Persecuted and displaced from their ancestral home in the Middle East, Assyrians are finding a virtual homeland in cyberspace, a work started in Silicon Valley and continuing to gain acceptance.
That was the conclusion from a panel of experts at the 68th Annual Assyrian American National Convention (www.assyrianconvention.org) in San Jose, a gathering that is expected to draw about 4,000 people from across the United States and abroad. The convention began Friday and concludes Monday with a picnic at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.
``The Internet is key to our future activism,'' said Jacklin Bejan, convention chairwoman.
Assyrians are descendants of an ancient and once-mighty civilization in the Middle East, whose culture and language, Syriac, date back more than 6,700 years. Christian minorities in an Islamic region, they were persecuted for generations in Iran and Iraq. Assyria as a country no longer exists.
In August 1933, Iraqi troops massacred the residents of Semile, an Assyrian town in northern Iraq. This was the year that the Assyrian American National Federation was formed, in part to spread awareness about the plight of Assyrians.
Today, Assyrians say they continue to be persecuted in Iraq. Large numbers of Assyrians fled their homeland when war broke between Iran and Iraq in the 1970s and '80s, and also during the Persian Gulf War.
``When you consider that the Assyrian diaspora is spread in 40 countries, the Internet connects us, makes us a community,'' said Wilfred Alkhas, moderator of a panel discussion Saturday on the Internet. Alkhas is also publisher of Zinda, an online magazine about Assyria, at www.zindamagazine.com/.
``My dream is to have a real home in cyberspace,'' said Albert Gabrial, who runs a Web site, www.nineveh.com, about Assyrians.
Bejan, the convention chairwoman, remarked on the irony of a displaced people finding a virtual home in high technology.
``The Internet is where we will make our presence and get recognition of our genocide,'' Bejan said. She said the Internet is going to be instrumental in helping preserve the Assyrian culture and language.
The work on the Internet is critical in reaching a young generation of Assyrians, Alkhas said.
A few years ago, anyone searching for Assyrians on the Internet would have found only a handful of sites and sources. But today, there are dozens and new ones continue to be established by individuals and organizations interested in sharing Assyrian history and culture.
Scholarly works on Assyria are being consolidated on the Internet, ancient books are being digitized online, Bejan said. And education programs are being designed to refine teaching of Syriac to young kids.
An estimated 350,000 Assyrians are in the United States, many of them concentrated in Detroit, Chicago, and in the Turlock-Modesto area. A few thousand are in San Jose, convention officials said.
``Since we don't have a country to call home, this gathering is how we come together as a people now,'' said Atourina Rosh, 21, of Fremont. A student at San Jose State University, Rosh was attending the Assyrian convention for the first time. ``It's a really happy, fun weekend.''