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.
A Demand For Action