When I was a little girl, I wanted to name my future child Isis, but as the terrorist group ISIS continues to wipe out the population and rich cultural history of the indigenous Assyrian communities of Northern Iraq, I can’t find a way to make that tasteful anymore.
When I tell people that I am Assyrian, I get the same two questions: first, “Oh, Syrian?” No, not Syrian. Assyrian. Then, “Where is that?” Well, nowhere in particular, for the moment: Assyria fell in 600 B.C.E., but the very same ancient Aramaic-speaking Assyrians continue to survive as a tribal Christian minority in the Middle East and in close-knit immigrant communities around the world.
There are only an estimated 1.5 million-2 million Assyrians living around the world today; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States claims 110,000 self-identified Assyrians, concentrated mostly in Northern Illinois, California and Central Arizona.
Both of my parents came to America in opportune times: My father came just in time for the Kennedy administration and the Beatles, and my mother bought herself a convertible in Chicago after graduating from the University of Baghdad’s medical school, which had recently opened its doors to women. The progressive Iraq they had left is no longer recognizable to us now.
I was five-years-old on September 11, 2001. Like any other American child, I witnessed the Iraq War only through teachers and the news, as my parents adopted America as their homeland as well as mine. They did, however, raise me to be proud of my Assyrian identity. I remember once sitting in my mother’s lap and asking if the Assyrians in Iraq were safe, and she told me, “It may be bad in Baghdad, but no one will touch Mosul,” which is the historic heart of the Assyrian motherland and once claimed 1 million Assyrians.
On June 20, 2014, ISIS informed the residents of Mosul that any of the city’s 30,000 Christians who remained in the city by noon the next day would be forced to convert to Islam, pay an intolerable tax or die. By the evening of June 21, there were no Assyrian Christians left in Mosul.
Assyrians are no strangers to persecution. From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire carried out a systematic killing of the Assyrians and Armenians living in and around its territory, slaughtering an estimated 500,000-750,000 Christians. The jurist who witnessed the Assyrian massacre of 1933 in the newly established state of Iraq went on to coin the word “genocide.”
Since beginning a gradual exodus from the Middle East in the 1980s, Assyrian immigrants have struggled to pass on their Assyrian identity, culture and spirit to their American-born children. Naming practices have shifted from Biblical names to those that recall the glory of ancient Assyria, such as Ashur, alluding to the ruler Ashurbanipal, who established the most extensive library of the ancient world, and Ashtar, the Assyrian goddess of fertility and the source of the word “Easter.”
The Assyrian-American community observes Assyrian Martyr’s Day every year in August to remember those martyred for their identity, but like September 11, it is a date that recalls events I had no witness or recollection of — a predicament generally affecting millennial-generation Assyrians born in America.
My own grandmother fled from what is now modern-day Turkey to Iraq on foot at only 13 years old; her immense will to live produced determination to provide her daughters with the education that she never had.
The Assyrian community outside of Iraq is in a unique predicament: without our own land, we must rely on the diplomatic power of other governments to fight on our behalf, but unfortunately, the suggestion of putting boots on the ground is a political landmine for any major world power. The Assyrian-American community begins to show signs of frustration and discouragement as its appeals to the UN and U.S. government continue to fail in securing international attention; as our Facebook homepages fill with videos of mass beheadings and crucifixions as well as those of DIY Assyrian militias in the homeland, it can seem unfathomable that the world can stand by and watch.
The threat of ISIS is even more desperate than current diplomatic stalemate would suggest. The oppression and relocation that once enriched Assyrian culture may soon bring about its end. Though most of the world may think that the Assyrians are lost to history, I proclaim that we still exist; not only so, but even when plagued by identity crisis and lost hope, we continue to honor where we came from that we may know where we are destined to be.