Will Washington Act?
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.
Executive Director – ADFA