Iraqi Assyrians cling to roots even far from home

MODESTO, California: Isaac Samow’s ancestors have occupied Mesopotamia for millennia, surviving innumerable conquests and massacres. The headstones in the cemetery of his hometown near Mosul, Iraq, document centuries of his family’s history there, and the ancient ruins that dot the arid plain near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers tell of his people’s role in building humanity’s first cities.

Yet another war is now threatening the survival of Assyrian culture and language — a derivation of the tongue spoken by Jesus — in its native land.

Among the first converts to Christianity, thousands of Assyrians have fled since the U.S. invasion. Samow’s relatives are scattered through Canada, Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, Greece, Holland, England, Sweden and Germany.

Others are refugees in Syria, Jordan, and inside Iraq, not knowing whether they can return to cities and towns carved into Sunni or Shiite enclaves. In such a climate, such minorities as Assyrian Christians face an uncertain future

“My children speak my language, but what about my grandchildren?” Samow said from his home in Modesto. “If there are no Assyrians left in Mesopotamia, how will our culture live?”

Successive waves of Assyrians have landed here in California’s Central Valley, beginning with those who fled a massacre by Turks near the end of World War I.

They were joined by families who escaped Iran when an Islamic revolution overthrew the monarchy in 1979, then by new arrivals escaping the first Gulf War, when Samow came here with his family. A similar Assyrian community also thrives in Chicago.

But with their numbers now dangerously low in the region where Iran, Iraq and Turkey meet, Assyrians here fear the current wave of migration could mark their end. Community leaders in the United States are working to support Assyrians back home.

At the Assyrian American Civic Club of Turlock, an old map on the wall shows population centers that no longer exist.

“Once, most villages in that area were Assyrian,” said the club’s president, Fred Betmaleck, who is Iranian-Assyrian. “Now there are very few left.”

The club works to keep Assyrian culture alive by holding festivals and hosting a radio station that plays Assyrian music and carries community news. Members also raise money through dances and raffles to help Assyrians who remain in Iraq.

“We try to help them stay there as much as possible, because when you leave, you never go back,” said Betmaleck. “We encourage them not to come, but when there’s persecution, what can you do?”

For Isaac Samow, staying was just too risky.

He and his wife took their seven children — the youngest a 1-year-old who Samow strapped to his back — on a dangerous hike across the rugged snow-covered mountains between Iraq and Turkey.

He spent his savings from his job as a construction contractor to smuggle his family to the dirt-floor tents of a Turkish refugee camp, then to Istanbul. They spent a year and a half in Greece before they applied for asylum with help from the Red Cross and were accepted into the United States in December 1992.

Now, 15 years and another Iraq invasion later, the family is safe, but they worry about relatives back home and about the survival of their culture.

“We feel this could be the end of a people who have survived since Babylonian times,” said Zack Samow, 34, Isaac’s oldest son. “This could be the wave that pushes Assyrians out of their homeland for good.”

Relatives and friends in Iraq have found menacing notes on their doors and heard of churches being bombed. The priest in Samow’s hometown of Telkaif disconnected his phone to stop the barrage of threats, the family said.

As cities and towns are reshaped at gunpoint into homogenized Sunni, Shia or Kurdish territory, groups without their own militias or political power are left vulnerable to attacks, said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Assyrian Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities have been particularly hard-hit by the sectarian violence, she said. Among those leaving are Jews; Sabean-Mandeans, who follow John the Baptist; Yazidis, ethnic Kurds whose religion precedes Christianity and Islam; Baha’i and Iraqi Turkmen, Shea said.

They might dress differently from their Muslim neighbors, speak other languages and pursue businesses that make them stand out — selling liquor, for example.

And the fact that many speak English and work as translators means they are also often seen as siding with the United States, said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch.