After decades of underrepresentation, Assyrians find their place in the polls

Lincolnwood, IL Trustee Atour Sargon speaks at Vote Assyrian's Democratic Candidates' Forum in January, 2020. Sargon was elected to the position of Trustee in 2019.

May 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji | Photos by Yasmeen Altaji

Steve Oshana said that when he began his work in the American government, members of his family warned him of the dangers that would no doubt ensue. 

Oshana is an Assyrian-American political advocate and the executive director of A Demand For Action, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. that “advocates for the protection of…minorities in the Middle East.” Despite the generational fear associated with government affairs, he said, Assyrians have made significant progress in the political realm.

“[Assyrian immigrants] came from a world where their relationship with their government was very different than the way the relationship of the American citizen is with their government,” Oshana said.

For Assyrians, like Oshana’s family members, who lived under regimes like that of Saddam Hussein and his contemporaries, government has long represented fear and oppression; it was an entity to be avoided. Now, however, many first-generation Assyrian-Americans, like Oshana, are immersing themselves in government work and the establishment of policy- and leadership-oriented organizations, dedicating their service to the advocacy of political action within the minority community.

Civic engagement advocacy group Vote Assyrian has registered more than 5,000 voters – most of whom are Assyrian – over the course of the past two election seasons, according to Vote Assyrian executive board member Ashur Shiba. 

An audience listens as local, state and federal representatives address Assyrian-American affairs at the Democratic Candidates’ Forum. Vote Assyrian has reported registering more than 5,000 voters at such events. Photo by Yasmeen Altaji

“You’re starting to see the Assyrians realize that they must vote and be involved in the political process,” Dan Shomon, an Assyrian-American government relations consultant, said. 

Shomon, who has worked on a number of campaigns including that of Barack Obama on his run for senator, says that the sheer number of Assyrians in certain areas is driving a self-awareness that such populations are underrepresented.

Joseph Hermiz, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, echoes similar sentiments.

An Assyrian-American himself, Hermiz said that Assyrians aren’t “very well represented at all” within their local communities, such as those concentrated in locales such as Skokie and the greater Chicagoland area. 

“We’re visible in the sense that we are people’s neighbors, we are teachers or people’s doctors,” said Hermiz. “But we’re invisible in the sense that…we don’t get to benefit from any of the sorts of set-asides that are put in place…for minority groups.”

Atour Sargon, a Trustee of the Village of Lincolnwood, said she never pictured herself running for public office. 

“I never thought I would be able to do it,” Sargon said.

The first-generation Assyrian-American, elected to Lincolnwood’s board of trustees in 2019, ran her campaign with the canvassing and outreach help of Vote Assyrian. She earned her seat on the board of trustees with 1,435 votes – a high number, she said, compared with the 1,167 votes of the incumbent mayor that same year.

Sargon said the engagement of the Assyrian community contributed to the outstandingly high number of votes she received. 

“Assyrian members of the general public…are motivated when they hear and see someone from their own community running,” Sargon said. “I think it ignites this optimism and hope.”

Steve Oshana says local representatives have also demonstrated an increased interest in the Assyrian community as it continues to grow. 

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of the 9th District of Illinois is one such figure. 

“She has done more for the Assyrian community than anybody I know,” Oshana said. 

Jan Schakowsky (9th) addresses the crowd of about 200 attendees at the Democratic Candidates’ Forum. Schakowsky called the Assyrian community “one of the fastest growing communities in terms of political involvement.” Photo by Yasmeen Altaji

Leslie Combs, district director for Schakowsky, said that minority groups have the potential to utilize their voting and writing powers to benefit their community. 

“Oftentimes, elected officials might not know that issues exist until [constituents] tell them,” Combs said. “I think if a group like the Assyrian community realizes their power…, that will ultimately lead to getting what you need as a community,” Combs said. 

Mary Oshana, executive director of Vote Assyrian’s census project and daughter of the late Raman Oshana, who she says played a major role in pioneering the Assyrian-American political movement, recently began working at Vote Assyrian as a part of its new effort to ensure Assyrians to fill out the census. 

“How do you make your voices heard when it’s a disjointed group of people that are…not together?” she said. “[Assyrians] wanted to make a difference…they couldn’t.”

A U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted in 2017 says that there are more than 80,000 Assyrians residing in the United States. 

However, the Vote Assyrian executive board, Oshana says, along with much of the community, is convinced the number is not representative of the supposedly much larger Assyrian communities settled across the U.S.

According to Oshana, Vote Assyrian was able to identify an issue that could not be reduced to political apathy: the English illiteracy of many elderly Assyrian immigrants impairs their ability to complete the census and thus results in a misleadingly low count of the population. 

“Assyrians have become invisible in places like the United States,” Hermiz said.

Now, he said, political action is a part of a greater effort to “make ourselves visible.”

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Correction: an earlier version of this article referred to Mary Oshana as a volunteer at Vote Assyrian. Oshana is a paid employee at Vote Assyrian.

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