Despite many social problems, these people without a homeland maintain strong ties to a way of life: Reem Haddad reports
There’s a sense of rebirth in a small community in Sid al-Bauchrieh. Many homes are displaying red and blue flags, parents refuse to speak to their children in Arabic and classes are being conducted in an ancient language.
“We’re Assyrians,” explained a shopkeeper. “Once we were powerful. Now we’re forgotten.”
Today’s Assyrian community in Lebanon is a sad comparison to the once powerful dynasty thousands of years ago.
Riddled with social problems, illiteracy and unemployment, many of its people seem to be dreaming of a return to a non-existent nation “between the two rivers (Iraq),” said Farid Odisho, 23. “There’s even gold there which belonged to the Assyrian nation once and is being guarded by the Iraqis.”
Odisho is a Syrian national who moved to Lebanon four years ago. But to him and to many Assyrians, nationalities mean little.
“I am neither Syrian nor Lebanese,” he said. “I am an Assyrian.”
Of the approximately 3 million Assyrians worldwide, an estimated 14,000 live in Lebanon. About 4,000 of the Assyrians in Lebanon come from Syria or Iraq and continue to join the Assyrian community mainly located in Sid al-Bauchrieh and Zahle.
While most have received Lebanese citizenship, they continue to yearn for a nation they can call their own.
Betrayed by the Allies who promised them a homeland in northern Iraq in exchange for their support, and persecuted by the Ottomans, Kurds and Iraqis, many Assyrians made their way to Lebanon.
The journey to Lebanon was paved in the 1920s when Assyrians from Russia fled the communist regime. They are remembered in the community as bringing with them nuggets of gold most of which were quickly squandered.
Among the Russian immigrants was the Wazira family.
“We were accompanied by another 30 or 40 families,” recalled 80-year-old Jean Wazira, who was eight years old at the time.
The group made their way into Iran and moved through Iraq and Syria before finally reaching Lebanon in 1930. The country was seen as a safe haven due to its Christian government.
Seven years later, the Waziras moved to the United States. “Then my father heard that a new movement was created to form an Assyrian nation in northern Iraq,” said Wazira. “So we rushed back to the Middle East, and my father built a hotel there in anticipation of this nation. But nothing happened.”
Broke, the Wazira family moved back to Lebanon. To obtain Lebanese citizenship, they later changed their last name to the Armenian name of Simonian.
“My father never forgot Russia,” said Wazira, who still speaks fluent Russian. “He often talked about it.”
Two years ago after more than 70 years of exile, Wazira traveled to Russia to search for his family.
“I saw my cousins again after all these years,” he said. Fluent in seven languages, Wazira shook his head in anger when talking about the high illiteracy rate in the Assyrian community. “Don’t they know what their ancestors have given to the world?” he said.
The community does seem to be aware of its people’s contribution to the world, but only from stories handed down through generations. Unfortunately, in their escape from persecution and efforts to settle in a new country, many families failed to educate their children.
According to the Assyrian church, 90 percent of the older Assyrians are illiterate. It is only recently that efforts to educate younger Assyrians are being made.
At 76, Alice Isho can neither read nor write.
“My parents were highly educated,” she said. “My grandfather was a doctor.”
Her grandfather, however, was among the first to be massacred in 1933 when the Iraqi Army attacked the village of Simeil, killing an estimated 3,000 residents.
More than 65 years later, the image of her grandmother holding her up in the air as soldiers tried to yank her away is still vivid. At eight, she was strong enough to resist them.
In frustration, one soldier grabbed the earring in her left ear, pulled hard and tore her ear lobe in two. The scar on Isho’s ear is an ever-present reminder.
Isho and her two sisters fled the house with their grandmother.
“I remember running between mountains,” said Isho. “We later found out that they killed all the men.”
Isho also remembers boarding trucks driven by French soldiers and being taken to Syria. They later made their way to Lebanon.
“The last thing on anyone’s mind was to educate us children,” she said. “We were too busy finding ways to survive.”
The cycle seems to be repeating itself as more recent Assyrian refugees arrive in the country. In 1993, Ibrahim Bello and his family fled from Iraq and settled in Sid al-Bauchrieh.
Eight years later, Bello’s one regret is that he couldn’t educate his five children. As foreigners, the children could not attend Lebanese public schools and Bello once an engineer in an Iraqi petroleum company couldn’t afford to send them to private schools. Instead, the whole family found jobs to earn an income.
Bello’s troubles began when he refused to volunteer for the Iraqi Army during the 1991 Gulf War. As a consequence, he said he and the other Assyrians in the petroleum company were continuously harassed and interrogated by the Iraqi authorities.
Finally, in 1993, Bello was forced to quit his job and retreat to his northern Iraqi village of Kosh.
“But there was no work in a small village, and I would be harassed again in Baghdad so we had to leave,” he said. That same year, Bello and his family walked to the northern Iraqi border and waited until nightfall. They than slipped through the border into Turkey. A few days later, they crept into Syria and from there made their way into Lebanon.
“I knew there was an Assyrian community here and that we would be safe,” he said. “All an Assyrian had to do is ask about the whereabouts of the church.”
In this community, it is the church elders who are seen as the leaders. Disputes and complaints are usually settled by the priests.
The upkeep of traditions such as New Year celebrations on April 1 once one of the most important religious and national celebrations held in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) is fervently observed. But most of all, the community is fiercely attached to its language.
“It is the role of the church to keep the language alive,” said Father Khamis Safar.
“Nothing we do is in Arabic. Our masses, baptisms, weddings, funerals and sermons are in Assyrian. We even give classes in the Assyrian language in our school.” Assyrian, also known as Syriac, Chaldean or Neo-Aramaic, was widely spoken in the Middle East until 700 AD when it was supplanted by Arabic. Until this day, many Lebanese villages carry Assyrian or Aramaic names “such as Beit Meri, which means the house of gents, or Aintoura, which means spring of mountain, or Bkirki, meaning the house of books,” explained Safar.
Its similarities with Hebrew, however, occasionally cause problems, as Lucia Isaac experienced first-hand. During the 1982 Israeli invasion, Lucia, then nine, was playing on the old Sidon road when Israeli tanks rolled up next to her. In the open hood, Lucia spotted a box of biscuits.
Mistaking the soldier’s language for Assyrian, Lucia approached the tanks and asked in Assyrian for a biscuit. In turn, the Israelis mistook Assyrian for Hebrew and promised Lucia a biscuit if she would guide them to her home.
“I said all right and walked ahead of the tanks,” she said. “I thought they were Assyrians and didn’t think much of it. I just wanted the biscuit.”
As soon as the Israelis entered the family home, however, they forced Lucia’s parents and siblings on the floor at gunpoint.
“They thought we were Jewish spies,” said Isaac. “Finally, some people came and explained to the Israelis that we are Assyrians and the language we speak is not Hebrew. My parents were not too pleased with me that day.”
“For the record,” she added, “I never did get my biscuit.”