Community Columns

Long-ago genocides continue to affect Assyrian Americans, even here in Stanislaus County

By Naramsen Goriel

Hundreds of thousands of innocent Assyrians were brutally murdered by political and religious extremists, wiping out two-thirds of the Assyrian population by 1934.

Between 1914 and 1934, there were two genocides against the Assyrian people in the Middle East. The first occurred during World War I, committed by the Ottoman Young Turks, who killed over 700,000 Assyrians. Assyrians, Armenians, and Greeks memorialize the WW I genocide annually on April 24.

The second genocide occurred during the British mandate of Iraq on Aug. 7, 1933 when 3,000 Assyrians were killed in Simele, Iraq, under the orders of militant general Bakr Sidqi. Now Assyrians around the world memorialize those killed in 1933, on Martyrs Day every Aug. 7.

Terrorists also destroyed ancient Assyrian artifacts, churches and homes. Families lost birth certificates, photographs, family heirlooms, and letters from loved ones.

Assyrians in the diaspora are now living with trauma from their somber history. This trauma has initiated distrust in authority and has caused Assyrians to internalize oppression and in some cases, deracinate themselves from their own heritage and culture.

If you know an Assyrian American, chances are that person has family members traumatized physically and emotionally by past atrocities, because of their identity. This is important to understand because Assyrian Americans are our colleagues, classmates, co-workers, clients, supervisors and neighbors.

Assyrians have contributed to moments that have helped change the history of the United States. Further, Assyrian culture has influenced America’s artistic heritage through culinary arts, literature, music and architecture. Assyrian Americans pay taxes, vote in elections, volunteer their time to public charity for the common good and participate in civic engagement with other communities.

Why has America ignored the legal and human rights of people who have presented great societal benefit? Assyrians in America have lived through America’s irresponsible foreign policy that allies our country with dictators from the Middle East who cling to a brutal past and deny the Assyrian genocides.

Assyrians are still feeling the effects of the genocide, while Assyrians still living in the Middle East endure the same methods of oppression and discrimination as they did 100 years ago. Sadly, other genocides are occurring against other religions and cultures, even in 2019. A brutal time in human history is repeating itself because we have forgotten or denied previous massacres.

Recognition by the United States would draw much needed attention to the struggles the Assyrian people endured. We Americans have a responsibility to demonstrate compassion for the overlooked and vulnerable. Appreciating diversity, resiliency, and human life is indispensable.

Ronald Reagan stated in his final speech as president: “Unique among nations, we draw our people, our strength, from every country and every corner of the world … Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge; always leading the world to the next frontier.”

Acknowledging valid claims of the criminal killing of innocent Assyrians would also inspire many Assyrian Americans to participate in the public process with the same “bursting energy and new ideas” that Reagan articulated.

Naramsen Goriel is co-coordinator of Indivisible Stanislaus and president of Assyrian Democrats of Stanislaus County, chartered by the California Democratic Party. He wrote this commentary for The Modesto Bee.

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