February 16, 2010

Nightmare in Nineveh

Iraqi Assyrians have faced rampant persecution since 2003

Among other ancient Near Eastern treasures, the Oriental Institute (OI) houses a towering lamassu, or Assyrian winged bull. With human faces, eagle wings, and bull hooves, lamassu are the symbolic protectors of the Assyrian people. In 2010 (or 6759 for the Assyrians), the Assyrian people need more protecting than ever. While the OI has worked with international authorities to successfully protect and recover Assyrian artifacts during the current turmoil in Iraq, the modern-day descendents of this ancient civilization are facing extinction. Although it is not the OI’s role to intervene on behalf of people, the current situation demands a campus-wide response

The Assyrian language (Syriac/Aramaic) and culture are dangerously close to annihilation, along with those who speak and practice them. This is not an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of the general destabilization of Iraq since Saddam’s fall; Assyrians, whose ancestors accepted Christianity in the first century AD, specifically have been targeted. In Dora and Northern Iraq, Assyrians of all ages and genders have been kidnapped, beheaded, and, most tellingly, crucified. Despite the involvement of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds (and even one powerless Assyrian) in the Iraqi parliament, it is clear that many Iraqis, as well as foreign fighters, are unwilling to accept ethnic and religious pluralism and equal enfranchisement as the future of Iraq.

The extent of anti-Assyrian persecution is conveyed by the disproportionate representation of Assyrians among the Iraqi refugee population. While Assyrians constituted roughly 3 to 5 percent of the prewar Iraqi population, they now make up over 30 percent of refugees in surrounding nations. In Syria, Assyrians account for nearly 40 percent of Iraqi refugees. Throughout Iraq, more than half of the Assyrian population have fled since 2003. Many refugees in Jordan, Syria, and Turkey are barred from seeking employment. Unless they succeed in the political battle to secure an autonomous region in the Nineveh Plain, emigration out of the Middle East—their ancestral homeland—is their only remaining option. Many are attempting to immigrate to the United States, but legislation denies them asylum. For example, the Patriot Act bans anyone who has given any money to terrorists, no matter the circumstances, from entering the United States. The United Nations estimates that more than half of Assyrian refugees have had close relatives kidnapped and ransomed by terrorists. To avoid losing parents, children, and siblings, Assyrian individuals have paid upwards of $100,000 each in ransom. And now, thousands of them cannot escape destitute poverty in refugee camps and ethnic cleansing within Iraq, at least by entering the United States. On top of the so-called “having aided and abetted terrorists” barrier, the U.S. government has restricted emigration from Iraq to fewer than twenty thousand individuals per year. This means that of the nearly one million refugees in surrounding nations, the hundreds of thousands who remain eligible are vying for far too few spots. Without outside intervention, survival looks bleak for the Assyrian people.

That’s where Chicago comes in. Through waves of ethnic cleansing and mass migration in the twentieth century, a large Assyrian population in diaspora has developed. One of this community’s population epicenters is Chicago. Accordingly, Chicago is home to numerous political advocacy organizations including the Assyrian Universal Alliance, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the Assyrian American National Federation, the Assyrian American National Council, and the Assyrian Aid Society. Yet, due to some past failures to make a meaningful connection with the OI, as well as Assyrian organizations’ inability to reach outside of the community for support, none of these groups has attempted to engage the U of C in stopping genocide.

Some humanitarian crises lack reliable, uncorrupt organizations to alleviate them. But the Assyrians are much more than helpless victims. Although traveling in northern Iraq is often dangerous, they have established a few lines of communication and aid into Assyrian villages and quarters. Their ability to help in refugee camps in surrounding nations is more robust. But that’s still not saying much.

This May, dozens of U of C students will participate in Relay for Life. Recently, the response to the earthquakes in Haiti has been impressive. It’s time to stand up and confront an unequivocally unnatural crisis. The topic of Assyrian genocide is no doubt politically, ethnically, religiously, and historically charged; however, this is no excuse for inaction. Why not help this little-known crisis gain the recognition and response its victims so direly need?

Halfway around the world, University of Chicago students and faculty are well situated to protect these hundreds of thousands of individuals, their cultural heritage, and, ultimately, Iraq’s future as a diverse society. If you’re an undergraduate, petition the State Department and contribute to local Assyrian organizations’ relief efforts. If you’re a law student, examine and confront the state of U.S. immigration statutes, Iraq’s legislation, or the application of the international human rights regime. If you’re a public policy or political science student, consider the implications of growing radicalism and homogeneity in Iraq. A brief examination of Middle Eastern history shows that losing ethnic and religious minorities, the upper and middle classes, and other forces of moderation can be disastrous. To reverse the tide, we must actively support the establishment of an autonomous zone for the Assyrian people of Iraq.

As Assyrians face pervasive ethnic cleansing for the third time in a century, their ancestors’ majestic lamassu stands silent in the OI. Will we?

— Liat Spiro is a second-year in the College majoring in International Studies.