Returning to Tel Keppe 

My journey from Metro Detroit to the village of my ancestors

By Christina Salem | July 2022 | Photos contributed

After many delays at the tail end of January, the announcement had finally arrived — I was selected to participate in this year’s Gishru birthright trip to the Assyrian homeland, a two-week tour of villages and cities in northern Iraq. 

I was filled with excitement. Being able to connect to my roots gave me a sense of wholeness that left me speechless in the plethora of breathtaking moments. I was flowing in a way only my intuition could guide me. 

Accompanying me on my journey was one of my closest friends, Andrew Najor II (Drew). His father’s friend put us in touch with a relative that would safely take us around Tel Keppe, a town near Mosul.

The town of my father and paternal forefathers, with the land, once held sacred for being a hill of stones, turned into a cell for Islamic State (IS) fighters. Squatters from the extremist group still roam nearby. 

We were told, wrongly, that a visa was required to get into lands guarded by Federal Iraq. It made us question if the journey would be worth it. After much deliberation, however, we asked when would we ever be able to take such an opportunity? 

Once in Iraq, we were connected to Massoud Ayar, a businessman who lives in Nohadra and runs two tahini factories. Little did we know we had run into his wife at the Delal Bridge in Zakho a few days prior. 

Through Ayar, Drew and I were able to discuss a last minute excursion to Tel Keppe that would include breakfast and a tour of his factories. 

Our Gishru group leader Suzan Younan spoke to Ayar about what precautions would be made to keep us safe as the town is still a sensitive travel area. 

Toward the end of the night, she approached Drew and I and whispered: 

“You’re going to Tel Keppe.” 

We shared a look of excitement I can only describe as internally screaming. All of the stories I had heard from my father about Tel Keppe would become real in 12 short hours. 

On the day of our trip, we arrived at his home and were served with the utmost hospitality and kindness as we were fed a delicious breakfast and sampled the tahini made in his factories. 

Any uneasiness I felt about safety was erased when Ayar showed me his family photos. I saw my university classmates standing behind him. I knew in that moment that with Ayar, we were in safe hands.

Ayar not only knew our families, he even cited their extended relations. He could tell us  where their homes were located within the village.

As we left his home and our journey to Tel Keppe began, we moved through KDP checkpoints with ease. When we finally arrived at the village, Ayar pointed out former IS members as we passed. 

I was filled with many emotions. My father always spoke of the richness of his family history on both sides — the Salem’s and the Gabbara’s. I would get to see where and how my grandparents first encountered each other and fell in love, the love my father always described as unconditional. 

Our tour began at the family home of Ayar’s wife. The home was in the process of being remodeled as it was looted years’ prior by the extremist group. It was stunning even in its metamorphosis —  20 bedrooms with multiple bathrooms in each room. It was nothing short of a multi-family mansion. 

We climbed to the rooftop, and I remembered my father often told me they slept here during the hot summer nights. The entirety of the village was in our view. And what a sight it was, it felt ethereal. The air was different. Crisp and flowing through our hair. We basked in the sun’s rays and took in the moment. 

We descended from the rooftop and continued our tour. Names of families I had grown up near in Metro Detroit, their legacies continued in the diaspora, were once neighbors in the homeland. 

Our tour next moved to the houses that belonged to Salem. I had no expectations but many surprises. In the home belonging to my ancestors, there was destruction and trash, but it stood vacant. 

On the outside, handprints stamped in white paint, some Arabic writing and, noticeably different than other houses that had their address spray painted, a rusty metal address sign. 

I needed this sign as a piece of our home I could reclaim. I began tugging at the wall, tears streaming down my face, using every ounce of determination to dismantle and recover this piece of my family history. Ayar’s burly bodyguard stepped in to assist, slicing his hand in the process. 

We were then swarmed by children asking why I was crying and what the commotion was about. Drew explained this house used to belong to my family and that I wanted the sign. 

He told them to return with a hammer. One of the children returned a few minutes later with a hammer that Ayar’s driver used to pry the sign free. It was finally mine. 

My last name Salem came from a story my father always used to tell me. One that said we would always come back in one piece.

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