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Long Persecuted, Assyrians Find Safe Haven in the Central Valley

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Mervat Shlemoun (L) and Carmen Morad hold up Assyrian flags.  (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Inside the Assyrian American Civic Club of Turlock there’s a large banquet hall, a catering company and a radio station that broadcasts Assyrian music.

“The music that you’re hearing, this is the original language. We speak the modern Aramaic dialect,” says the club’s president, Sam David.

Assyrians are some of the earliest Christians. They're indigenous to Mesopotamia, which is defined as the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, including much of modern-day Iraq. Assyrians also scattered to parts of modern-day Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran.

Long Persecuted, Assyrians Find Safe Haven in the Central Valley

Long Persecuted, Assyrians Find Safe Haven in the Central Valley

Assyrians are a stateless nation, and the diaspora is huge. In California, Turlock has the largest number of Assyrians, about 20,000. That’s a quarter of the town. And the civic club has become a gathering place for everyone, not just Assyrians.


"It’s the city’s community center,” says David. “The majority of events are here. We have a lot of quinceaneras, weddings ..."

And funeral receptions. Like the one in early February for 92-year-old Hank Adams, the first Assyrian born in Turlock. His father, the Rev. Isaac Adams, founded an Assyrian farming community here in 1911.

Not long after, in Turkey, the Ottoman Empire waged genocide against Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians.

“Well, the Assyrians are never talked about,” says David. “There were 750,000 Assyrians massacred. And this genocide has been going on and on for the last 100 years. And we just had another genocide in 2014, where the Christians were being massacred because they were Christians."

David says Assyrians have been persecuted over and over again. It’s why some Assyrians are not opposed to President Trump’s travel ban that targets seven majority-Muslim countries.

"It’s important for this country to protect its security interests, and for us as Assyrian-Americans it’s equally important, if not more important," says David.

But he acknowledges it's complicated. The ban would also keep Assyrians out of the United States, at least temporarily. "Of course we're not happy they're stuck there,” he says. “But it’s just another waiting process.”

Community leader Carmen Morad says Assyrians continue to be persecuted in Iraq and Syria by ISIS.

“As you and I speak, there are Assyrian Christians that are in refugee camps. They are awaiting their resettlement paperwork to come,” she says. “Their homes have been destroyed. They are seeking an environment where they can go to school without fear of being blown up, where they can worship freely."

She says the vetting process is rigorous and expensive. “Being a stateless nation, for them to be able to come over here, my opinion is they should be allowed to enter even though they still go through the vetting process."

Morad and I visit a family who has experienced the vetting process: Mervat Shlemoun and her 17-year-old son, Matius Anioel. They escaped Baghdad 10 years ago and ended up in Syria. It took them five years to come to California as refugees. Shlemoun feels fortunate she got a job at a fast-food place.

"The Taco Bell,” she says. “Thanks for God.”

Matius Anioel says he may return to Iraq one day to help his people. He wants to be a doctor.
Matius Anioel says he may return to Iraq one day to help his people. He wants to be a doctor. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

She worked so hard when she first moved here that she rarely saw her son. She missed spending time with him. But he was safe. She was no longer thinking, ‘How is he? Where is he? What’s happening?’

“Because when I’m living in the Iraq,” Shlemoun says, “I send him to school, sometimes we listen to the bomb, and I’m running to him at school, I wanna see if he safe or no.”

Matius is doing well. He’s volunteering at a medical center and plans to be a family practice doctor.

And now, she says, she can freely practice her religion. Orthodox Christian icons hang on her living room wall above an altar with candles and crosses. She shows Morad an Assyrian star around her neck and then goes to the bookshelf to pick up a new license plate.

“In my country I cannot drive. Here I drive, I’m working, going to the church,” she says. Shlemoun is almost giddy with excitement. She’s speaking in Aramaic now, and Morad interprets for her.

“She says in Iraq she would never wear her necklace or display her flag,” says Morad. “She says here she feels her freedom where she can display the Assyrian flag on her license plate on her car.”

In the center of the flag, there’s a four-pointed star symbolizing the four corners of the world, what the diaspora calls home.

Immigration lawyer Patrick Kolasinski is interviewed on Assyria Today via Skype. Carmen Morad serves as the interpreter.
Immigration lawyer Patrick Kolasinski is interviewed on Assyria Today'via Skype. Carmen Morad serves as the interpreter.

Shlemoun and her son still have friends in Iraq and Syria. “They always say, ‘It is not good, no water, no electricity, it’s not safe,’” says Matius.

Matius says he understands Trump’s role is to protect America, but he worries about Assyrians and others who are targeted by ISIS.

“He’s trying to target like the extremists, but he’s not only targeting extremists but he’s targeting Christian communities and other people who are being persecuted and trying to get out just to survive,” he says.

These kinds of concerns are exactly why the hosts of Assyria Today are doing an interview with Patrick Kolasinski, an immigration lawyer in Modesto. Kolasinski is answering questions via Skype about the travel ban. Assyria Today is a global satellite TV network based in Los Angeles.

One question centers on Trump’s statement that he will prioritize Christian refugees coming to the United States. Kolasinski says it’s unlikely a provision like that could survive.

“Prioritizing based on religion is by and large considered to be against the Constitution.”

Meanwhile, Assyrians are doing what they can to help refugees by mobilizing in their churches and sending money and provisions. Mervat Shlemoun says it’s that kind of worldwide community involvement that helped her survive her long journey.

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