Before I met Executive Director Steve Oshana, I knew him as A Demand for Action’s presence on the Hill. Whenever I asked him what was on his agenda for the day, he would simply answer, “Taking meetings, convincing people to care.” When the opportunity arose to discuss humanitarian and medical aid with lawmakers, I didn’t hesitate at the chance to see what that actually entailed.
Last week, Steve invited me to Washington, D.C. for an exciting series of meetings on Capitol Hill. I was able to experience first-hand how good intentions for Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs are translated into tangible policy changes.
The first day, one of our meetings was at the State Department. I handed over my Canadian passport and walked through a set of metal detectors (my slingback heels set the alarm off) and into a bright atrium where we waited for our escort. Steve joked, “The only reason we need an escort is because you’re foreign.” After a few minutes, we were warmly greeted by Leanne Cannon from the Office of International Religious Freedom. As we sat around the meeting room table, I saw Steve in his element: he effortlessly glided from one resolution to the next, holding the interest and attention of everyone in the room and ensuring his whole agenda was addressed. Then suddenly, Steve transitioned the discussion to humanitarian and medical aid so skillfully that I barely realized until all eyes were on me.
I stared down at my neatly prepared research with the meticulously collected numbers and figures. I explained how there were 2.9 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq, with a large proportion of them now residing in the predominantly Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac governorates of Erbil and Duhok. I discussed the public health concern of communicable diseases in IDP camps, especially the water-borne illnesses to be expected in the coming summer months. I described the difficulties facing chronic disease sufferers including shortages of medicines and inadequate medical care, resulting in preventable medical complications and sequelae. I explained what it’s like for IDP women and girls, especially those who are pregnant and are at hugely increased risks for peripartum complications. Finally, I illustrated the huge mental health burden facing current and future generations of IDPs in light of the atrocities they have endured. The State Department representatives listened, took notes, asked questions and engaged us in a meaningful discussion.
As we left the State Department, Steve asked, “So, how did that compare to your expectations?” I didn’t really know how to answer. My days at the hospital are, for the most part, easily conceivable. I interview and examine patients, run tests, review results, come to a diagnosis and propose treatment and arrange follow-up. Steve’s job is not so straightforward: how do you make people care? Furthermore, how do you make them care enough to want to take action on your behalf?
The next day, I was to meet Steve at the Rayburn House office building. “A taxi driver should know where it is” read his text. From the stone steps in front of the building, I snapped a photo of the Capitol Dome – scaffolding and all – and sent it to my Mom. Inside, I followed Steve down a long hallway past a series of doors with American flags propped outside and into Congressman Brad Sherman’s office. The Congressman swiftly walked in and greeted Steve, who then introduced me as a new member of ADFA. Without any formalities, Steve began to list off his requests, to which the Congressman agreed without hesitation. It was clear that this honesty and openness were byproducts of a long relationship built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect.
As we left the Hill that day, Steve apologized, “I’m sorry but I’m going to have to leave you a bit early today. I have a few hours of work to do.” I asked if there was anything I could do to help to which he answered, “It’s just follow-ups to meetings, sending some e-mails – it would probably take longer to explain.” I went back to my room and contemplated what I had learned so far.
Lobbying is a professional endeavour which is not simply learned in one week on Capitol Hill. It requires high level knowledge of legislative procedure, understanding of the geopolitical climate and, most importantly, strong and trusted relationships with lawmakers. Just as physicians must know their limitations and defer to specialists, we also need to rely on experienced lobbyists to work in our best interests.
No other Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac organization can boast a remotely comparable degree of quantitative success that A Demand for Action can. Some of ADFA’s achievements over the 10 short months since its formation include:
– Authored an amendment to the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorziation Act (NDAA) to authorize funding to Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac and other local security forces in the Nineveh Plain, which was then signed into law by President Obama.
– Passed S.Res 530, a resolution condemning violence against Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac Christians and other minorities.
– Successfully convinced President Obama to address the Assyrian and other minority communities desire to remain in their homelands in his 9/10/2014 address on ISIL
– Secured the ethnic/indigenous designation of the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac name in official testimony and releases from the White House and State Department, as well as language for the creation of a Nineveh Plains province in the FY15 Omnibus.
Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs have long faced persecution in the Middle East with little or no legislative response. ADFA’s efforts scratch the surface of what our diaspora community, including first generation Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs, can achieve for our nation. Our advocacy would not be possible without the generosity and support of the many like-minded individuals who fervently believe in a future for our people.
If you believe in this future like we do, then consider making a contribution to the cause and making it possible for ADFA to continue being a presence in Washington, DC.
Dr. Klaudia Jumaa, ADFA Canada representative