Syriac Sabro newspaper in Turkey declares: We also exist

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Tuma Çelik stands outside the new headquarters of Sabro, a monthly Syriac newspaper, in Midyat. (Photo: Sunday’s Zaman)
A yellow public bus rolls into the station in the district of Midyat.
On it the text “Mardin Metropolitan Municipality” is printed in Turkish, Kurdish, Syriac and Arabic. The four languages on one bus are proof of the rich diversity in the plains of the Mesopotamian legacy.

It was a crisp December day in the Southeast when Tuma Çelik arrived at the bus station to greet Sunday’s Zaman. He had just returned from the nearby village of Yemi?li (Anhel in Syriac).

Çelik is the editor-in-chief of the monthly Syriac newspaper titled Sabro, or hope. Founded in 2012, the paper’s first issue headline stated: “We also exist.” Sunday’s Zaman visited the paper’s new headquarters inside an old stone building, classic to the region.

“We were complaining over not having our voices heard in Turkey. We couldn’t get anyone’s attention, in part because we have a small population but also in part because we were not raising our voices enough,” Çelik told Sunday’s Zaman.

“Our intent was not just to create a newspaper where Syriacs can write. We wanted to also talk to the people we are living amongst in this area. It is a way for us to introduce ourselves to them and for them to introduce themselves to us.”

The paper comes out in tabloid format: 16 pages in Turkish and the last three in Syriac. Sabro also comes out with a women’s magazine, Neshe (Women), every three months.

Çelik is not just the paper’s editor-in-chief though; he is a reporter, columnist and even the page designer. Sabro is his baby, and while he knows that it has its imperfections, its existence alone gives him hope, hence the name.
‘Syriacs are fragile, closed society’

Çelik says the reason he needs hope is that the Syriac population in Turkey is so small, and has suffered from nationalist policies for the entirety of the republic’s history since 1923 and even before, dating back to 1915.

“Our numbers are low because of the one nation, one people and one identity policies. Over the years, our population has decreased because Syriacs have not been able to assimilate into the Turkish Republic — Syriacs have a different religion, different identity and live in a different geographic location. Because they have not been able to assimilate, different political administrations have enabled them to emigrate,” he explains, adding, “Syriacs are a very fragile and closed society.”

In the past, they migrated to neighboring countries such as Syria and Lebanon in the face of oppression but in recent years have looked westward to European countries. They also have pocket communities in California, New Jersey and Detroit in the US, says Çelik, who finds this sad. “We see ourselves as the children of Mesopotamia.”

“Right now, the largest population of Syriacs is in Syria and Lebanon. In 2003, there was a heavy exodus of Syriacs from Iraq, and their population has fallen to around 400,000 — they used to be nearly 2 million there,” Çelik noted.

According to nonprofit organization the Joshua Project, Turkey has a population of 26,000 Syriacs.
Trouble in the region

While the Syriac community is not directly involved with ongoing clashes between security forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), they suffer.

The late 1980s up to the mid ’90s were a dark period in history during the height of combat in the Southeast. The dissolution of the peace process in the aftermath of the June election has led to the chilling déjà vu of unresolved murders in the region. This was underlined with the recent killing of Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elçi. These mysterious deaths were prevalent in the region in the past, and even affected the once apolitical Syriac community.

In Çelik’s village alone, 50 people were killed in such a fashion.

“Could you imagine: In my village there were two disabled siblings, a brother and his sister, who lived across the street from my home. They were both deaf and had speech disorders. They just lived in their own world and were only able to live through the aid they received from the village. They were killed. One night, their home was raided and they were shot. There is no political logic behind this. In fact, there is no logic whatsoever,” he explained.

He listed other similar cases: The local grocer and village muhtar (headman), people who lived simple lives, in the villages were targeted and killed, and their deaths will never see the light of justice. “Syriacs did not have any political demands during that period. They had no organizations or political goals.”

And while the Mardin province is a hotbed for clashes in Midyat’s neighboring districts, Sabro will continue to be a voice for the local population of Syriacs who stay, to say: “We exist.”