Accounts from Assyrians protesting for black lives

June 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Some have held multilingual posters reading “Black Lives Matter” at downtown marches. Others, fearing the spread of coronavirus, have taken to platforms like Facebook and Twitter to exhibit support online. In each case, members of the Assyrian community have taken up a singular cause: the fight for justice for the black community.

Why are Assyrians passionate about this movement? What role does their Assyrian identity play in their actions?

We asked our readers to share experiences from their involvement in recent protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. These are their stories. 

Lisabelle Panossian holds up a sign she made with translations of “Black Lives Matter” in Assyrian and Armenian at a protest in Los Angeles. (Photo by Catherine Yu)

‘I Can’t Wait to Make Change’

I am a full time student at the University of Southern California. I’m going to be applying to law schools in the fall.

I just couldn’t sit with a clear conscience knowing I want to enter the legal industry and knowing how damaged it is right now. I am a little impatient sometimes, I guess. I can’t wait to be a lawyer and I can’t wait to make change. 

So when I saw that this whole movement was picking up speed again, I wanted to help. I wanted to do what I could to show that I care and that I want to see change in our justice system regarding the murders of people of color and police brutality.

I think if we build that communication and that relationship with other oppressed groups…it amplifies all of our messages so much more. And I think it’ll elevate the need for change and the need for action.

Lisabelle Panossian, 21, Los Angeles

Protesters display signs at a march in Chicago. (Photo by Jamie Cernek)

‘Because We’re Human’

I have been reading calls to action from black activists and organizers for white folks and non-black folks to come and put their bodies in between black protesters and the police. 

I had time to participate [in a protest] and I have the privilege of living alone — I don’t have to worry about perhaps compromising my household with coronavirus. I felt that it was my duty to go and physically…put my body out in protest to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and to offer my services in that regard as necessary.

Assyrians should get involved because it’s the right thing to do. Because we’re human. Because that is what you do as a member of the human race. You stick up for other people who are undergoing oppression.

There are black Assyrians in the community — black Assyrians that exist. Black Lives Matter is an Assyrian issue. We’re supporting our fellow black Assyrians in their push to receive total justice in the country.

— Jamie Cernek, 23, Chicago

‘We’re Louder When We Unite’

I have received some negative responses about my involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement.

As a persecuted minority, even if we haven’t been through the exact same stuff in history, [Assyrians] need to come from our point of understanding and really understand the cry for help that [the movement] is demonstrating. I think it’s important to stick up for other minorities. We’re minorities. If we join together, our voices will be bigger. 

I think we can apply a lot of what we’re learning right now about Black Lives Matter…to our own Assyrian humanitarian effort. I think we’ve learned that we’re louder when we unite.

— Emily Bazi, 24, Chicago

(Graphic by Nardin Sarkis)

‘We Have an Opinion On This’

I tweeted a Black Lives Matter graphic that I made for my own Twitter. 

I saw…300 people interact with it, and express their support for it. I updated it and made a new graphic in both Western and Eastern Assyrian script and I posted that to @mesoportrayal. It kind of shot out. I think 2,000 people have interacted with it and 10,000 people have seen it, which is really cool.

I think it’s really important as Assyrian Americans and I think Assyrians in general, that we show solidarity and we show our [alliance] with every community.

It puts out a statement to folks that are black, to folks who are allies, to everyone out there…Assyrians in the community, whom, maybe, we don’t hear from too often, especially on these political matters…, are supporting Black Lives Matter. 

It kind of tells the world and tells everybody out there, “Hey, we have an opinion on this and this is our opinion.”

— Nardin Sarkis, 26, London

Anabel Abraham (middle) and her sisters Christina Abraham (left), 39 and Sarha Abraham, 28, attended a protest in Chicago on May 30. The march was one of the first related to the death of George Floyd. (Photo by Michelle Solayman)

This is a New Thing for Everybody’

I always try to go [to protests]. 

I don’t know what motivates me, but I always try to go whenever there’s a protest for something that I truly believe in. We do it all the time with the Assyrian community. Maybe that’s where I get my passion for it from. 

It was an amazing experience to be with people who…recognize the movement because they feel like this is a new thing for everybody. I remember when Ferguson happened, and we were all saying that black lives matter, I had a lot more people tell me, “No, all lives matter.” I’m seeing a lot more of my peers being more accepting and supportive of the movement, now. 

We were protesting peacefully, the police were inciting violence [at the protest], so that was eye opening. I knew police incited violence, but I hadn’t seen it firsthand until [the protest].

You’re always going to have ignorant people who try to put…certain members of the community down or who only want to talk about Assyrian issues. But I feel like we’re really growing as a community and supporting other causes.

— Anabel Abraham, 25, Chicago 

A sign bearing George Floyd’s name hangs on a fence in Brooklyn. (Photo by David Yousif)

‘It’s Almost a No-Brainer’

For me, there’s…not even much of a choice in terms of being on this side of the situation. 

I acknowledge 100% that I have a privilege in my existence as a man, as a non-black person in America. And I think my body is…a resource of mine that I can contribute in some way. 

I understand, you know, people will have feelings about the very graphic and visual things that they see in terms of violence out of protest. That should not be the significant takeaway. That’s not the first thing that you should be reacting to. I would encourage people to attend an event like a protest or a march if they feel comfortable and they’re willing and able, because if you’re like me, you’ll find that most of the violence situations are incited by the police.

As a very marginalized group that has understood oppression for such a long time, you’d think it’s almost a no-brainer, like, yeah, absolutely I would stand with…another minority group that’s being oppressed by a larger group. There’s a lot of sympathy and empathy there. I think, as Assyrians, we have to stand for people who need us…just like we’d want the same for ourselves.

— David Yousif, 24, Brooklyn

‘This Needs to End’ 

A lot of what I’m doing is [on] my social media. I honestly would go protest but…the people whom I live with are at risk [of coronavirus infection].

I’m commissioning [my artwork] like, “I’ll draw you literally anything you want. Do you want a picture of your dog, your friends, a character? I will do that. Since you donated, I will do that for you.” It’s the best that I can do.

I am so proud to be an artist, and especially to be a part-Assyrian artist. I make connections. I know that I need to use my platform to let people know what I stand for and what I want done in the community, that is, for a better future not only for people of color, but for black people.

I’ve been…trying to do what I can to…protect not only my friends who are black, but also people in Chicago, because this…needs to end. I’m tired of the anti-blackness that is found, especially in the Assyrian community. And this is my way of just combating that and speaking out more.

— Leana Yonan, 22, Chicago

Graffiti on a bus shelter at the site of a protest in Chicago’s downtown area. (Photo by Michelle Solayman)

‘I Couldn’t Just Be Passive About It’

I’ve always been very supportive of Black Lives Matter. 

I think [my support] first began in 2013 or 2014 when I was… 14 or 15 years old. I really understood. I think that had to do with the fact that I had a really cohesive group of educators who were just very, very vocal about things like injustice.

Now, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd as well as [that of] Breonna Taylor…I think I always understood that it was really important to go against that, not just as an Assyrian who could understand the struggles back home, but just in general…things that are so horribly atrocious to watch that I couldn’t just be passive about it.

— Michelle Solayman, 21, Chicago 

‘We Go Through the Same Thing’

People think it’s about them. They’re getting offended…a lot of people have gotten offended over the last few days.

As someone who’s been involved in our Assyrian community, I think it’s the best to…stand up for human rights. Being such a small community, [Assyrians] have to reach out…to make as many connections as possible. 

We go through the same thing, if not worse, back home. If we don’t stand with anybody, no one can stand with us.

— Chris Dankha, 24, Chicago

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