October 2020 | By Ata Younan
CHICAGO — In a move to mitigate illegal land grabs and help internally displaced Assyrians return to their homes, sister organizations Assyrian Aid Society of America and Iraq (AAS-A, AAS-I) are joining efforts to build six homes in the village of Chaqala in the Barwari region of northern Iraq.
The construction project confronts a long history of aggression and destruction in the region, according to AAS. The project joins a string of recent fundraising efforts by the organization to rebuild damaged infrastructure caused by a decades-long crossfire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Republic of Turkey.
“We can’t have the mentality of ‘should we build because it may be destroyed?’” said Vice President of AAS-A Renya Benjamen. “As long as we have resilient Assyrians that want to remain in the homeland and build, we have to support that.”
Chaqala is located about 50 minutes from Zakho along the Khabur River, making it a prime area for crop cultivation.
Currently, 60 families from Chaqala remain internally displaced, with most of them residing in Dohuk and Baghdad, according to AAS-I President Ashur Eskrya.
While other villages in the area have seen life return with the rebuilding of infrastructure, Chaqala has had no such luck. According to Eskrya, AAS had to interfere in the matter, communicating with government officials, current non-Assyrian residents and the Kurdistan Provision Council.
“After a lot of pressure on the authorities, people of the village were granted permission to build on the land,” Eskrya said.
Although the farming villagers remain displaced, they continue to make the trek north to tend to their land, planting and harvesting throughout the year.
“They’re coming up from Dohuk, from Baghdad even in some cases, just to farm their land because they don’t want to rely on donations, on social services. This is their land, and they want to reap the benefits of it,” Benjamen said.
During their time in the village, the farmers have used a vacant school as a temporary shelter.
“They’re still going up to farm, but they don’t have permanent homes and that’s where we’re coming in to help them,” she said.
Some cases within the Chaqala rebuild are more complicated than others and are still pending in court, according to Eskrya. One such example is of a house built on the Khabur River that needs to be demolished.
“Issues like this take more time because of the circumstances involved from a long time ago,” he said. “The government promised those Kurdish people who are residing in those lands a compensation for leaving the land. Apparently they are staying there until they receive some kind of compensation to leave.”
Eskrya said that Assyrians who lost their homes refuse to let their land go.
“Till this day obstacles remain, but it’s important that people have a place to live,” he said. “We want to give hope and open the way for others to come back to the village that they had to abandon.”
Assyrian Cultural Foundation has donated the first $50,000 and an additional $85,000 is needed to fund the six homes. The hope, he said, is to eventually rebuild all 60 homes.
THE RESILIENCE OF A VILLAGE
The displaced families from Chaqala originally traveled south from the Hakkari mountains after the Assyrian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. According to Eskrya, about 15 Assyrian homes were built between 1922 and 1923 and over the years, life continued to flourish in Chaqala.
After the Kurdish uprising in 1961, residents fled their homes and found shelter in safer areas within the region. They attempted to return in 1991, but found neighboring non-Assyrians had illegally settled and built homes on their land, according to AAS.
A 2016 fire destroyed thousands of trees and grape vines in the area. Following the disaster, AAS once again re-adapted the land so that the villagers could continue farming.
“We found that this [project] would be the most fitting because it returns life to a village and ensures that we put a stop to the land grabs that have been going on,” said Benjamen.
A RETURN TO THE ROOTS
For Eskrya, who has worked with AAS for 17 years and lived in Iraq all his life, illegal land grabs and internal displacement is nothing new. However, he is adamant about the possibility of successful, permanent resettlement throughout Iraq’s historically Assyrian villages.
He encourages even Assyrians living in diaspora to consider a reclaim of their lands.
“It is very important for our people abroad not to forget their roots,” he said. “It’s ok if you want to travel and try life elsewhere. Just like other people from other countries, they leave home for different reasons. Some leave to make more money, but they always come back home.”
Assyrians who have official government documents can prove land ownership, according to Eskrya, and in cases where such documentation does not exist, ownership can still be established through tribal rights, although this route is harder.
“It is very important that our people who own those lands by inheritance come forward to claim them,” Eskrya said. “The more time that passes, the harder it will be to get them back. We are the aboriginal people and we need to get back to our roots.”