Assyrians in Stanislaus County worry about their loved ones in Iraq

jnsbranti@modbee.comJune 16, 2014 

Iraq

Suzan Younan holds Ethotha, who lives in Nineveh, Iraq, on her recent trip there.

SUZAN YOUNAN

Once again, war is raging in Iraq, jeopardizing the safety of Assyrian Christians, many of whom have friends and relatives in Stanislaus County.

“Assyrians literally are the collateral damage in this war,” said Suzan Younan of Modesto. “We don’t know what to do. We don’t know where to turn.”

Younan visited Iraq in April, and she is shocked and heartbroken by how quickly her family’s homeland has turned violent.

Last week, an al-Qaida offshoot of insurgents – called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – began attacking and seizing Iraqi cities, particularly in the north, where most Assyrians live. They pledge to turn the country into an Islamic state, which puts Iraq’s non-Muslim residents in danger.

“Our churches have been burned down,” Younan said. “Another one was burned last week, but the world has turned a blind eye.”

Stanislaus County has one of the United States’ largest Assyrian populations, which Younan estimates at about 20,000.

Assyrians here and in Chicago, San Jose and elsewhere are planning events Friday to publicize their people’s plight and to advocate for their protection.

Younan said plans are being made for Assryians from throughout the Central Valley to rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento, but exactly what time and where hasn’t been determined.

Since the U.S.-Iraqi war began a dozen years ago, Younan said, about a quarter-million Assyrians have fled Iraq. Now, even more are being driven from their homes by the insurgents and the Kurdish forces that have come to fight them in northern Iraq.

Assyrians have lived in that embattled region around Mosul – called the Nineveh Province – for about 6,000 years. Assyrians trace their ancestry back to ancient Mesopotamia, which is known as the cradle of civilization.

“We are a peaceful people,” Younan said. “Assyrians just want to stay in their country. They need a safe haven.”

But not everyone in Iraq wants the predominately Christian people of Assyrian descent to remain. Younan said Kurdish forces have started moving into Assyrian villages, supposedly to fight off the insurgents.

Younan said Assyrians fear the Kurds are taking advantage of the situation: “They are going to go in and save Mosul and then claim the region for the Kurds.”

In the predominately Assyrian village of Alqosh, for example, Younan said Kurdish forces have replaced the Assyrian mayor with a Kurd and hoisted the Kurdish flag.

Meanwhile in Mosul, Younan said, insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have been going door-to-door asking how many girls live in each home. She fears for the fate of the Assyrian girls there.

Younan’s family fled Iraq early in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein took power. The family eventually immigrated to the United States, and she has lived most her life in Modesto.

To help young Assyrians stay connected to their ancestral land, Younan has led tours to Iraq for each of the past seven years. So she knows Assyrians there and has been trying to keep in touch.

To organize American support for Assyrian communities in Iraq, Younan has launched a “Mobilizing for Nineveh” page on Facebook.

Those interested in joining Friday’s rally in Sacramento can get more information about it by calling Younan at (209) 968-1365.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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