Nuri Kino

Nuri Kino is a freelance journalist, author and documentary filmmaker. He received the European Parliament’s Journalism Prize 2011. He became a journalist in earnest by accident in 1999 when he was in Istanbul at the time of the great earthquake. Since then, he has worked for newspapers, magazines, radio and TV in several countries. He has been investigating espionage, war crimes, terrorism and also infiltrated a pedophile network. He has authored several books including, ”The Line in the Sand.”

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18Sep | 10 Things Journalists Need To Hear About The Kurdish Referendum

By: Steve Oshana

Over the last couple weeks I have held calls with journalists regarding the planned Kurdish independence referendum. Some of those journalists will likely be covering the referendum as it approaches, but I thought I would share the main points that I have tried to reiterate to the media:

1) The referendum is kabuki theater: When I worked on campaigns, I worked on referendums all the time. One of my earliest initiatives was a referendum to voluntarily raise property taxes in district 219 to fund the school districts (it passed). I’m not an expert on the matter, but common sense tells me that these types of ballot measures ought to be on the ballot when everyone is voting in regular elections, which legitimizes them as they make it on through regular order. There is a legal mechanism for such a thing.

2) I’m still not sure how serious they are: I never believed the KRG actually wanted to hold a vote, but rather continue their game of political chicken with the threat of leaving Iraq. I always believed this was a negotiating tactic to solicit more concessions for the KRG on things like direct support, oil revenues, etc.

3) I may have been wrong about #2: The amount of money the KRG is spending on the PR leading up to this is staggering. They retain some very expensive consultants and lobbyists who have been furiously working the DC goodwill circuit on their behalf.

4) Saying “No” to the referendum legitimizes it: I think this is where most people approach the issue wrong. By opposing the referendum you are legitimizing the notion that the people, particularly in areas like the Nineveh Plain and Kirkuk, are going to the polls to make a legitimate choice. They are not. Pretending like there exists a “No” option is a farce.

5) Nobody denies the Kurdish people’s legitimate aspirations for independence: They have fought for it, suffered for it, and given endless lives for it. They have also been responsible for suffering of minorities, something that needs to be reconciled if they want to be taken seriously

6) You really can’t vote your way to freedom: The middle east, of all places, is a perfect example of that. Drawing arbitrary borders, especially in areas that are not traditionally yours, never ends well. People who become Nations typically only have one path to get there, and it rarely involves a ballot.

7) Iraq allowed this to happen: If Iraq truly believes the disputed areas are inherently Iraqi, they would have done something, anything, to try and stop the slow knife that is killing minorities in places like the Nineveh Plain. The Iraqi constitution, which squarely forbids such things, turned out to be a useless document that does not protect the rights of the people. Iraqi “democracy” got us to where we are today. For an example, look no further than the replacement of the mayor in a place like Alqosh, a 100% Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac town, by the Nineveh Provincial council. The fact that mayors in villages are not democratically elected allows local councils to remove and replace them at their pleasure, and with those who best represent their interests. This an institutional breakdown in democracy.

8) The US seems pretty ok with it: Never mind the fact that the current Secreatry of State, who as CEO of Exxon, signed away the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac village of Alqosh to the KRG and legitimized their claim to the Nineveh Plain. The administration’s tepid statement takes no tangible steps to actually stop the initiative, other than sending their representatives to the KRI with freebies to try to get them to rethink it. The US has almost complete leverage over the KRG, and the fact that they would not use it says something about their position. Not to mention that some senior administration officials have openly advocated Kurdish independence.

9) There was (and is) nothing stopping the Kurds from declaring independence: They have among the most effective fighting force in the country, and the Iraqi government has shown they will not step in to stop land confiscations, political oppression, or anything else, so what would Iraq actually do if they just declared independence? Probably nothing, if history serves as any metric.

10) The Nineveh Plain is not part of the KRG: This is probably the most important point, so I saved it for last. The press, with a few notable exceptions, has not even covered this issue. The governance of the Nineveh Plain should be decided by the people of the Nineveh Plain. Period. A vote is likely the best way to settle the issue, but it would need to be administered by the people of the NP themselves and overseen by various international organizations, such as the UNDPA or NDI, to validate the legitimacy of the vote. This referendum, by contrast, doesn’t even have any details about how it is going to be administered, let alone protect the integrity of the vote, and it is just a week away. The people of the Nineveh Plain, who are largely displaced, are mostly not even physically there to vote, which makes the vote not only illegal, but also can be reasonably seen as an attempt to use the displacement of millions of Iraqis to deny them their vote.

Map of Nineveh Plains

For media inquiries on the upcoming referendum please contact info@ademandforaction.com

01Sep | The familiar face of Rana Behnam

Allen Kakony

I was in my classroom, setting up for the start of the new school year, which would begin the following week, when I took a quick break and checked my phone. After checking a couple of texts and a quick scroll through my Facebook feed, I saw her face. It looked familiar, so I scrolled back to take a closer look. I couldn’t quite place it but when I noticed it was a picture posted ADFA’s Nuri Kino, I read further and realized where I had seen this face before! The next thing I thought to do was send the picture to my friend and film producer, Jordan, with the comment “Is this the kidnapped woman whose family we interviewed in Erbil?!” And then, before he could even respond, I got a message from my trusted friend Sheelan, an activist in Erbil that took us to this woman’s family! Sheelan simply wrote, “Good and happy news…the kidnapped Christian woman [was] released today!” And it was confirmed, the woman I recognized was Ranna, the girl whose mother and brother we met and spoke to on the very first day that we arrived in Erbil for the journey that lead to the making of the documentary film “Our Last Stand.”

Of course we were all happy to hear the news, but more than that I felt complete and utter shock. After three years of barely any word of her whereabouts, she was actually released?! We all heard about girls like Ranna who were kidnapped and never heard from again. Because these stories are not new to our people whose scars are still healing from genocide of just a generation ago, our minds immediately jumped to the gruesome images that fought for a spot in our imagination about the daily horrors inflicted on these poor souls at the hands of their captors. And after three long years of captivity, many would argue that it was better to be dead than live at the mercy of those familiar animals. It was hard to imagine that these women would ever survive such an ordeal, let alone be released and make it back to their loved ones!!
My mind wandered back to that first day in Erbil. I pulled out my journal and flipped to July 5th, the day we met and interviewed several displaced families in Ankawa, Erbil. This was the day that Sheelan asked us if we’d like to speak with Ranna’s mother and brother. She told us that she had been working with this family to help find their 30 year old daughter who had been abducted on August 22, 2014. They were hiding in their home in the village of Qaraqosh after ISIS militants had invaded and given them the ultimatum to convert, flee, or die. Rana’s husband had refused to leave and instead, sent his wife Ranna with the rest of her family that decided to join the mass exodus out of the village. On their way out of Qaraqosh amidst the chaos of cars making their way to safety, their car was stopped by ISIS militants who proceeded to search the vehicle and strip them of their valuables. What happened next would change their lives forever. The militants rounded everyone up and then separated families into male and female groups. Despite their cries and pleas, several women, about twenty or so, were then dragged into a mini-van and driven away, not be heard from for the next three years. Not knowing what to do, the families froze. How could they just get back in their cars? Should they chase after the van? But the militants made all the decisions for them, forcing them back into their vehicles and back onto the road that lead them far away from the only place they ever called home. With just the clothes on their backs and whatever the militants had spared them, the rest of the family members had no other choice but to continue on the journey they had begun to find safety for whomever was left. Erbil would become their home for the next few years, but it was also the place where they would mourn the loss of their abducted family members.
As soon as I met her elderly mother, I was flooded with emotion. Beginning the interview was difficult because, honestly, I already knew the answers to the heart wrenching questions I was planning to ask. I found it difficult to evoke these memories of pain from her mother and didn’t want to ask this poor woman questions that would force her to relive that horrible night when she saw her daughter dragged away by those monsters. I started the interview anyway, stumbling over my words as I mixed phrases from Arabic, English and my western Assyrian dialect together. Her mother was sad, and sort of in a dark daze. At that point in time, it had been a year since the kidnapping, and the family was constantly speaking to people, trying to follow leads, and negotiate with various agents, all in a desperate attempt to get their daughter back. Her mother just kept asking Sheelan if she had any updates about her daughter’s whereabouts. I’d go on to ask another question, and her poor mother would circle around and ask Sheelan again, “Why did you come here? Did you find her yet?”
When we were preparing to film the family, Sheelan warned that we could only record their voices, not their faces. These were terms set by the family who were afraid to reveal their identity on camera. Her brother, who was reluctant to speak to us at first, finally felt comfortable enough to share some of the details of the event, and eventually everything about that fateful night was revealed as the cameras captured the retelling. He told us that after his sister was taken, he dialed her cell phone number and one of the ISIS captors answered. That militant told the family to talk to the government in Bagdad to trade one of their women in Bagdad in exchange for one of the Christian woman, then they said they wanted a ransom. But when they called back, no one answered. After some time, Ranna’s family was able to contact someone they knew that was still in Mosul, the place where they thought Ranna and the other women had been taken. That contact said he’d make some inquiries on their behalf for an $800 fee, and so it went, from one fake lead to another, until the family spent thousands of dollars in ransom and fees, all to no avail.
When we said goodbye to that family, I really did not feel hopeful. After everything they had described, it was hard to imagine that their daughter was even still alive.
Jordan and I traveled on to meet and record many more similar stories in more parts of Iraq, and then in Syria. Once we were back home in the states, the task of transcribing all the footage began, consequently causing me to relive the experiences through the view of my camera lens. Experiencing the journey the second time around was even more touching because here, at home, I had more time to process all the things I had just seen and heard. I had more time to reflect on each and every single story and courageous person that I met. And as you can imagine, once I started reflecting, once I allowed everything to really sink in, the reality hit me hard and the tears that I fought to hold back throughout my trip could no longer be withheld.

Jordan's pic of her

I selfishly stopped asking Sheelan for regular updates on the situation in Iraq and about the people we met because I never got the answers I wanted to hear. There were little spurts of progress here and there that ultimately left me feeling deceived. First, the news of the liberation of our villages in the Nineveh Plain earlier this year, which was temporarily uplifting and boosted moral but the gloom resurfaced when we saw pictures of the destruction and devastation that ISIS left behind. And today, the news of Ranna’s release and miraculous return to her village provides another glimmer of hope. I watched the clips of her village people welcoming her home with music and dancing in the streets. But what will happen tomorrow when people ask her about the last three years of her life? How will she cope with the trauma of this unimaginable experience?

We try to remain hopeful as we encourage and support these courageous families that are slowly beginning to return to their villages and resume their “normal” lives, but deep down, the overwhelming burden of rebuilding atop piles of rubble and painful memories that have consumed our homeland looms like a dark cloud over all of us.

Helma Adde
Representative USA
A Demand For Action

Photo: Allen Kakony, Iraq

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26Jul | You don’t know

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Religious and ethnic intolerance is what it is. It’s not racism, as we all belong to the same race. Yes. Intolerance to religious beliefs and other ethnicities exists in the 21st century. The question remains, why? What is the root cause of it? It comes down to the inability to accept the beliefs of others and the incomprehensible act of forcing other humans to either accept your views, otherwise be labeled an outcast, be shamed (directly or indirectly) or worse, die.

My brother and I grew up in one of those countries, Turkey. My brother was always the short fused, ‘react with actions’ type of person. I was always the diplomatic one that would come to the rescue of my brother with my smooth and soothing words. It wasn’t until recently that I started to think about some of those incidents. They were mainly about the differences with our religions. Why we don’t participate in certain religious traditions, why we wear a cross, why we say “Ma” as in mum instead of Anne (Turkish word for mum), why we were taken out of Islamic studies, why we go to a “church” etc. His primary school teacher did not like him. She shaved his head on a few occasions because she did not like him. Beat him (because it was allowed in Turkey), because she did not like him. She did not like him because she was intolerant toward Christians. My mother bribed the principal, because you could, so that my brother could be put into another class and so that we would be excused from Religious Islamic studies. It only took a bottle of whiskey to make that happen.

My father decided to leave Turkey to protect his family against that intolerance and to give his children a better, safer life. Migrating to Australia was, by far, the best decision he had made.

It’s two o’clock in the morning. I can’t sleep, as I have too many things on my mind. Mainly because of a segment I saw on TV. As I lie in bed thinking about it, my five-year-old son comes into our room, asking if he could get in our bed. As he lay next to me, I start thinking about the comfort and safety he must feel being next to his parents. And then I start to think about all the things I need to provide him; love, care, protection, comfort, a great life–things we take for granted because of the great country we live in.

Australian TV personality, Sonia Krueger’s fear is one that is emotionally charged, as it hit a nerve (as a mother) to see children dead due to a terrorist attack. This is not new! This has been going on for years! Over the last two years alone we have seen it in Mount Sinjar and Mosul. We saw it with refugees escaping Syria on boats; Alan Kurdi in September of last year; the attacks in Europe and the list goes on.

Another Australian TV personality, Waleed Aly, talks about fear of terrorism and at one stage labels it a “sickness”. The question is where does that fear stem from? What exactly are we afraid of? Who perpetrated it? It’s clearly not the boogeyman. You need to find the root cause in order to work on the cure. Why are people afraid, Waleed?

The Turkey I was born in was what is considered to be one of the most secular countries of the predominantly Muslim ones in that area. But religious and ethnic intolerance was evident there. Children picked on me for my religion. They made fun of me for not practicing certain religious traditions. Sure, children are innocent and sometimes don’t understand the implications of their words or actions, but they are learnt either from other children, or from home.

Sure most people that grew up in Muslim countries can testify that there were great times, mainly attributed to the leaders of the nations at the time, but all that can change at any moment. Iraq’s Saddam and Iran’s Shah are two examples; the fear of uncertainty, the fear of being discriminated against because you’re different, the fear of not being accepted, the fear of being imprisoned, the fear of being tortured. These are all real and stem from an intolerant society, or belief system.

I have many good friends that believe in different religions, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and others. I chose these people as friends because they were nice, kind, caring, friendly and most of all tolerant of my views and beliefs, and I of theirs. We don’t force our views on each other. We don’t judge each other for our beliefs, and we accept each other for who we are, without feeling the need to convert each other. But this is in Australia.

I would urge a researcher to interview as many Christian immigrants that have come from a predominantly Muslim country and ask them what it was like to grow up in those countries. Dig deep into what intolerance they experienced from their childhood, or as adults. Ask them to think about any bullying they may have experienced or traditions they were forced to observe or participate in.

The recent uprising of religious and ethnic intolerance can be seen with politicians being elected into power, with the likes of Pauline Hanson (Australian Politician) and Donald Trump gaining popularity among the people. The ideals these politicians address is again based on religious and ethnic intolerance. They’re being a voice to those who are saying enough is enough. However, these politicians, and any others who speak of religion and or religious/ethnic intolerance, really have zero to no idea of what it is like to live and grow up in an intolerant country.
It is this religious and ethnic intolerance that caused the genocide in 1915-1919. Over three million Assyrians, also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs, Greeks, and Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey). The one thing they all had in common was their religion. What was their crime? It was the intolerant rulers that decided to ethnically cleanse, what in their minds, did not belong.

Out of his entire family, my grandfather was the sole survivor of that Genocide (commonly known as Seyfo or Sword among the Assyrian people) aside from a sister who was kidnapped, forcedly converted, and married off to an Imam. Seventeen members of his family were slaughtered. He was five years old at the time.

He was raised by another Assyrian family who found him lying on the floor, playing dead, among the dead. A child. Who was five years old. The same age as my son.

He grew up to be a very skilled stone mason and eventually married and had eight children, who now have 32 children of their own. His grandchildren. Those 32 grandchildren now have 36 children, and God willing, there are many more to come. Given time, one seed is all you need to grow a forest. His name was Yusuf and he lived a troubled life. In the end, he took his own life, as the weight of his children, who were his everything, leaving him post marriage by moving to other cities/countries, was too much to carry. I’m sure psychologists would have a really good analysis of the childhood trauma that led to his end. What is being done in the form of counselling to the children who are the victims of these atrocities today? What will their future be like?

Acceptance of who we are, tolerance of our beliefs, respect for one another, love for humanity and empathy; that is all that humans need. Not asking for much.

You don’t know what it’s like, unless you lived there. You really don’t.

So why am I writing this? To give you my balanced view. We are not enemies. We are fellow humans. My five year-old-son and my Muslim, Jew, Hindu or any other friends’ 5 year-old sons should never feel that they are different. They should feel love and respect for each other and that they can belong in any society, and not experience either what my brother went through in Istanbul or what my grandfather went through in 1915.

Nahir Bisso
Director, Australia
A Demand For Action

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05Jul | Pray for Baghdad

 

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I still remember my grandmother talking about Karrada when we’d visit my grandparents in Baghdad – the way the “R’s” would roll on her tongue as if to emphasize that it wasn’t another mere suburb but a main thread in the rich cultural tapestry of the city. It was the ‘80s. We slept on rooftops, snacked on watermelons and spent our days with two Armenian sisters who lived down the hall from my grandparents. The air was different in Baghdad. You could feel it. My mum always said our cheeks were rosier and we slept easier. It was as if the body instinctively knew we were home.

 

It was a different time. A time before cars laden with C4 explosives and suicide bombers. A time before the stench of Western hypocrisy made reading the news of events like the Karrada attack even more unbearable to stomach. A time when the country’s blood did not run like water into the Tigris and Euphrates every day. But those days are long gone, replaced by permanent heartache, a system that has failed them and a world that has forgotten them.

 

My grandparents live in London now. They are considered the lucky ones. Their Armenian neighbours still live in Baghdad. They stock up on supplies once a fortnight, too afraid to venture out unnecessarily. It’s probably how all Iraqis should live (or should I say how all Iraqis should exist because I don’t know many people who would consider that living).

 

Bomb blast after bomb blast. The international stage does not bats an eyelid. It’s just their way of life. An everyday occurrence. Surely the grief isn’t as raw and the pain of trying to identify their loved one’s mangled remains doesn’t run as deep anymore. Haven’t they developed some sort of immunity to this by now? They’ve been through it so many times before.  I mean it’s not like the attack on a night club in Orlando, or the Bataclan threatre in Paris. Those victims were just young people, far removed from the problems of the Middle East, enjoying life. But the Iraqis – well they’ve grown up like this. That’s just the way it is for them.

 

Why does it seem to be a bigger deal when  terrorist attacks hit Europe or the US? Is their life worth more? Is their blood thicker? Or maybe it’s just that Iraqi and Syrian flag colours aren’t interesting enough to light up the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Harbour Bridge!

 

Well I’m here to remind you that NO. Their life is not worth less. That it doesn’t get easier to keep burying loved ones, even if it’s happened before. That their blood still runs red. And that they are just as deserving of a bright future as anyone else.

 

91,115, 161, 200, 215. The death toll from the deadliest attack since 2003 keeps rising as civilians pull remains out from still-smoldering buildings. The good Samaritans don’t even wear masks as they battle heat and the stench of burning flesh. Some even carry out charred limbs in their bare hands. I have seen no officials on the scene. No one dressed in an army or police uniform. Perhaps the risk is too great, though I cannot imagine what could be greater than this.

 

Eyewitnesses talk of entire families whose bodies had fused together in the inferno. They came to Karrada to celebrate together; to enjoy life. And they met their end, a ghastly, unfair and unjust end together. That was early Sunday morning. The photos of the dead are hard to look at. Mainly young men, but far too many children as well – all with their lives ahead of them. They leave behind grieving parents and families, some of whom have had to search through fridges at the morgue looking for remains. I don’t want to look photos of the dead but they deserve for the world to know they existed. They had families. They had dreams and ambitions. They were here. So I look at their faces, as heart breaking as it is and suppress the urge to scream at the world,  “Look at their faces. LOOK AT THEM. How is this right? How is this fair?” And though today their story is pushed down to the bottom of the newsfeed as the world gears to occupy itself with the next fleeting event, some of us still Pray for Baghdad. It’s the very least we can do.

 

Postscript: If you would like to do more write to your local politician or United Nations representative and use your social media platform, like Facebook and Twitter, to make your voice heard.

 

Linda Michael

ADFA

 

07Apr | ADFA Outlines Foreign Aid Priorities In Testimony Submitted To Congress

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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.

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17Feb | Will Washington Act?

 

 

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It’s no secret that I love Washington, DC. It’s been my home for almost the past 8 years and I will gladly talk anyone’s ear off who is willing to listen to all the incredible things this town has to offer.  The energy, the expansive beauty, the perfect harmony of urbane architecture and green space.  Then of course there’s the ambition, the buzz, the possibilities.  Washington is the capital of the free world. Little happens in the world without this town weighing in, and to have the opportunity to be in the middle of that, to be a part of that, is, as I can only describe it, intoxicating.  There is no more poignant example of this than visiting the White House, a place where quite literally anything is possible.  As someone who advocates on Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac issues, the feeling one gets setting foot into the West Wing is what I imagine professional athletes feel when stepping onto the field.  Many of the problems facing our people, much of their suffering, can be solved there.  There is nothing like it in the world.

Yet, in the past 18 months all of the problems facing our people have not been solved, and we have not seen the sort of decisive action from the United States we believe is necessary.  Our people have had some support: A Syriac/Assyrian security force in Syria received support as part of a coalition and have been developing a relationship with US military personnel in Syria.  New processing centers in Beirut and Erbil are beginning to help refugees though the arduous process of emigrating to the US.  For Iraq, an amendment we put forward in the two year counter ISIL provision of the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act authorized local security forces in the Nineveh Plains for the first time in history, creating the opportunity for local forces in Iraq to work with the central government to receive support through the act. Local forces in Iraq are certainly a work in progress, but it appears they are working hard to become part of the legitimate security apparatus in that country. It’s an encouraging sign that perhaps they are breaking through the firewall, which could allow them to receive support and be part of liberating their villages and cities.
Many questions still remain on legislation recently passed. The FY16 Omnibus appropriations bill outlines $10m in new funding for religious freedom programs whilst also containing a provision in support of ethnic and religious minorities in the Nineveh Plains.  These funds are the responsibility of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedoms, my friend David Saperstein, and I am hopeful he will use at least some this budget in a way that directly helps our people on the ground.  Over the years, the most elusive outcome of our community’s political efforts has been getting support directly to our own aid organizations, and our legislative agenda for the 114th Congress has had a strong focus on changing the pattern of outsourcing the humanitarian support for our people to Erbil or Baghdad.  The efficacy of these efforts remains to be seen.

Then there is the big question on everyone’s mind: Will the administration recognize the ongoing plight of the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities as Genocide?  Thanks to the efforts of MEP Lars Adaktusson and our team in Europe, the EU recently passed a monumental resolution saying as much, and there is pending legislation in both the House and Senate of the US which would recognize the same.  Late last year an investigative journalist reported that the White House was poised to recognize Genocide against the Yezidis while omitting Christians from that same designation.  In response to this, ADFA and our partners in Washington, including the ANCA, IDC, and Genocide Watch mobilized immediately and made a historic effort to provide evidence and information to the White House and State Department, including a letter to the President signed by 21 of the most prominent advocates and Genocide Scholars in the world.  Our efforts are ongoing, and we will not yield until the President and Congress recognize our people’s plight for what it can only be called.

As you probably noticed, our work in Washington keeps us pretty busy, and there is no shortage of work which needs to be done.  The remainder of the 114th Congress will be focused on passing current legislation such as Senate Resolution 340 (S.res.340) and House Resolution 440 (H.res.440). Both of these recognize the ongoing Genocide of our people and call for more concrete measures to support our local communities, as well as continuing to expand our legislative items pertaining to aid and development projects which could allow our people to return to their villages and cities in a post-ISIS Iraq and Syria.  The passage of H.res.440 would additionally mark the first time in history that US will have recognized the Simele massacre of 1933.  We will keep identifying new ways for our youth to engage their leaders locally and in Washington, and we will continue to expand the membership and portfolio of the recently chartered Congressional Assyrian Caucus, which will serve as the central Congressional resource for the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac people for generations to come.

For all the things we will continue to do, there is one thing I can say we will never do, and that is to give up on our fight to bring peace and justice to the victims of this Genocide.  We will never give in to the politics of cynicism which tells us that political efforts are futile or illusory, or the politics of hate which serve only to divide us at this most critical moment when we need to stand united more than ever. Most importantly, as difficult as it can be, we will never yield in speaking truth to power, something I endeavor to do everyday I’m blessed enough to continue to do this work.

I’ll never forget a Spring morning at the White House last year as I stood eye-to-eye with the President of the United States, my knees trembling as I refused to back down from my expression of disappointment with his failure to do enough to help our people. In politics as in life we never get 100% of what we want, and that was certainly true for my exchange with President Obama.  We’ve had some successes that were achieved with compromise, and we’ve had some failures that have come with valuable lessons on how to better move forward, because at the end of the day, moving forward is the only thing we can endeavor to do.

 

Steve Oshana

Executive Director – ADFA

Kök med golv

21Jan | My Trip to Lebanon

Kök med golv

 

Not a day goes by without A Demand For Action being contacted by people in Syria or Iraq. They may be journalists, activists, but also, for example, a woman whose two daughters have disappeared, or someone from a village where they have had no access to water for weeks. Many also contact us from Sweden and other Western countries. Last week we received an email from Gothenburg, the man who wrote it had been to Lebanon and wanted to know if we could help his in-laws and other people in their situation. We asked him to write a thorough email, and with his permission, we let journalist Karin Dahlström edit his story.

My Trip to Lebanon

My wife and I went to Beirut in Lebanon over Christmas and New Year to visit her parents and three sisters who had fled there from Qamishly in Syria almost three years ago.
They did not flee from dictator Assad, but they fled out of fear that Daesh (IS) would reach their town and begin the slaughter of people, mainly Christians. Their journey was long, but they made it all the way to Lebanon.

When we arrived at their little rented apartment in Beirut we were greeted by ragged mattresses spread out on the living room floor. The apartment, which is less than 50 square meters, is shared by five people and for the coming two weeks it would be seven, with us. The five of them would sleep on the mattresses in the living room as they had left their only bedroom for us to use.

I thought about my wife’s sisters, of whom the two eldest were studying at universities and the youngest was in elementary school in Syria. They had their whole future ahead of them, but are now laying on ragged mattresses in a cold apartment in a different country to in just a few hours get up and go to work in clothing stores for wages not enough for either rent or food. The wages are low for one simple reason: they are from Syria. They speak the same language as the Lebanese, but it does not matter. They are less worthy as human beings because they are from Syria. I cried inside when I saw them and the mattresses.

After a chilly night I awoke to a man’s voice shouting in Arabic. I heard my mother in law answer him in a small voice. I do not understand Arabic, so I don’t know what they were talking about. I could hear my wife there also, but where was my father in law? Him I did not hear. “That’s why the man is shouting,” I thought. I got dressed to show myself and hopefully get him to lower his voice, but once I got there he was already gone. I asked my wife what it was all about and she answered that it was the landlord who said that the neighbor below us had complained. That was nothing more to it.

The next day the family had an appointment with the United Nations. We joined them there, but waited outside. In the evening I asked my mother in law what they did there and what the UN is doing for them? She replied that they went there to extend their permit that allowed them to stay in Lebanon. If they were to be stopped by police they must have these documents to show. And no, the UN does nothing for them. So far they have received three plastic mats and a food card loaded with $75 a month. It only works in some grocery stores and is supposed to be enough for five people.

I could not believe what I was hearing and remembered being little and in primary school where we learned that the United Nations help. But this I do not call help; $15 per person per month!

The days went by and the sisters were working long days before Christmas. I met some of those who had fled from Khabour in Syria when Daesh (IS) attacked the village nearly a year ago. These three young boys escaped kidnapping, unlike many others.

When Christmas was over, all three sisters were finally off at the same time. We took them on a trip to the mountains and had come up with a few activities so that they could have fun and get away from everyday life, which basically just meant work. On the roads we saw garbage almost everywhere and learned that the garbage men had been on strike for the past three months. Sometimes people would light the garbage on fire and the smoke would spread into the houses. Not a pleasant smoke to inhale.

For one and a half weeks, we spent as much time with the sisters as we could. The weather was pleasant during the day, but cold at night, and even colder in the apartment because there were no radiators there. The windows were leaky and the power is on for only 12 hours a day. This apartment has been connected to a generator, but it only got about 4 amps per apartment, which was not enough to heat it up. It was also damp in the apartment, which made our clothes feel wet all the time.

My mother in law told me that when they moved into the apartment five months ago all the walls and ceiling were blackened by moisture. The guys from Khabour had helped paint the entire apartment. After only two months they began to notice that the black had come back in the ceiling in the kitchen and the bedroom. Now the entire ceiling in the kitchen was black.

On New Year’s Eve the sisters worked until 8PM. When the got home we ate good food together and celebrated the new year. The next day the doorbell rang and it was the landlord again. Now he said that he had sold the apartment to the neighbor who had complained, and that they had a week to move out! Strangely, my father in law was not home this time either.

On Sunday, the sisters went to work and we went to Church. During the breakfast in the Church’s hall my mother in law asked some people she knew if they could get in touch with her if they knew of any vacant apartments. I could see in her eyes that she was stressed, exhausted and desperate. She had to find an apartment. As much as I wanted to help her find a new apartment, I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was to be by her side and support her.

At 9AM on Tuesday, the day before we were to go back to Sweden, the landlord called one of the sisters and said that they had until 5PM to move out, and empty the apartment. It was raining outside and my in-laws had yet to find a new apartment. The two oldest girls had to work until 4PM and could not get time off. While my in-laws were looking for a new apartment we started packing. At last they succeeded. It was smaller than the one they lived in now and without power, which meant that they will only have power 12 hours a day. But they had to accept it.

At 2PM my wife called the landlord to tell him that we had found a place but we would need an extra day to move everything. He replied by saying that if we were not out by 5:15PM, he would do everything in his power to get us out.

We continued packing in sheer desperation. At 4:30PM the sisters came home from work and everyone was running back and forth and there were phone calls here and there. My father in law was still not home and the clock was approaching 5. The youngest sister, who is 16, began to cry and so did my wife. I tried to calm them but I couldn’t. At 20 minutes left to vacate the apartment my father in law had still not come home, and I was the only man in the house. I found a baseball bat looking stick in the kitchen. For the first time in my life I was prepared to fight for someone else’s life, not mine, but theirs. I was shaking a little, but at that moment I didn’t care about my own life.

Two minutes later my father in law came home with a friend. He saw his daughters crying and managed to calm them. There were more phone calls and it all ended with one person from the Lebanese military calling the landlord to tell him that the family would have two days to move. And so they did, thankfully.

The next day we went home to Sweden. During the trip, I thought about what had happened and wondered how the family will be able to live in Lebanon. How will they get money for food and rent? How will they cope with the cold all winter that has just begun? How would they cope with all threats? Or the feeling that they are less worthy as human beings just because they are from Syria? I found no answers.

During my stay with the in-laws in Beirut, I found out what their cost of living and wages. Housing costs were a total of $735 (6300 SEK) per month with the following breakdown: rent $550, $25 cold water, $50 for drinking water, $30 for electricity generators $80. What kind of apartment would you get for the 6300SEK a month in Sweden, one may ask.
My mother in law takes care of the house and my father in law is looking for work. I think the reason he can’t get any is that he is too old, 60 years. The two oldest sisters are working in clothing stores and earn $ 400 each (10 hours per day, 6 days a week). The youngest sister works in a hair salon and earns 80 dollars a month (8 hours per day / 6 days a week).
Total earnings are $ 880 (7500 SEK) per month. When the housing costs are paid, there will be 1,200 SEK over plus 640 SEK on the food card from the UN. This is supposed to be enough to feed and clothe five people, which it isn’t because the food costs as much as it does in Sweden (my own comparisons).

Finally, I would say that the trip has given me insight into what it means to be a refugee in Lebanon and has left traces in my heart. I think differently today. I think it is easy to forget what the rest of the world looks like when we have such a good life here in Sweden.
Sweden is probably the best country in the world. We have it all here, but they have nothing there.
It does not matter if it’s 10 degrees below zero and windy outside when I have to walk 200 meters from the car and home, for I am guaranteed to walk into a warm home.

One has often heard and even thought so oneself, that if you win the lottery you would move away from this cold and dark country. If I win the lottery I will do everything to help give my in-laws’ family and as many others as possible a better life.

David Isik

Translated by A Demand For Action’s Daniela Babylonia Barhanna

 

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31Dec | We Are All Qamishly

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In May 2009, Amme, my father’s sister, called from Chicago to say hello. We made small talk and caught up with one another. She asked how final exams were going and when I would be finished with by junior year of university. Of course she mentioned she was taking her annual trip back home, to Qamishly. I wasn’t surprised, because it was nothing new. What surprised me was when she asked if I wanted to tag along, as if it was some kind of weekend trip she was taking. What surprised me even more is how fast my father agreed, convinced my mother, applied for a visa and booked my ticket. Next thing I knew, Bob, dad, was testing my Assyrian/Syriac speaking skills. And of course, the nostalgic stories began to flow.
I spent three months in Qamishly. Not touring the ancient cities and sites of Syria, but Qamishly. Including the ten hour bus ride from Damascus to Qamishly, thanks to the Assyrian/Syriac bus business Izla Tours. Miami was the first restaurant I had been to. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why the restaurant was named after the biggest party city in America, but couldn’t help but feel kind of proud. They had high expectations in Qamishly. I appreciated that. The fake palm trees, festive lights, and bright couches were a nice touch. I also remember they had the best pizza.
It all clicked after we booked a table at the first pool party at Greenland. How many times can you say you’ve partied so hard that you watched the sun rise?
Life was balanced though, because Sunday morning we’d walk to church bright and early. I used to walk passed mat’am (restaurant) Gabriel on my daily routine to grab a falafel sandwich and green apple cola, being that it was right across the street from Amme’s house.
I turned 19 on Amme’s patio, with all the ladies from their church Mor Yaqub choral (choir), who became my good friends that summer, one of whom, Malfonitho, (teacher) Samira taught me how to read and write Assyrian/Syriac – at nine o’clock in the morning – every morning.
I remember lying in bed at night hearing Assyrian/Syriac music blasting from the outdoor area of the legendary mat’am Gabriel, as men played their games of tarnib, while enjoying a cigarette and strong Turkish coffee. I went shopping, I made friends, went to the Internet café, daily, strolled along the main streeet Shara’ Kuwatli, had a cocktail from Firel at night, and the world’s best ice cream from Mimar during the painstakingly hot day. I became a local. And I would find out later, I would be one of those people who always reminisced about Qamishly. As for the real locals, they were living life. Normal, simple, happy lives. Qamishly, and everyone in it, was thriving.
Qamishly was always a place of refuge for Assyrians/Syriacs since Seyfo, the genocide 1915. We managed to bounce back from a macabre past. Qamishly was our new cradle of civilization. In Qamishly we found faith, hope, strength and then came music, poetry, and nationalism. And eventually life. Even during the current turmoil, telephone calls from family members constantly reassured us that times aren’t great, but they’re okay. Still our Qamishly was standing strong. And that put everyone at ease. We’ve lost Nimrud and Nineveh in Iraq, but at least we still have Qamishly.
But today came the day we all dreaded. One text message, which didn’t seem so bad, compared to a lot of the news we’ve heard from the Middle East lately. Explosions at Miami Restaurant, but they weren’t attacks. Until pieces come together and the facts are ripping through you like gunshots. Three explosions. Three separate locations. All owned by Assyrians/Syriacs. Definitely a terrorist attack. Six dead, some wounded. No, sixteen dead, more wounded.  And then pictures. And then the videos of grown men screaming and crying in agony, some physically injured, others emotionally, mentally. And then a familiar face and then the video is over. And finally, the panic sets in. That can’t be him…
A text message from my sister, “Bob got through to them. It’s all true. Her husband died and her brother is in the hospital.”
Another text message, this time, my cousin, “It’s a shocking feeling that I can’t describe. I know most of them. I can’t remember one bad thing about any of them. Aloho mhasele (God rest his soul) and God protect the rest.”
Today’s phone call was not reassuring. Today’s phone call was stomach churning. “We were all at the restaurant playing cards together. We were all there. And we saw them die. I wish I died, too.”
Those faces from the old family pictures became real the summer of 2009 only to become a picture again, forever. Two thousand sixteen, 101 years of genocide.
We pray for all the people who are crying over the loss of their loved ones tonight. We mourn all our martyrs, everyone that has been killed in the horrifying wars of Syria and Iraq. Rest In Peace all Ellie’s out there. Aloho Mhaselkhu.
#OurLastStand
#DemandForAction
#SafeHavenNow
#SaveOurSouls
#WeAreAllKhabour
#WeAreQaryatain
Tabeetha  Adde
A Demand For Action
Sherman

18Dec | Fighting A War From Washington

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Being the executive director of an organization that deals with Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac issues poses a VERY unique set of challenges. On top of managing legislative items throughout the course of a Congressional session, I often find myself on both ends of the blame game and rumor mill within our community. It seems like anytime we put forward or pass a specific piece of legislation, one political party claims we are pursuing a certain agenda, while their opposing party insists we’re simply puppets of the opposition. In American politics, this would be the equivalent of a politician being accused of being a conservative by progressives, while progressives blast them for being puppets for the conservative agenda. Make sense, right? Of course not, but sense and rumors have nothing to do with each other, and people ultimately believe whatever they want anyway, especially if it reinforces their existing opinions. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in politics (and as an Assyrian) is that something need not be true for people to believe it.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it is a lot of headache for a job I never actually wanted.

Aside from the support that we try to secure for our people back home, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job is helping young activists understand and appreciate their role in government.  Politics is messy, esoteric, and often a labyrinth of arcane procedures and social codes, so when most people step foot off the plane in Washington they are often overwhelmed by the process. I like to think of myself as an interpreter of sorts for young activists, and one thing I’ve found with everyone who participates in citizen lobbying is that most leave with a very coherent understanding of what we do, how we do it, and why it’s important.  With that in mind, let me tell you about our most recent visitors in Washington:

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Last week A Demand for Action founder Nuri Kino visited Washington, DC for a series of political and diplomatic meetings surrounding the plight of the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac people. The meetings took place December 7-11 and were attended by ADFA members Nathan Kalasho of Detroit, and Tabeetha and Helma Adde of New York, who mobilized for a final effort to secure year end legislation and implore President Obama to recognize the ongoing persecution of the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac people, as well as Yezidis, Armenians, and other minorities as Genocide.

In addition to the Genocide recognition, ADFA representatives worked with members of Congress to amend H.Con.Res 75 (resolution) to better reflect the unique suffering of the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac people, as well as highlight the specific targeting of Christians by Da’esh (ISIS). We also reported of abuse of Christians in refugee camps to the White House, State Department, and member of Congress to underscore the need for aid to be provided directly to our organizations such as Assyrian Aid Society, ACERO, HelpIraq, Syriac Patriarchate, International Christian Outreach, and the Hammurabi Foundation. Concrete steps were taken to begin to better assist our community aid organizations in securing support from the US, EU and UN to continue and expand their humanitarian efforts.  All relevant agencies were briefed on the most up to date information from the ground in Syria and Iraq, including updates on attacks in the Hassake region and the status of the hostage situation. Finally, updated information was provided to the White House and State Department on the status of local security forces in the Nineveh Plains and the Hassake region of Syria to continue to develop strategies to include Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac forces into the larger security effort in those areas, as well as to consider indigenous security as part of the ultimate goal of establishing a self administered areas, or Safe Havens, in Iraq and Syria. We reiterated that independent security forces should receive direct support separately from the local and national administrations of the KRG and Government of Iraq, as both those security forces, the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga, abandoned the Nineveh Plains and Mosul and thus lost the trust of the indigenous populations of those areas.

Meetings included visits to the White House, State Department, Armenian National Committee of America, and the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia where Nuri Kino was received by His Excellency Tigran Sargsyan.  Congressional efforts included meetings with Congressman Dave Trott of Michian, Congressman Jeff Denham of California, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, Congressman Brad Sherman of California, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois.  Mr. Kino’s Washington visit was covered by national and international news outlets such as Swedish National Radio, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Daily News, and EWTN News.

We are grateful US members of Congress and other US policymakers for their efforts on behalf of our people, but not enough has been done to stem the tide of suffering, and we will continue to engage the Obama administration and our friends in Congress to further strengthen efforts to bring an end to the suffering which has claimed so many innocent lives.

As Americans we have the God given right to petition our government, something unheard of in the countries from which our parents fled. While speaking out against the violence which has befallen our people is our right as Americans, it is our duty as Assyrians, and I urge everyone to not be discouraged by the seemingly endless bad news coming from the homeland.  On the contrary, it should motivate us to work even harder and raise our voices even louder, and as those who visit us in Washington can attest, your voices are being heard.

So use your voice, petition your government, and demand action.

 

Steven Oshana

Executive Director

 

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18Dec | Maryam’s Story: Helping a mother & her son get to Sweden

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Save Our Souls volunteer team

Activists of Save Our Souls (ADFA Germany) have travelled to Athens at their own expense between the 12th and 18th of October 2015 to help provide refugees in need with urgent humanitarian aid.

This is their story:

After the Fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a lot of Iraqi refugees have found safety in Greece. However, due to the Greek financial crisis, a lot of them have been led into another tragedy. We are told that the job search is even harder than that of Greek citizens as many have run out of their savings and are struggling to pay their rent and buy food.

Our Team went to local supermarkets and filled shopping carts with food and sanitary products and went to visit those families in need.

What struck us the most was the cry for help of a young mother. Maryam and her little son call a landfill site their current home. She leads us down a dark alley past lots of junk and rubbish. When we reach a fence, two dogs start barking angrily, stopping us from going further. The dogs actually belong to Maryam and she tells us that they guard her from male refugees that also live at this landfill site.

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Maryam’s home, which she shares with her young boy, is made up of less than 2 rooms

Ever since her husband left her and their son behind, she has kept their heads above water by doing cleaning jobs. In the current crisis she lost most of them and the two merely survive with €20 she receives for a cleaning job every other week.

Whenever she asks for work instead she’s being offered money for sexual services, which she says she has always been declining. But she also seems very desperate and clueless about what the future holds. She tells us that that her parents are refugees as well and that they have made it to Sweden recently. She dreams about reuniting with them there.

We couldn’t leave Maryam to her fate and we are still in contact with her today. Our team has been able to locate her parents. We are trying to fulfill her wish by getting her to Sweden to reunite with her family.  The process to bring them to Sweden isn’t as easy, so we ask for your help to make it possible.

Please consider helping us to help Maryam and her little son by donating to our account quoting”2nd chance“.
All funds raised will help in the application process and settlement in Sweden.
Account Holder: Save Our Souls
Banking Institute: Sparkasse Gütersloh
IBAN: DE71 4785 0065 0000 7772 79
BIC: WELADED1GTL
Purpose: 2nd Chance
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20Nov | Baghdede (Qarakosh): My joy & my deep sorrow. 

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A year ago, I visited the refugee camps in the regions of Erbil and Nohadra (Duhok) when over 600,000 people had fled the barbaric and ruthless terrorist organization that is IS. About 200,000 of these were my own countrymen. My blood. My people. They were Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs, and they were the indigenous people of Iraq. Just a few months earlier, I had visited the villages and towns in the Nineveh Plains. But it was when I visited Baghdede (which is the name I prefer to use when referring to Qarakosh) that I thought: “I have found the pearl among the jewels”.

The town felt like the capital city of my heart. It was the place which was most inhabited by my people throughout Iraq. It was the place which, apart from the population, had everything needed to become the capital for the future province. Here, Assyrian was spoken on the streets. Here, I heard the sound of church bells ringing . Here, I saw the school children cheerfully rushing out of school in their uniforms. Here, I felt at home. I was one among 50,000 of my compatriots in our ancestral historic land. I was united with my brothers and sisters, with my roots, with my true self.

These were my thoughts as recently as April 2014.

But now, I found myself in the middle of misery. With a lump in my throat I was faced with a heart wrenching, mournful sight. The deplorable conditions which the people were forced to live under made me feel sick. To see innocent children cry from hunger, old women sing lamentations about their fate, and the villages they called home in a stench that cannot even be described, would make any one who witnessed it burst into tears. It is not a dignified life they live, and it is also a disgrace to the world that this is taking place in the 21st century.

I stayed with them. I lived with them. I suffered with them. I was no better than them. I was and remain one of them. These were the people who lit up Baghdede, among other places. These were the people who had filled me with joy and harmony.

An image that is etched in my mind is Inas’ sad and helpless blue and tearful eyes.

This 10-year-old girl’s appealing words still echo in my head and give me goose bumps: “We want to return to our home in Baghdede. We want to go to school again, and pray in our churches so that we can have peace in our real home. We do not want to stay here, abandoned and depleted. We have no food, no water or anything. The rain is pouring over our heads, and we get wet and sick. We’re cold. It’s enough now because we have had enough … “

I quickly embraced little Inas and gave her the warmth and love that all scared children are entitled to. She hugged me back, as hard as she could. I could feel her deep grief and fear, and I could no longer hold back my tears.

The struggle continued when I was back in Sweden. The meeting with Inas gave me the strength and motivation I need to keep fighting with ADFA, and demand action from the nations of our world. Our people have fought and suffered to be heard. How can we allow this to continue? What kind of a sick and indifferent world do we live in?

It has now almost been a year and a half since the terrorist group IS conquered Mosul and hell broke loose in Iraq. It feels strange to say it, but when exposed to the injustices, as we are daily you undergo a mental change. When you hear, see, feel and are constantly updated on the state of the atrocities in your home country you become numb. It builds up a kind of shell, a protective aura that insulates you from any anxious feelings or thoughts. It simply becomes part of one’s life. All the anxiety and all the emotions transform into a fighting spirit and an incredible strength.

From the freedom and security here in the West world, we only hear and read about the refugee crisis. How young children drown in the sea in a desperate attempt to put the misery behind them and start a new life in dignity in the freedom of Europe. I have been exposed to this so much that is does not even faze me anymore.

The past six months, in other words, one year after the IS invasion, has been the same. I have heard and seen, but it does not torment me in the same way anymore. Or so I thought until yesterday when, from my friend and ADFA colleague, Athra, in the town of Alqosh, I received news so tragic and heartbreaking they made the hairs on my neck stand up. My shell had cracked. My heart was bleeding. My soul was shivering.

I sat completely still and felt the anguish grip my heart as if it would tear it out.

I felt my pulse rise and everything else around me went silent as I was told that seven Christians from Baghdede had drowned out in the sea. I stopped for a second. Everything around me was silent. I went to the bathroom to wash my face with ice-cold water. I looked deep into my reflection, and gathered courage and strength. I went out again and called Iraq again. He quoted with a dispirited voice the news from an Arabic news site:
“The mayor of Baghdede said: “7 people from one family drowned when they were passing the sea from Turkey to Greece, and all of them died except one 9 year old child. The family is from the Christian city of Baghdede, which is under ISIS control, and they were living in Turkey before they attempted to flee to Europe.”

I felt my heart pounding with blows that echoed in my body, which felt completely weightless. I asked my friend to immediately make calls to acquaintances from Baghdede to obtain more information, which he did.

The refugees who died in the boat had fled IS twice, the first time was when Baghdede was under attack between June 25th and 26th 2014 and almost the entire city’s residents fled in fear to avoid falling into the hands of terrorists.

A small part of the city’s young men armed themselves, together with priests and deacons of the church, and refused to leave the city. It turned out that people could return and that it was only the Arab tribes who ended up in a military battle against the Kurdish Peshmerga. Most of Baghdede’s population returned, but the stay did not last long when the IS one month later gave the indigenous people of Iraq an ultimatum: pay jizya (a form of tax which non-Muslims must pay), convert to Islam, or die. The result was that the entire Nineveh Plain was emptied of its Assyrian population, with the exception of Alqosh and Sharafiya where young, brave men decided to defend their honor and their 7,000-year-old native land.

Two Assyrian families of ten people ended up among many others in the refugee camps in Erbil. They were just like 10-year-old Inas tired of living as depleted refugees in their own country and decided to look for safety and freedom on the other side of the world, and fled to Turkey. They lived there for a whole year and sought refugee status with the UN, but as anticipated and not uncommonly they received no more than a date for a meeting for further processing to which they would have had to wait several years.

The feeling of hopelessness and abandonment prompted them to take matters into their own hands and seek out traffickers to try the absolute last resort. For about $ 3,000 per person they bought 10 seats on a larger boat that was packed with other refugees and was heavily congested; the front part of the bottom floor of the boat broke and the water came rushing in, at that exact spot is where the two Assyrian families had positioned themselves on the crowded boat. Seven out of ten Assyrians were drowned, four of whom were just young children. These Assyrians paid more than $3000 each in the search of safety and dignity; sadly, they paid for it with their lives as well.

The IS continues to pose a threat to humanity. Refugees sacrifice the last of their belongings and risk their families’ lives in pursuit of safety. Some dishonest traffickers continue to make money at the expense of people’s desperation and their lives, and the entire time the outside world is standing idly by. What kind of world do we live in?

One thing is certain; the people of Baghdede have given me joy, but now they are also the source of my deepest sorrow. For them, and many others, we at A Demand For Action (ADFA) continue to fight, we will be their voice until our last breath. We will not give up until every father, mother and child can return to a Safe Zone in the Nineveh Plains.

#DemandForAction
#SafeHavenNow

Ashur Minas
Iraqi Senior Advisor & Coordinator
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06Nov | Boundless Humanity: Crossing the border to Greece

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Over the last few weeks, many people have drowned in the treacherous sea between Turkey and Greece. Hundreds have drowned in the water  in an attempt to flee the Middle East for the safety of Europe. Charbél Gabro flew from Sweden to Greece to help refugees arriving in boats from Turkey.  The purpose of the trip is, as he himself puts it: “to encourage people and show that there is still hope and that people actually care.”. A Demand For Action got in touch with Charbél before he left Sweden and asked him to report what he was seeing. His experience, after only his first day there, meant that sleep eluded him.

 

One day a month ago, I could not sleep. All my thoughts went to the people who were willing to put their lives on the line to be free. Somehow, I knew I had to meet people on the run, to go Greece, to Lesbos and to the beach where people arrive. I called a friend and told him that I had decided to going to do it. And immediately, he was in too. There were 4 of us who started planning the trip and now here we are -12 enthusiasts from different parts of Sweden.

At the airport I meet three refugees who have come over by boat. They told us that they paid $ 1,000 each to make the journey. They were confused and did not know where they were, One of them asked me where I thought he sould go. Finland or Sweden?

The first destination of the day was the refugee camp, Moria. It took about an hour to get there. I’d been told that one of my relatives had lost their son during the horrendous journey to Lesvos. His name was Jack. He was 25 years old and had his whole life ahead of him.

In total, there were 12 people in my party, representing the charity, “Gränslöst mänskligt”(“Boundless humanity”). At first, we were not allowed to enter the camp but after talking to the officials at the camp about our charity and my personal connection to the tragedies occurring, we were able to gain entry.

As we enter, we see people everywhere. Children crying among strangers lying next to each other covered only by thin blankhets. There is chaos but their eyes are empty. We give them blankets, hats, scarves and teddy bears for kids. We talked with some older men who had neither shoes or dry clothes.

The sadness in the air was almost palpable as we entered the room where Jack’s mother and father were staying. I grieved with the family, cried with the family, prayed with the family and gave them a donation. There were no words that could comfort the mother. Not only have they lost their home, their jobs and all their money, they had now lost the light of their lives- their son.

After several hours with the family, we still feel powerless as we cannot bring their beloved son back. All I could do for them was to listen, be a shoulder to cry on, and a helping hand. Just as we were about to leave the father approached us, teary eyed, to thank us, and exclaimed: “You remind me of him. He would have been here, talking to you right now…”

While we’re there we learn of a two boats that are on their way to the island. We decided to go to the beach via a dirt road between the mountains and there we meet a Greek man who accompanies us. Once we stop the car, I ask him why he was doing this, and then he said something touching “All people is friend” in broken English. He also told me about the 11 to 13 boats that had arrived  and the missing 14 people from one of them.

We saw several thousands of lifejackets in heaps, clothes and shoes for both adults and children. How did this happen? My heart bleeds for what is happening in my native Syria right now. People are starving and farewelling their homes forever as they put their lives at risk to escape war.

Evidently, after our visit, the family did not feel as alone and abandoned as they did before we arrived. They now know that we are keeping them in our thoughts and that we are doing everything in our power to help them. What we got to be a part of today none of us had previously experienced. I can honestly say that none of us have ever experienced such intense emotions of joy or sadness.

I have yet to digest what I have seen today and it will probably be a while before I understand what I have actually experienced. I’m pretty tired now, but it has been incredibly rewarding for me to be a part of helping people who have risked everything to get what I have… Freedom.

 

Charbél Gabro is from Norrköping, Sweden, with roots in Derik, Syria. In the summer of 1986, Charbél and his family decided to seek refuge in Sweden. Today he works as a speaker and a life coach, motivating and helping people make positive changes in their lives.

 

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13Oct | My Neighbour’s Story

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A day after Dr Abd Al Masih Nwiya, Bassam Michael and Ashur Abraham were executed by ISIS, I need to find some escape from reality. I go out and on my way home, I call a friend from Church to confirm a coffee catch-up later on. Unsurprisingly, we start talking about the execution when he tells me that one of the martyrs was my neighbour’s relative. Suddenly the knot in my stomach gets bigger. I realise that on some level, I already knew that. Somehow I felt it yesterday. My neighbour is a widow. Her husband’s aunt and 5 cousins were kidnapped from Khabour in February. She fears for their safety and for this reason has asked me not to disclose the name of her cousin.

On my way home, all I can think about is how this war keeps getting closer to home. Now it’s in my neighbourhood. The very suburb I used to play in happily as a kid now seems full of sadness.

As I open the door, I hear crying. It’s my neighbour! What will I say? I feel weak!! It feels like the grief is never going to leave, not just her but anyone. “How much longer can we all endure this?” I wonder as I take a deep breath and walk in. I feel guilty but I don’t know why. I feel the room getting warmer as I approach her to give her my condolences. My tears start to flow with hers. “Please God not again!” I think. “Don’t let me breakdown! Please give me strength.” Nuri’s article “We often cry, but cannot give up” comes to mind.

I try to talk to her but she is quiet. I know she is thinking of her nephew. My tears won’t stop. How I can I have so many tears left in me?? I feel like I’ve been crying for over a year. Me and everyone on the ADFA. Bitter, endless tears.

When she finally finds her voice she says, “ What can I say? We don’t have any new information. We know that they were murdered 2 weeks ago. There could be others who have died since then. Who knows? My thoughts are with the girls and the women. We really don’t know anything.”

I don’t tell her what I think. My thoughts are too dark to share. As I watch her begin to cry again those feelings of guilt start to come back. I am not sure why. Logically, I know there is nothing I could have done to prevent this. And yet, I can’t help wonder if there was something more I could have done.

I ask her if there’s anything more she wants to share.

“We can only pray to God because I don’t see any help coming from international players. I pray that God will strengthen them in their belief! And I pray that God can lead the Islamic State onto the right path. Just as Jesus asked God to forgive his murderers as he was dying on the cross, I ask He forgives them. I pray for Syria. Not just for Syria but everywhere there is war!”

 

As I leave the room, I feel even guiltier. I struggle to understand how if I, someone who is not in politics, who doesn’t have an army or billions at my disposal, can spend so many sleepless nights thinking what I can do to try and help, then how do those who can actually make a difference sleep at night? It’s not right. Those 3 men were sons and brothers and husbands. They had lives and dreams and hopes. And now they are gone. Murdered.

As I write this, the family is still hoping for that IS will return the bodies to the Assyrian Church for a proper burial. If they do, it will give the family a chance to say their final goodbyes. It’s a goodbye we all hoped would not have happen. And yet here we are. How many others await the same fate? How many more? I shudder to think and the tears come again.

 

Peter El Khouri

ADFA Sweden

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08Sep | About a Boy

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What is it about that little boy that has captured our hearts and crushed our souls like this? He is not the first little victim of war I’ve seen. He’s not even the first drowned child I’ve seen in the last week so why do these tears still fall? Is it because his neat little red shirt and blue shorts are so similar to my own child’s outfit? Or that his little feet are still wearing the shoes his mum picked out for him for the perilous journey ahead? Did she mull over which shoes would be best? Did she hope, as she put them on that day, that they wouldn’t blister his feet too badly? Were they his favourite pair? The soles are clean now, washed by the sea that took him.

Is it the way the sea gave him back to us? Back to those who failed him. Gently placing him on a bed it made for his final slumber, as if to say, “Are you happy now? Is this the only way your children will know peace?” Is it because instead of the way he lay on the sand, we know he should have been lying on any bed in the world? Is it because instead of the waves lapping at his little body, we know he should have been covered by a blanket?

Why the feeling of emptiness now when we know what’s been happening all along? Did it really have to take a photo of a child washed up ashore like seaweed to make us stop and mourn? Did it need for a 3 year old lying on a beach, probably in the very spot many holiday makers have created wonderful memories, for the world to say, “This needs to stop”? Why the contradicting feelings of wanting everyone who hasn’t posted about this boy to say something and those who are posting to stop at the same time?

How terrified was he? Did he cry for mummy in between the waves? Did it happen quickly? Was it dark? So many questions answered only by heartbreak.

His name was Aylan. He was from Kobane in Syria. He was not the first to meet this end and he will not be the last, yet my tears are just for him. Not for the others like him who have washed up ashore or may be lying at the bottom of the sea. Not even for his brother or his mother who, perhaps mercifully (mothers will understand this), died alongside her children. Only for him. For a future that will never be realised. For stories of a war-free existence he was told about, but will never know. For little hands that will never curl around his father’s’ fingers. For little feet that will never walk in those shoes again. For a little soul too good for this horrible world we have created; and, for the final indignity he had to experience of being processed on the beach by a stranger in a uniform. No one to cradle him and say goodbye. Not even a sheet to cover him with. Just a little boy, washed up on shore in his perfect little outfit. Alone. One minute he is there, and the next he is not. Will people know in a year’s time when they stand in that very spot, that he once lay there? Will they care?

Shame. Shame. Shame. There is so much shame to go around. The EU. The US. Australia. New Zealand. The Arab World. You have failed him and all those like him. But today, this is not about them. This is about a boy, a 3 year old from Syria, who washed up on the shore one day, and shattered our hearts.

Linda Michael

A Demand For Action

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05Sep | Playing Politics in Turkey

Image source: An Academic Abroad https://theacademicabroad.wordpress.com

With general elections approaching in Turkey, the political atmosphere in the country is hotter than ever. In the last elections, ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party) lost majority seats and the pro-Kurdish party HDP (People’s Democratic Party) gained 80 seats. As a result this caused the ruling party to align with the HDP, which they were reluctant to do. In response former prime minister and current president Erdogan called for early parliamentary elections, with the help of the AKP. With the date set for 1st November, this means that the HDP ministers will only remain in their position for 2 months.

 

On the other hand, clashes between PKK forces and Turkish security forces continue after the suicide bomb explosion in Suruç, in which 33 protesters died. The crowd included members of a leftist organization gathered in support of collecting toys for children in Kobane, Syria.

 

Consequently there are ongoing discussions about the security and safety of poll stations in the south-east region of the country. Some pro-governments columnists argue that if needed, poll stations can be moved to larger city centers and alongside the voters for security reasons. Or, if the safety of the election is in danger, they can even be cancelled.

 

 

Recent public opinion research suggests that the next election will not affect the current situation in the parliament. AKP is by far the biggest party with an estimated 40-42% of total votes. The main opposition party, CHP (Republican People Party, known for being Kemalist) has about 24-26%, MHP (Nationalists) about 15-16%, and HDP about 13-14%.

 

In last elections, Erol Dora, a lawyer from Istanbul, was the only Assyrian elected as MP, representing HDP, along with Garo Paylan, an Armenian human rights activist from HDP, and Selina Doğan from CHP. Dora may not be a candidate for the third time due to the code of conduct of the party. In the coming weeks, the party will make a decision about the future candidacy of similar MPs in the party, including the current co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş. It is believed that HDP will still assign seats for oppressed religious and ethnic minorities in parliament.

 

Clashes between PKK and Turkish security forces will dramatically affect the process of the elections, from the HDP point of view. Recent policies of president Erdoğan and ruling party AKP caused a consolidation of ethnic Kurds in HDP, especially after the battle of Kobane and the suspension of the peace process between the government and PKK. AKP has a hidden agenda of enforcing HDP to lose votes by increasing the tension between security forces and PKK, so they can’t pass the 10% threshold. If they fail to do so they have no chance to winning seats in parliament, allowing AKP to gain the majority required to ensure the presidency of Erdogan and change the constitution in accordance with their wishes. HDP is, to them, the unique obstacle that can prevent this. We’ll all have to wait until the 1st November to see how events unfold.

Ferit Altinsu
ADFA Representative – Turkey

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12Aug | The Day My Father Cried

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My dad, bottom center, holding the soccer ball, in Tel-Keppe  

 

I didn’t know if calling him was the best idea. He and Mom were on vacation, visiting my grandmother in San Diego. I was sitting at my desk at work, glancing at pictures, tweets, and streaming news. One look at my computer screen, then one at the clock. Over and over. “It was still too early to call,” I thought. But he knew. I knew he knew.

It had been nearly two months since the fall of Mosul, one week since my visit to the White House with Steve from A Demand For Action and other activitists. I thought we were making progress. I thought a shot at success was within reach. Meetings, interviews, letters, phone calls: advocacy and awareness that increased daily. How silly of me. It was just the beginning, and Aug 7, 2014 turned out to be a nightmare all of its own. A day typically reserved to commemorate a past genocide, was now going to bring us to our knees yet again.

 

ISIS takes over village of TelKaif

I knew it was a possibility, but I refused to dwell on it. “Maybe,” I thought, “maybe, they will avoid the small villages.” At the time, many of us were still trying to figure out ISIS’s game-plan. Land from Raqqa to Mosul and areas in between, coupled with the evil ideologies and attempts at genocide-was this a religious war? It was easy to believe so. Christians labeled in a manner similar to Nazi Germany’s humiliating branding of Jews. A jizya extortion, forced conversion or death…these led us to believe we were now starting a new series of crusades. But that wasn’t all ISIS was after. I began to realize that the religious battle was just a convenient and well-thought maneuver. ISIS knew the lands they aspired to have were occupied by some of the world’s most peaceful people: Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Christians. They kept their followers motivated through their genocidal methods, whilst serving their long-term goals of geo-political governance.

 

Nineveh Plains falls to ISIS

I cringed. I hoped I would awake from a terrible dream. I was wrong. I looked up at the clock again. “He’s awake now.” I intended on picking up my cell phone, but I found myself just wavering my hand over it,  and instead grabbed my desk, and rolled my chair over to the center of the table. My desk was a mess. Papers and notebooks crowded my calendar. As I brushed them aside, August began to peak through, and it faced me dead in the eye. One look down- August 7. I picked up my red pen, circled the date, and began to write: NEVER FORGET.

My desk phone rang. I jumped, turned over my left shoulder and realized my secretary was trying to get a hold of me. “Hey, Nathan. You ok? Your office is locked.”

Was I a coward? There I sat, sheltered and safe, door locked…afraid. I was afraid to face the truth. I looked up at the clock again. “I have to call him.”

 

Hey, Dad

My father and I are fortunate enough to have an amazing relationship. He was tough on me growing up, but I always knew the reasons. He was a passionate man-one who glowed whenever he spoke in his native tongue or spoke of his village. He was so passionate that by the time I rolled into my late teens, I began to wish I were born in his hometown. I wanted to have the same connection, the same bond. That wasn’t the case though, so I promised myself I would eventually establish that identity in the future. A promise I now thought I could no longer keep.

 

Hill of Stones

It was time. By the time I got to my contacts, I was shaking. When I clicked “Dad,” I had to put the speaker on, unable to focus on keeping the phone to my ear.

 

“Hi, Brony.”

“Hey, Dad, how are you? How’s mom? How’s Yome?”

“We’re doing ok. Mom and I just got back from a walk. Yome is doing great. She is the toughest lady I know.”

 

My Grandma was 104 years old and had just injured her hip falling down. Her doctor couldn’t believe the recovery, and we were convinced she had some sort of super abilities.

 

“Dad…”

 

A little bit of silence followed. It was unusual, because my dad was always especially alert, in person or on the phone. But then I began to hear the quivers…

 

“Those animals. They took my town. They took Tel-Keppe.”

 

The crying was something I couldn’t take. My dad, the most powerful man I knew, the man who could pierce your skin by the look in his eyes, was crying hysterically.

 

“It’ll be fine dad. This is temporary. Tel-Keppe is timeless.”

 

More crying. I dug my face into my hands, felt the stinging sensation of tears rolling down my cheeks. Hopelessness.

 

“My house, my church, my school. These cowards…these cowards.”

 

He was right. The house he slept in was gone. The church he walked to on Sundays, gone. The school he sat in everyday, gone. But just then, I removed my face from my hands and looked up at the white ceiling tiles in my office. I envisioned a family traveling by foot-a father and mother, three kids, and a grandmother. I pictured them struggling in the heat, yearning for water and food, praying for shelter. I saw the father carry essentials in a bag draped over his shoulder and back, the mother carrying her youngest child, the grandmother holding the hands of the two older boys, limping with every step.

 

“Dad, do you trust me? I need you to trust me.”

“Of course, son.”

“Do we believe me when I tell you we will go to Tel-Keppe, walk the streets, feel the dirt, visit the church?”

“Brony, I will be ok. Don’t worr…”

“No, Dad. I’m serious. I promise that we will go there, and we will laugh and smile. You’ll finally show me where you played soccer and where you farmed. I promise.”

“I believe you.”

“Dad, I’ll fight forever to make it happen.”

“That’s why you’re Tel-Keppenaya.”

 

The day my father cried was the day I realized I didn’t need to be born in his village-I already felt the same dirt he did. It was the day I realized the village that sat on a hill of stones, the only village he ever loved, was my only homeland.

 

 

Nathan Kalasho – ADFA Representative

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08Aug | Remembering Simele

 

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Yesterday was the 7th of August – Martyr’s Day or Simele as it is known to Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans. A day where we remember all of the Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans who were massacred, raped, pillaged and kidnapped because of their ethnicity. The Simele Massacre, which lends its name to this day, in particular highlights the way in which Assyrians were targeted simply because they were Assyrian. Although not the biggest massacre in terms of number of deaths, the tragedy caused a  long-term psychological and social impact on the survivors  In the aftermath, British Administrative Inspector for Mosul Lieutenant Colonel R. R. Stafford reported:

“When I visited Alqosh myself on August 21st I found the Assyrians, like the Assyrians elsewhere, utterly panic-stricken. Not only were they disturbed, but their spirit was completely broken. It was difficult to recognize in their cowed demeanour the proud mountaineers whom everyone had known so well and admired so much for the past dozen years.”

Yesterday, we were supposed to let the world know that Simele took place. We were going to tweet it, share it and make it trend. That was the plan. We wanted the same rights that are afforded to other communities who have faced a genocide. We wanted the world to know we still hurt and that our wounds are not all healed. But that didn’t happen. Because instead of being allowed to observe this day, we found ourselves scrambling for more information on almost 250 newly kidnapped Syriac Assyrians from the province of Homs in Syria. Instead of being able to pay tribute to our martyrs, we were fielding calls from people who had fled, now begging for food, water and medicine. Instead of making #Simele trend, we were trying to figure out how many children were among the abducted.

And where was the world media? The same media that raged when a dentist shot a lion or sent itself into a frenzy when Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner announced they were getting divorced. Whilst we found ourselves steeped in another ethnic-cleansing, the major publications were busy speculating on what dress Jennifer Aniston wore to her wedding. They were falling all over themselves trying to come up with clever alliterations for the Clinton-Kardashian selfie. They were mourning Australia’s loss in the cricket.

So today we have twice the work to do. We must not only educate the world about our history but we must teach them about current events. Somehow, we must be heard, in amongst the celebrity make-ups and break-ups.  We must let them know that just because a life is lived in a little village no one has ever heard of, in a country no one wants to visit at the moment, doesn’t make it less important or less valueable. To quote Jon Stewart, whose celebrity status means that the media has spent most of this week farewelling his departure from television,  “we grieve but we do not despair.” We grieve for our martyrs. We grieve for the 240 hostages taken from Khabour and for the 250 hostages from Homs who have now joined them as captives of ISIS. We grieve for those in Iraq and Syria who mourn the life they once knew. But we don’t despair. We don’t despair because even as I write this, Congresswoman Schawosky and Senator Kirk (both of Illinois) are releasing individual statements marking the anniversary of Simele. We don’t despair because even as we post updates, people are writing to us to find out how they can help. We don’t despair because to despair is to dishonour the memory of those who went before us and who gave their lives in the hopes that future generations won’t have to.

We don’t despair. Instead we honour. We remember. #Simele

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06Aug | When History Repeats

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For months now, we have not received any real updates in relation to the 220+ Assyrian hostages of Khabour. The sad reality is that they are hidden somewhere dark waiting to be saved. Who will save them? These innocent souls are caught in another tragic situation and have become collateral damage. We are watching history repeat again and again with no end in sight at this point.

With little proof of life and no assurances from the terrorist organisation Islamic State, sometimes you cannot help let your mind wander and fear the worst scenario. How are the captives surviving? What are the terrorists doing to the children and women? Have they been converted? Will they be used for suicide missions? These are some of the questions that we should be asking.

With the anniversary of the gruesome Simele massacre (1933) coming up on 7th of August, I am again reminded of the sad history our nation owns. Executions followed by mass exodus and much more. We have been made strangers in our lands, looted of our history and now face another ethno religious cleansing. Some say that this term might be used loosely, I disagree. It is exactly what is facing the vast majority of our people living in Iraq.

The anniversary of Simele should serve as a constant reminder of the tragedies that have unfolded and keep unfolding. The past becomes tomorrow over and over when “democratic” leaders from all over the globe are sitting by watching a repeated massacre of indigenous people happen without raising the alarm.  We should not however only rely on the West for help. We should rely on ourselves. We have scholars, lawyers, politicians and many others in high legislative positions that should be able to influence change for their own. Sadly, this has not been the case for many of them so far as political agendas become priorities rather than saving lives.

What can the ordinary citizens do? We must continue to campaign and ask for our demands, ask for protection and ways to arm and establish a safe haven in the Nineveh Plains to continue to preserve what is left of history and the people.  It is not an obligation or a task, it is our duty.

It is the only way in which we can ensure we are not holding another remembrance day in years to come for modern day genocide which could be prevented in working as one body instead of many. We must seek to preserve our status as indigenous people and continue to seek ways to be able to provide the necessary means of life to those whom have been displaced by this unjust war.

The significance of Simele is gloomy but also very important for us to learn from past mistakes of political manoeuvres and games.

Recently, the Australian Labor Party was unanimous in passing a resolution backing the notion of a Safe Haven. It is in these small victories that we ultimately will deliver justice and rightfully re-claim what we are entitled for. Just as the EU Parliament passed a resolution favouring the same.  What this conveys and illustrates is that persistence and continued work to lobby and advocate on behalf of others actually works.

The United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, in particular Article 4 states that “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.” So, the laws and means are there for us to utilize, but in the long run it is up to us to turn words on paper into a reality.

We will continue to remind those capable of affecting change of those hostages, of the displaced people in Iraq and thousands of refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey who have left their fate in the hands of others in the hope they may have a solution. We will never stop simply because we cannot. For if we stop, then who speaks for them? If we grow silent, what happens to their voices? If we give up, what happens to our future? You can decide their future.

Diana Yaqco

Media Relations – ADFA Australia

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24Jul | Losing Time

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Last month I was tasked with organising the photo gallery on www.ademandforaction.com It was not a complicated project. In theory, it should have taken a day to complete, two at the very most. But in reality it took over a week. I lost all track of time looking at all the photos of all those who had become refugees over the course of 11 months. What a funny thing time is. Empirical, always measured the same. There are always 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 365 days in a year. Yet for some it is fleeting while for others it stands still.

It was only days before we were due to mark the 1 year anniversary of ISIS invading Mosul and I found myself thinking that at the same time last year, the Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs and Yazidis of the Nineveh Province had no idea what was coming. Caught up in the mundane tasks of everyday life, they had no hint that, for them, life as they knew it was about to change forever.

It was overwhelming looking at all those photos. So many heartbreaking images and faces. The truth is I had forgotten about the faces. It dawned on me that when I think about the victims in Iraq and Syria, they are faceless groups of people huddled together in some temporary shelter. Their eyes, their gaze, their broken expressions, which now stared back at me in these pictures, I had filed away somewhere in the back of my mind. Like the image of the 2 toddlers sleeping on the concrete path outside St Joseph’s Church that would make any mother’s heart bleed. Or the photo of the women, arms outstretched, desperate for the aid that was being delivered to them.

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They are all hard to look at but what made time stand still for me was revisiting the first photo I ever saw after the invasion. It must have been taken shortly after they had arrived at St Joseph’s in Ankawa. Pew after pew of my people, each with a different stage of grief etched into their face. Each time I look at that picture, I see someone else’s pain – pain that is now over a year old. Like the man in the third pew, covering his eyes as he cries. Or the mother in the first pew, fighting her own exhaustion as her child sleeps on her shoulder. Two elderly ladies sit behind her, lost in thoughts of disbelief. As I looked on I noticed, for the first time, the lady to the right of my screen. Most of her face is out of picture frame and what’s left is covered by her hand but you can tell she is devastated. And as I write this, I notice, again for the first time, a lady behind the second column also on the right hand side of my screen. She is wearing a reddish pink singlet. Her face is blurred yet her distress is clear to see.

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Alot has happened in a year. Nineveh Province has been emptied of all its Christians. Over 3000 Yazidi girls have been sold on the slave market. The people of Khabour in Syria have lost their homes and some even their families. Over 240 Assyrians/Syriacs are still being held hostage with no word of their whereabouts or condition. Our future generations will never see ancient city of Nimrud or visit the palaces of our ancestors. Those are destroyed and forever gone, leaving behind a trail of heartache and, for some of us, regret at never having visited when we had the chance.

Regret. Such a powerful word because, in part, it’s admitting to yourself that you should have done things differently. I don’t ever want to look into my child’s eyes one day and regret not having done something to help our people. It’s one of the reasons I joined A Demand For Action. An organisation which I initially thought was just a socially savvy group of passionate Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs has proved to be much more than that. I’ve watched them contribute to resolution language being passed in EU parliament and in Washington D.C. I’ve seen them organise protests world-wide to bring awareness to our plight. I’ve read their quotes time and again across all media platforms. And at this very moment, I am so proud to say that they are supporting the building of an orphanage in Syria for the most innocent victims of war.

At the end of the day, what’s happening on the other side of the world should make us realise that it really doesn’t matter what we call ourselves – Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, … we are all the same. We are all human beings who hurt at the thought of what is happening, not just to our people but to all the people there. Every victim, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, has a mother who grieves for them or a partner who longs for them or a child who wants to be tucked in by them one last time.

Those of us in the diaspora are so lucky to be physically far removed from what is happening in the Middle East right now but it just means that our responsibility to do something is greater than ever before. If you can join an organisation, any organisation you believe can and is making a difference, then do it. If you can donate money to their cause, do it. But do something! Anything! Lobbying. Protesting. Volunteering. Fund-raising. Tweeting. We all need to be doing our bit. No effort is too small. Otherwise, before we know it, one year will become two and then five and ten and one day we will, regretfully, be telling our children how, once upon a time, our people lived in the land of our ancestors and when they were kicked out of their homes, we did nothing because we were too busy going about our day to day business whilst those in Iraq and Syria were left frozen in time.

What a funny thing time is. For some it seems to last forever while for others it is running out.

 

Linda Michael

A Demand For Action Representative

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18Jul | Without Her Daughter

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On the morning of June 6, 2014, I woke up to yet another normal day with my kids. My husband had already left for work and I needed to help the children get dressed, organise their breakfast and take them to school. When I returned from dropping my kids off at school, I sat down with my little one, played with her and then went through my daily routine. Checked some e-mails and read a couple of local articles.

I scrolled through social media – pictures of birthdays, marriages, food … and then without a warning, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. My heart sank. Some of my friends had posted something completely different. Mosul in Iraq had been invaded. Thousands of my people, fleeing in panic. Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs had once again been hit by evil, in a country already so torn. I couldn’t contain my anger. Drowning in my emotions,I began to weep.

Within what seemed like minutes, 500,000 of Mosul’s citizens were sent running for their lives from an extremist group.

I started to talk to myself. What am I going to do? Is there anything I can do? Who can I talk to? I continued searching on social media to find as much information as I could. I began sharing articles, sending messages to people I didn’t know, asking for more information, then sharing that information. I stopped and wondered, how could this have happened? When will it stop? What was happening to all the innocent people who were trapped in a war they weren’t involved in?
My heart shattered into a million pieces. My life was totally changed. I tried to not let it affect my family but it was impossible. I couldn’t sleep anymore and I cried often. I couldn’t think. I juggled between being a wife and a mom. I had to make it work. I couldn’t give up. But as days and weeks started to pass by, the situation became worse. Millions of men, women and children displaced, killed or missing.

All the pain and anguish that I felt in June was repeated when the brutal terrorist group ISIS attacked the Nineveh Plain. 150,000 Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs were displaced, fleeing for their lives, again. What made things worse was that some of the newly displaced had originally fled Mosul and before that from somewhere else and. … It never ends.
Being a mom I found myself identifying with other mothers. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to go through this tragedy having small kids. As images and stories circulated through social media, I came across a story of a little girl named Christina Khader Abada..

On August 6, 2014 the town of Qaraqosh was overtaken by Islamic State (IS), where Christina and her family lived. Khader Abada, her father is blind and Ayda Abada, her mother is ill. Christina has 4 other siblings. They escaped Qaraqosh, but their sister, mother and father were left behind.
On August 22, the family was taken by the terrorists for what was said to be a medical check-up, along with other Christians. They soon found out that the medical check-up was a lie and that they were being rounded up to be robbed of their belongings and deported from Qaraqosh. They had all stayed in Qaraqosh due to similar reasons as the Abada’s; because of old age, disabilities and other limitations.
The Abadas and the other Christians were commanded to board a bus, the windows of which were covered with dirt to prevent them from seeing out. Ayda held Christina, close to her as their captors were walking up and down the bus. Someone named “Fadel” boarded the bus, approached Ayda and took Christina out of her mother’s arms. Christina cried for her mom and her mom cried for her. He took her inside the building. The bus remained parked for a while as “Fadel” passed in and out of the building, without Christina.
Finally, a man appearing to be the ring leader, someone who was referred to as “the prince”, emerged with Christina in his arms. As Christina continued to cry for her mother, Ayda, ran to exit the bus in an effort to get her daughter back. She continued to cry and plead for her little girl but “the prince” wasn’t the least bit sympathetic. He did not speak to Ayda, but simply gave her a look of disdain. The IS militants put a gun to her head and asked her to get on the bus or she and the rest of her family would be killed. She had no choice. The man was holding Christina walked away with her little girl and that was the last time she saw her.

Christina was only 3 years old but always helped guide her blind father.
Today is Christina’s birthday. She turns 4. A child’s birthday is supposed to be a celebration of their “special day”. A birthday cake, some gifts to open, music playing, running around in the grass, surrounded by family and friends taking pictures. A memory to never forget.

In the one year anniversary of Christina’s kidnapping, I read somewhere that her mother Ayda Abada, asked:

“Please tell everyone to pray for Christina and for us, as we are living in the hope that someday Christina will come back.”

As a parent, I can only say hold your children tight, tell them you love them and think about them every day. Make sure they never forget how important they are and what they mean to you because you never know when a loved one’s life can be taken from you.

Romeina Oppedisano

A Demand For Action

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