Just before Congress adjourned for the Easter Holiday, ADFA executive director Steve Oshana submitted powerful testimony to the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs outlining the foreign aid priorities for the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac people. The areas of focus were: Direct aid to indigenous aid organizations and churches, support for local security forces, as well as reconciliation and repatriation measures. Some of these priorities have been partially met in the FY16 Omnibus and FY15 NDAA but it is clear more robust and direct support is necessary to support Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac capacities in Iraq and Syria. The PDF of the testimony below is available here
Our efforts have received bipartisan support and requests have been submitted for these measures in both the House and Senate by our friends in Congress. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky highlighted her support for our efforts in a statement supporting Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac foreign aid priorities, which can be found here.
Steve Oshana, Executive Director: A Demand for Action
Prepared For: Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs
Department of State: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor;
Mr. Chairman, first let me begin by thanking you and all the distinguished members of this committee for your ongoing support for the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac and Armenian Christians, as well as Yezidis and other minorities who face an existential threat from ISIL and other extremists in Iraq, Syria and across the Middle East.
This committee has historically served as the last firewall for these beleaguered communities, and the support that they have received has largely been due to the work of its distinguished members. Last year, this committee expanded the DRL budget with $10m in new funds for special programs to promote religious freedoms; funds which are the responsibility of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, my friend David Saperstein. Ambassador Saperstein is a trusted defender of religious freedoms, and I know he will make sure these funds support my suffering people. We believe this funding should be not only renewed but expanded by an additional $10m, as any offset only detracts from the other great programs the DRL administers. Additionally, I commend President Obama on an exemplary choice in appointing Knox Thames as Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia. Mr. Thames has a proven track record of supporting persecuted minorities and has hit the ground running in his new role. I count myself eternally fortunate to have friends like Ambassador Saperstein and Knox Thames in the State Department, and I urge this committee to renew and expand their departmental budgets to continue their lifesaving work.
Yet, for all that has been done to stem the tide of suffering for the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Christians and other minorities, it is clear that it is not nearly enough as our people continue to languish in camps and makeshift homes throughout the Middle East. The numbers are staggering; in 2003 there were an estimated 1.2 million Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac in Iraq, yet today it is believed that there are less than 300,000 remaining. Our current cleansing from our ancestral homeland did not begin in June of 2014 when ISIS invaded Mosul, but began in earnest since 2004, as our people faced waves of post-invasion Islamic extremism coupled with the territorial expansion and national ambitions of factions within the Kurdistan Regional Government. Over the years, a series of Congressional appropriations have been secured by members of our community-hard fought legislative victories that became missed opportunities and cautionary tales of the damage that can be done when bureaucracy and mismanagement are the order of the day.
A 2011 GAO report commissioned by Congress, some of whom are currently members of this committee, found that funds appropriated for ethnic and religious minorities of the Nineveh Plains were not used for their intended purposes or in their intended geographic jurisdiction. I’ll let you read the entirety of the GAO report for yourselves, but I will paraphrase its findings with a quote from the report itself: “Our analysis of documents found that USAID was unable to demonstrate how it met the 2008 Congressional directive.” This sums up the historical relationship that the ethnic and religious minorities of the Nineveh Plains have had in attempting to realize support secured through legislation, and it is the reason our legislative efforts in support of our communities have largely shifted in many important ways.
Because of people in the State Department. like Ambassador Saperstein and Knox Thames, as well as their staff and others, some of the faith we had lost in the system has been restored. Their lifetime commitment to religious freedoms gives us hope for our cause, and we have outlined the needs of our community in meetings with them through reports and testimonies, and also by bringing leaders of our various community organizations into the fold. By hearing from these stakeholders directly, both in Washington and on the ground in Iraq and Syria, I believe at least some in the State Department possess the full scope of suffering and needs of the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac people. With that in mind, we seek support in several critical areas:
As part of FY17 priorities, funds should be made available for indigenous aid organizations, which best serve the needs of these beleaguered communities, such as: the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization (ACERO), Assyrian Aid Society-Iraq, Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, Help Iraq, and the Hammurabi Foundation. Most of these organizations have been ignored for direct aid in the past. These organizations operate with low overhead and a proven track record of delivering support to our communities by the most efficient means possible. Securing aid directly to these organizations has been a priority for our organization, and we urge the committee to identify ways to get them the support they need in these dire moments, when our very existence hangs in the balance.
On February 23, 2014, ISIS invaded the Khabor region in northeastern Syria, driving out nearly all of its citizens and taking over 200 hostages. As the Syriac/Assyrian forces and others drove ISIS out of these villages, the terrorists planted a series of improvised explosives across the villages of the Khabor region, which now makes repatriation nearly impossible. Supporting demining efforts in this region, and others in Iraq and Syria, must be a foreign aid priority for the United States, as we seek to create an environment for the inhabitants of these cities and villages to return home, instead of furthering the refugee crisis which materialized as a result of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Successful demining in the Khabor region can serve as a blueprint for other ISIL occupied areas, such as Sinjar and the Nineveh Plains, as they are liberated.
Finally, I urge this committee to continue to support efforts by local security forces to protect their ancestral homelands from existential threats. The FY15 NDAA counter ISIL provision was amended to include expanded language to support local security forces in the Nineveh Plains in Iraq and elsewhere from ISIL threat. This critical measure served to codify the concept of localized security into both legislation and the broader national security apparatus of the Iraqi government, as well as US military strategic planning for post-ISIL security in Iraq. Today, there are Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac security forces working with both the Iraqi central government and the KRG to protect their towns and villages and regain the trust of the local communities, which was lost when the institutional security forces, the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga, abandoned the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar as ISIL approached. In Syria, we have seen Syriac/Assyrian forces successfully combat ISIL in the greater Hassake region with the modest support of US and western allies. I urge the committee to continue to expand support for these forces as they seek to protect the people of Syria from the horrors of the ongoing civil war.
This request comes from people whose families have been abducted, abused, or killed. From Sabah, whose 42 relatives were kidnapped by ISIL. From Ayda, whose 4 year old daughter Christina was dragged from her mother’s arms. From Milad, who from Sweden struggles to bury his wife and daughters in Greece after they drowned in a refugee boat off the shores of the beaches of the Mediterranean. It also comes from all those families who have been displaced and scattered around the world, parents who have not seen their children and grandchildren for years. A special plea comes from those living as refugees all over the neighboring countries of Syria and Iraq, unable to receive assistance since they cannot remain in official sponsored refugee camps, due to severe religious persecution. It also comes from those who, even in asylum shelters in the safety of Sweden, are being threatened to life by religious extremists. These are people who we, A Demand For Action, are in touch with on a daily basis-all victims of a genocide this government to date has failed to properly recognize.
In April, I had the opportunity and distinct privilege to join President Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House for the annual Easter Prayer Breakfast. As we parted, I left President Obama with the same words my grandmother passed down to me as a child, in the language of Jesus, our ancient Syriac tongue. “La manshiyet bas Suraye,” she would say. This translates to “don’t forget about the Assyrian people.” I left him with those words, “Mr. President, please don’t forget about the Assyrian people,” and I leave you with those words as well. Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of this committee, as you consider FY17 priorities, please don’t forget about the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac people.
Thank you for the opportunity to address this committee.