Assyrians proud of history of struggle

56001851.jpgCommunity Leader: Assyrian priest Father Aprem Pithyou at the funeral of Eman Jani Hurmiz. He described her as a “very happy woman, a very clever woman”.
This week the mourners at Eman Jani Hurmiz’s funeral illustrated how, as in many immigrant communities, there is an emerging divide between the culture of one’s birthplace and their new homeland.

While the old men came in suit and tie, the next generation wore jeans and G-Star jackets. The older women came in floor-skimming skirts and comfortable shoes, headscarves tied under the chin; but as age decreased, flat shoes gave way to heeled boots and young women borrowed headcovers from the hooks by the church door.

Their reason for gathering on Thursday, at the Ancient Church of the East in Strathmore, was manifestly tragic.

Mrs Hurmiz, 41, had been fatally stabbed five days earlier at her home in the Wellington suburb.

Her husband, Assyrian immigrant Najeeb Dawood, was this week charged with her murder at a bedside court hearing at Wellington Hospital. He came to New Zealand less than a year ago, to join his wife, son and three daughters. A family member told The Dominion Post he was shot in the head while serving in the Iraqi army and the wound has affected him mentally.

Dawood, 51, will undergo a psychiatric report to assess his fitness to face trial.

Mrs Hurmiz’s funeral was led by Father Aprem Pithyou, who described her as a “very happy woman, a very clever woman”.

For the Assyrian community, much of their lives revolve around Strathmore’s Ancient Church of the East – a modest hall hung with chandeliers, a cross marked out in red lightbulbs across the back wall, framed in an arc of white lights. It’s a bastion of conservative traditions – women sit on the church’s right, men on the left. Women wear scarves to cover their hair. Only men go to the cemetery for burials.

There are daily five o’clock prayers, Sunday mass and saints day celebrations. The community converges for weddings and funerals. Weddings are so large – often 400-600 people – that the venue of choice is St Patrick’s College hall.

The church is Father Aprem’s domain. The 64-year-old only became a priest when he came to New Zealand in 1989. With only 10 Assyrian families in Wellington, he saw the dire need for a community focal point.

“Without a priest you cannot do anything. This is the spiritual place for our people, it called our people to come together.”

Father Aprem has his own story of struggle. He grew up in a simple village in Nineveh province in north Iraq. Because his farmer father was born in Turkey, he was deemed not Iraqi enough to qualify for university study. But when it came to military service, he was a full-blood Iraqi.

In between army stints, Father Aprem married Juliet from a neighbouring village, had four children, and worked in Baghdad translating correspondence for international companies. But he was constantly recalled to the reserve army, where he typed up orders, sometimes also delivering them to the front line.

“It was very hard. The Iranian army was shelling us all the time.”

Army service was 28 days on, seven days off, and the reward for good work was a trip to the markets to buy a Parker pen. After 8 1/2 years’ service, Father Aprem had had enough. He gathered 52 of his village, including his children aged 17 months to 6 years old, loaded food on to pack animals and walked for 14 days across militia-pocked mountains to Iranian refugee camps, steered to safety by a Kurdish guide.

Ad Feedback After three years in the camps and knockbacks from Canada, Sweden and the United States, the family was accepted into New Zealand. Though many bore the physical and mental scars of war, most have adapted well into New Zealand society, Father Aprem says.

Kamal Brikha remembers his fear as a 10-year-old while being evacuated from his home town of Al Faw, in Iraq’s far south, less than 1km from the border with Iran.

It was 1980 and the Iran-Iraq war had just taken hold. Sea and sky were ablaze as oil tanks ready for shipping were torched and Iranian bombers flattened towns. The bus evacuating Mr Brikha’s family had to stop every time the planes roared overhead, the passengers running for shelter from the raining fire.

Then, in 1986, Mr Brikha, 41, had to again flee Basra for Baghdad, as insurgents took hold of the city. His father was so ill he had to carry him on his back.

When the Gulf War started with the Americans in 1990, Mr Brikha was studying in Baghdad. Desperate to check on his family in Basra, he hitched a ride south with his cousin’s military convoy. The convoy in front was bombed out and the last bridge was so damaged they had to negotiate it on foot, in the dark, sidestepping motion-sensored explosives.

He made a new life in Baghdad, clubbing with friends at weekends and getting a good job with Saddam Hussein’s government. But the persecution of Christians grew. Eventually, in 2000, he fled to Wellington with his mother, four brothers and three sisters to join another sister who had come here to marry an Assyrian refugee.

After almost 10 years battling discrimination and trying to find a decent architecture job, Mr Brikha gave up and co-founded taxi company Kiwi Cabs.

It’s a common enough story among Wellington’s Assyrian community, which numbers around 2500. A Christian minority in a war-ravaged, predominantly Muslim country, most came to New Zealand with histories of war and persecution.

For Mr Brikha, his Iraqi experiences feel like another life.

“It’s just memories now. In a way it’s like watching a movie. It’s so far away now for me.”

Assyrians first came to New Zealand in the late 1980s, as refugees fleeing the Iran-Iraq war. Though they no longer lay claim to a nation, the community holds fast to a culture and language dating back to pre-Christian times. Assyria was an ancient kingdom ruling Mesopotamia, centred around the city of Nineveh. When the empire fell in 612BC, Assyrians fled to the mountain regions of northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southern Turkey and east Syria.

Despite being a nation consigned to history, Assyrians retain their own flag and a fierce pride in their identity. Wellington has an Assyrian language school, Assyrian men’s and women’s football teams and an Assyrian Association devoted to organising cultural events.

Assyrians traditionally married young, and often unions were match- made. And Assyrian culture is paternalistic – men take priority over women.

That can cause friction between couples here, who struggle to accept the freedom of women in New Zealand, says documentary maker Helen Donnelly. Language and employment have also been barriers for the community.

The Newtown librarian was curious about the Assyrian culture, with its lavish weddings, identity without a nation and tight sense of community. “They’re very warm and connecting. I don’t have that in my own family.”

She has completed one documentary about the culture and is now filming another about the people’s global struggles.

As in many immigrant communities, there are emerging divisions between those raised in Iraq, steeped in the old traditions, and the New Zealand-born next generation caught between the desire to maintain their heritage and the desire to fit in.

The Assyrian community is fiercely proud of their culture.

Father Aprem’s son Ogen Pithyou, 28, runs an Assyrian soccer team, which competes in ethnic tournaments such as Culture Kicks. Football is like a second religion to Assyrians, Ogen says. Many follow the English premier league and argue for hours on the merits of their respective teams, and tempers often flare on the pitch.

Living and moving in two worlds, it’s a way of hanging on to his heritage, he says, without a trace of an accent.

“The more we stand together the more people can recognise us and associate us as being Assyrians.”

But he also follows rugby and is a passionate cricketer – a mark of his Kiwi upbringing.

Ogen, who also calls himself Logan to avoid the inevitable drawn-out conversation about his origins, was 3 when the family left Iraq. He remembers nothing of his birth country, but recalls the three years in the camps as a happy time among family.

He also remembers his arrival in New Zealand and meeting for the first time foreigners who spoke no Assyrian.

“In those days there weren’t too many foreigners. To come from the Middle East, that was weird for everybody. It felt like I was almost an alien. It seems like that even today.”

While he disagrees with some of the more traditional aspects of Assyrian culture, he is drawn to its sense of community.

“Whatever the occasion, we stick together. You always feel like you belong; you never feel isolated. Some of my Kiwi friends are almost envious of that. They don’t have anyone outside their immediate family.”

Having grown up here, Ogen has never struggled to find work. He studied philosophy and theatre at Victoria University and acts and write scripts in between taxi-driving three days a week for Kiwi Cabs.

He was a blast technician working on James Cameron’s Avatar and appeared in 2008 short film Escamotage.

The Emergence of Assyrian businesses, such as Kiwi Cabs, has made life easier for the community, whose members often struggled to find jobs on arrival.

Despite speaking good English and having a New Zealand-recognised architecture qualification, Mr Brikha never found work as an architect.

He dismantled cars, worked as a construction expert for Chevron Texaco and, lastly, as a draughtsman with Harrison Grierson engineering. The discrimination was wearying.

After one interview, the interviewer told his agent, ‘I’m sure he could do the job, but send me someone else’.

“That was just one incident, but that hurt so much.”

In the end, he abandoned his quest and, with four friends, set up Kiwi Cabs, which now employs 90 drivers, of whom about half are Assyrian.

“This company is a chance to do something different. It’s a project. That’s giving me relief – that’s the only challenge I get.”

When Nazi and Yousef Yousif came to New Zealand in 1993 they spoke virtually no English. Mrs Yousif remembers calling an ambulance when her preschool son had an asthma attack in the middle of the night.

A taxi took them to hospital and, because Mrs Yousif struggled with English, the nurse had to ask questions of her husband over the phone.

The family came from a small village in north Iraq, with no water, electricity or doctors. When the big cities came under fire in the Gulf War, relatives drifted north in search of refuge. The Yousifs had 33 people in their small house. Their neighbours’ home housed 60.

The family escaped to Syria and spent 2 1/2 years in refugee camps with around 2000 others. They were sponsored to come to New Zealand, where Mrs Yousif’s sister-in-law had already settled with Father Aprem’s group.

It was two years before Mrs Yousif found cleaning work, but the couple eventually started their own cleaning company, Babylon Cleaning, which thrived for nine years before they sold it three years ago.

While Assyrian immigration has largely stalled because of tightened immigration requirements, Mrs Yousif was able to bring in her sister, her husband and their 12-year-old Down syndrome son in 2004, after the fall of Saddam’s regime, because they could promise her work.

Now they have a comfortable home in north Wellington. The couple and their children still speak Assyrian, but the boys speak English to each other. One son is married and lives next door. It’s a love marriage, to an Assyrian girl, and they speak English together.

Father Aprem worries about the dilution of the Assyrian culture and language. Though he would like Assyrians to marry within the community, he doesn’t oppose intermarriage – one son is seeing a Portuguese woman and another lives with a Brazilian. But he hopes the culture will endure.

Asked what being Assyrian means to him, Ogen Pithyou sums it up in one word: “struggle”.

“We’re a minority Christian group in the middle of a war zone.

“I’m very proud to be Assyrian.

“I want to get the message across that we are a nation and we still exist.”