New era for Assyrian leadership in Washington

May 3, 2020 | By Joe Snell

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA — The Assyrian Aid Society of America (AAS-A) has amplified their efforts in the country’s capital.

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.”

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