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

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