assyrian Journal.
Nardin Sarkis is an Assyrian-American living in Silicon Valley, where he serves as an executive board member of the Assyrian American Association of San Jose. Nardin earned his B.A. in Political Science, International Relations from the University of California at Santa Barbara and is currently a government relations professional.