Nineveh On  Line                                                                                              Education

                                                                    ASSYRIAN-AMERICANS  

                                                  A STUDY IN

ETHNIC RECONSTRUCTION AND DISSOLUTION IN DIASPORA[1]

  By: Arianne Ishaya, Ph.D.

  Overview 

The overseas migration of the Assyrians to North America, which started during the second half of 19th century, was not an isolated phenomenon.  It was part of a worldwide process that involved the transfer of raw materials and human labor from the Third World towards centers of industry in Europe and North America, and the movement of manufactured goods in the opposite direction.  In the Middle East the economy had become more and more geared to the production of unprocessed commodities for exchange abroad rather than consumption or processing at home.[2]Cash crops such as silk, rice, cotton, tobacco and opium were replacing wheat, barely, and other staples.  The native cottage industries were succumbing in competition with the foreign manufactures.  Roads and railways were constructed to connect the Middle Eastern commodity market to the word at large.  The peasants were driven into wage labor by both need and temptation:  the need to acquire the cash with which to pay taxes and other newly required cash levies; the temptation to acquire foreign made commodities.  Christian minorities like the Assyrians and Armenians had additional reasons to leave their homeland. Many were uprooted due to the antagonism of native Muslims towards the intrusion of foreign “Christian” powers.  The presence of various Protestant, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox missions among the Assyrians and Armenians was a mixed blessing.  These missions were looked upon as agents of colonialism in both Ottoman Turkey and Iran.  Therefore Christian minorities became targets of Muslim hatred.  In other words, foreign agitation was diverted towards the Christians at home.  A Persian historian notes: 

Several times during serious grievances a general massacre of the

 Christians was expected.  Such was the case with the revolt against

the tobacco concession in 1889-90.[3]   

 At the same time the missionaries created a class of literate young men eager to travel to Russia or overseas to Europe or U.S.A. either to further their education or make quick money, return home to become professionals, freeholders, or businessmen.  It had almost become a vocation for every young man to spend a few years in America before he “settled down”.  

 

The Call to Migrant Work:  1880’s-1914 

 The first Assyrians who came to the United States were young men who were sent by Western missionaries to be trained for mission work in their native country.   Among them were Dr. Isaac Adams and  Dr. Jesse Yonan .  The former arrived in 1888 the latter in 1892.   Rev. Andrew D. Urshan came in1911; Rev. Paul Newey arrived in 1906, and Alexander Joseph Oraham came in 1913.  All these men came from Iran.  From Turkey came Dr. Abraham Yoosuf in 1889, Haidou Ablahat, a native of Tkhuma, in 1906.  Naoum Faik in 1912, and Senharib Balley in 1913.

 

 These men represented a class of intellectuals and fervent Assyrian nationalists.  They attained leadership roles in the Assyrian-American community in subsequent years. 

The first Assyrian to visit U.S.A. from Urmia was probably Mar Yohannan, Bishop of Urmia, who came in1841 at the invitation of Dr. Perkins, and stayed for a year.   Jacob Asfar from Diarbekir, Turkey, was the first “Jacobite” Assyrian to come to U.S.A. in 1882.[4] The first Chaldean Assyrian was Zia Attlala from the village of Telkaif in present-day Northern Iraq.  He arrived in Philadelphia around 1889, and worked in a hotel.[5]  Through these pioneers the Assyrians back home learned about work opportunities in North America.  This started the wave of migrant laborers who traveled to the industrial cities of the Eastern U.S.A. to work in the factories.  

The Condition of Migrant Workers in U.S.A. 

From the beginning a symbiotic relationship was established between the migrant workers in the Unites States, and the communities they left behind in the “old country”.  The former sustained the latter financially through regular remittances.  Although many Assyrians regularly crossed the border into Russia to work or learn trades, overseas migration was regarded as the best way to make “quick money”.  Migrant work became so prevalent that by 1900 most Assyrian villages in Urmia were empty of their able-bodied men during the greater part of the year.[6] We have more detailed information on the condition of the migrant workers in U.S.A. from Urmia because the weekly newspaper Kokhva, published in Urmia between 1906-1917, had a column on the migrant workers abroad.  Ironically, instead of benefiting the communities at home, it appears from Kokhva reports that migrant work disrupted the fabric of family and community life and caused economic hardship at home. For instance, in one report Kokhva writes: 

  “People whose able-bodied men are in U.S.A., depend on remittances

 for their survival.  When none arrives, they are forced to take loans with

 high interest.”[7]  

Assyrians left for America with high hopes, but conditions in America were not what the migrant men expected.  Among those who left from Urmia, a few returned and brought enough money to invest in land and property.  Some were never heard from again, and others could not even accumulate enough to pay for their passage back home.[8]  A letter from Yonkers by a Newy Baba of Sheerabad was published in Kokhva that explains the situation of migrant workers: 

The young Assyrians in U.S. A. have been very unlucky in using their

talents and the  skills they had in the old country, or developing them in

America. A large number of trained teachers and priests are here today,

but they have abandoned their profession.  They are instead working in

factories as low-grade laborers.  From there you are advising us to focus

on work and not on preaching or teaching.  It is true that work is a man’s

honor and a commandment of God, but it is not necessary that we should

all be laborers in factories.  There are two reasons for this problem:  first,

our people themselves seek lowly jobs.  They do not want to endure the

hardship of going to school and learn new skills.  Second, we do not

receive any aid from abroad or from other organizations as other migrant

           workers do.[9]

 Kokhva began to run a column titled “The Rueful Emigrant” where the lamentable condition of migrant workers was described, and overseas migration was criticized.   Regarding the condition of migrant workers in Chicago we read:

 “There are 400 Assyrians in Chicago.  Most men are employed.  Some

 are doing well.  Others are unfortunate and idle. For some

 this city has been good; for others a stumbling block and a road to vice.

 All live in the oldest part of town in the inner city.  This section is inhabited

 by new immigrants from Europe and is full of bars and centers of vice.

  Men are not getting an education or learning language because they spend their

 life in this area, and as they live together, they do not speak English

 much.  Not more than 225 attend church services.  Others could care

 less, and some even speak out against religion and God.  Some are the

 pride of the nation; others an embarrassment.[10]

 

In the same issue the editorial laments “Men leave Iran with a healthy complexion and return pale and weak”.  The reason is that idleness and vice lead to deterioration.  “At this cost buying land and a luxury home in Iran is a national misfortune.”  The editorial urges men to take night classes in order to improve their lot.  “Men who want to leave must consider if it is worth to work hard, be away from the family, and eat little, get weak, and succumb to Tuberculosis.”[11]  Kokhva had subscribers in the United States. In response to the  “Rueful Emigrant” column, a migrant worker in America wrote:

 

The whole world is on the move, not just Assyrian men.  It is preferable to

seek better life than to sit idly by the Tanura all winter long hoping one’s

daily bread will fall into one’s lap miraculously.  No one likes to leave one’s

 hometown and live among strangers.  On the other hand, the successful men

abroad have sent thousands of dollars back home.  Had they stayed home,

they would not have earned a penny.  …We’re tired of reading about the

 ills of emigration.  What is a college graduate in Urmia to do if he does

 not want to be a priest or a teacher?  Why local opportunities for work are

 not created for the college graduates there? [12]

 From Sojourners to Settlers:

 By 1906 there were over 1000 Assyrians in U.S.A. from Urmia alone.  Most of the Assyrians lived in Chicago, but there were small communities in New Britain and Hartford, New York, New Jersey, Yonkers, Philadelphia, Massachusetts, Flint Michigan, and Gary, Indiana.[13]  There were 60 Assyrians in Philadelphia in 1907.  The Asyrians from the Urmia region settled in Connecticut, Chicago and Turlock.

 

Following the outbreak of WWI in 1914, news came from Iran and Turkey that the Assyrians were being massacred, their homes were looted, their women and girls were carried away, and they were uprooted from their homes. The bachelors who had come to America before WWI with the intention of returning home, decided to stay and establish families in the United States after they heard that their homes and villages were in ruin.  They asked their relatives for brides from the old country. They raised funds to bring over their relatives who had survived the WWI holocaust.  A new chapter in the history of Assyrian-Americans opened with sojourners becoming settlers.

  A brief history of the early settlements follows:

 The Connecticut Assyrian Community

 The Assyrians in Connecticut lived in the two towns of Hartford and New Britain.  Since these towns are only 15 miles apart a unified community was constituted.  The first settlers were sent by the American missionaries.  They were from the villages of Gogtapa and Taka-Ardishay.  Initially mostly men immigrated to Hartford-New Britain, since they were sojourners, and not settlers. They were drawn to this area because of the availability of industrial jobs.  Many of them were employed at the Stanley hardware factory in New Britain, a maker of tools.  Others worked as painters and plasterers.  New Britain was the site of one of the earliest Assyrian permanent settlements.  As early as 1907 a small community had emerged.

Kokhva reports:

 

On 29th of September of the Western calendar, there was the joyous

 wedding of Daniel Badal of Sarigol to Sopia the daughter of Qasha

 Mooshi of Maragha.  There were 100 guests.  The wedding was

 in the Iranian style, but in Western costumes.    We have also

heard about the wedding of  Eshaya Giwargis of Gavilan and

Youlia Eesho of Degala in the city of Newark in New Jersey.[14]

 Kokhva goes on to urge Assyrian men abroad to marry Assyrian women.  And while expressing happiness regarding weddings in America, it notes that none are taking place in Urmia.  (Presumably because the community is left without its young men.)

Another indication that some Assyrians were in America to stay comes from their business ventures.  The following news item is interesting as it also reveals the working conditions of factory workers in New Britain:

             Baba Yonan of Degala in New Britain has purchased an apartment

            building with 20 rooms at the cost of $4,300.00 in a good section of

 town.  He intends to have Assyrian renters.   Men work in the factories

 from 7:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M.-1:00 to 6:00 P.M.  40 Assyrian men attend

 night school free of charge.[15]

  The Assyrians of New Britain established “The Assyrian Brotherhood Association for purposes of mutual help in 1907.[16]  In the 1980’s the population of this community was estimated at 3.500. [17]

 The Chicago Assyrian community 

The first Assyrians to arrive in Chicago were graduates of the American Mission College in Urmia who came to pursue their studies in the 1890’s.  Among the pioneer generation was Dr. Shlemon Warda, from the village of Sopoorghan.  He came in 1899 to study medicine; Daniel Sayad came in 1896 from the village of Gogtapa to attend college, but ended up as a Persian rug dealer.  Pera Odishoo came from the village of Degala in 1906.  Others settled in the nearby city of Gary, Indiana where they found employment in the steel mills of the city. The first church to be established in Chicago was Carter Memorial Presbyterian Church built in 1910.[18] 

  By 1906 there were already 250 Assyrians in Chicago.  In a 1907 issue Kokhva reports that 5 bible study groups met every Sunday.  The Persian Bible Class was established in 1902.   Usta Baaba of Gulpatalikhan was its director.  The Assyrian Christian Men’s Welfare Association was under the leadership of Kasha Nesturus of Delgoshah.  The goal of the association was:  “To help the members in work related affairs as well as leisure activities; to raise Christian awareness; to shepherd those fallen into the vices of drinking and gambling; and to prevent litigation in the Assyrian community[19] Young Christian-Surayi Association had Andrius of Shamshajian on its executive board.  Since the Assyrians did not have their own church, they met in various rented churches at that time.[20]

    In 1944 the Patriarch Mar Shimun prepared the following estimate of the distribution of Assyrians in the United States:[21]

 California:  (Turlock and San Francisco): 1,500

Connecticut (Hartford, New Britain):  1,200

Illinois  (Chicago):  5,000

Indiana (Gary):  1,000

Michigan (Flint):  600

    Detroit:  100

New Jersey (Elizabeth):  200

New York  (New York Metropolitan Area:  500

Pennsylvania  (Philadelphia):  500

Total:  11,100

 Note:  These figures do not include the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) or Chaldean Assyrians.

 The Assyrian Community in Turlock California

 The Turlock community is unique in three ways.  First, it was the only farming community that the Assyrians established in the United States.  Second, from the beginning it was colonized by settlers and not sojourners.  Third, it was the sole planned group project intended for resettlement abroad.   The emigrants were men of some substance who were leaving with their families or alone, but with the intention of eventually removing their entire family to the United States.  They were mostly mission-educated converts to Western denominations who voluntarily uprooted themselves from their ancestral homes as well as their traditions.  The founder of the colony was Dr. Isaac Adams, an Assyrian medical missionary, who had led a colony of 36 men and women out of Urmia to North Battleford, Canada in1902. This colony eventually became the foundation for the Assyrian community of Turlock.   Isaac Adams had come to the United States in 1888 at the age of 16.  With the help of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, he studied to become first a minister and later a medical doctor. Adams traveled throughout North America on lecture tours dressed in his picturesque native costumes and spoke on the culture of the Middle East.    He established the Turlock colony in 1910 with 45 people who were members of his own family and relatives from Canada, plus some settlers he had recruited from Chicago and points East.  The early settlers from Canada were the Adams, Backus, and the Lazar family.  The settlers were poor and could not invest in developed farms.  They bought or leased undeveloped land that they had to break themselves.  Since new farms were not viable, men worked as bricklayers, painters, and plasterers in the city of San Francisco where jobs were more available.  In 1915 the total population of Turlock’s community was 1,500.  Of these 10 families were Assyrian (Smith 1981:115).  The colony grew after the holocaust of WWI.  Poor as they were, the Turlock Assyrians sent passage money to bring over those who had survived the massacre.  Beginning in 1920 refugees began to arrive in the Turlock region.  The first church the Assyrians of Turlock built was the nondenominational Assyrian Evangelical Church in 1924.  Turlock gradually became a retirement community.  In 1940’s Assyrians from Chicago and other Eastern States sought the warmer climate of California for retirement.  The colony grew so that in the 1950’s 8% of the total town population was Assyrian (Ishaya 1985:154.)  In mid 1960’s for the first time Assyrians from Iraq began to settle in the Modesto-Turlock region.  The exclusivist Arab-Muslim national ideology marginalized the Christian minorities in Iraq.

  As the quota restrictions were removed from the American immigration policy in 1965, those Assyrians who had relatives in the United States or were professionals began to immigrate to this country in larger numbers. The Iraqi-Assyrian immigrants of the 1970’s were refugees from the war-torn region of Northern Iraq whose villages were shelled during the Kurdo-Iraqi war (1971-1975).  The consolidation of Ba’th regime in Iraq in the 1970’s, the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979), the Gulf War in Iraq (1990), threw up fresh waves of refugees some of whom made their way into the Turlock area.  The old Assyrian Civic Club of Turlock, built in 1949 had become too small for the community.  In 1979 Assyrians built the largest civic club in the Turlock-Modesto area.  It served not only the Assyrians themselves, but brought considerable revenue to the club as the non-Assyrian community rented it year round.  The Assyrians from Iraq had their own club in Ceres called the Bet Nahrain Assyrian-American club.  Both clubs have had a radio and television program.[22]

 The Assyrian Communities from Turkey and Syria

 The first immigrants were from Kharphut who arrived in the 1890’s, and settled in Worcester.  After the massacre of the Assyrians and Armenians in Turkey in 1895, the number of immigrant increased.  By 1913 there were some 200 families in Worcester, Springfield, Boston and Fitchburg.  In each of these communities ethnic organizations had already been established.  Due to its large manufacturing plants, Worcester was the center of the Assyrian community of Kharphut.  It was the home of the Kharphut Assyrian Association.  There was an Assyrian Ladies church association with a membership of 75- 80.  Almost all the immigrants had some schooling in the church school in Kharphut, and were literate, some even in English.  Until 1924, at which time the Assyrians built St Mary’s Assyrian Apostolic Church, they used to hold services in rented churches or halls.  The person who founded St. Mary’s church was Dr. Abraham. K. Yoosuf.  The church soon became the locus of the Assyrian community activities and an agent of preserving the ethnic faith and language. In addition it helped the newly arrived refugees to find housing and employment[23]

The Assyrians who had fled from Diyarbakir during the 1895 massacre, being skilled silk weavers, settled in New Jersey which was a center of silk works.  Others found employment as custom tailors, merchants and industrial workers in Sterling, Summit, Paterson, Newark, New Jersey, New York City, and Rhodes Island.  These families gradually brought their surviving relatives to the United States.  In 1897, the Assyrians organized their first society, the Assyrian National School Association in Sterling to raise funds and assist the Assyrians in Turkey to establish Assyrian language classes in their church schools, and to support the Assyrian churches there.    In 1909 the Assyrian Ladies Aid Society was organized for the purpose of accumulating funds to build an Assyrian Church. Rev. Hanna Koorie was ordained in Jerusalem and sent to minister the New Jersey community in 1907.  He, together with his brother Rev. Nioum Koorie, was instrumental in the building of the first Sanctuary, the Church of Virgin Mary in 1927. 

 The refugees from Turkey were divided between those who identified themselves as Assyrians, and those who preferred to be called “Syrian Arameans”.  As the community living in New Jersey and New York increased in number, the latter established the Charitable association of Mar Afram in Hoboken, New Jersey to assist the displaced “Syrians” in the old country financially.  At the same time some of the funds were used for the housing and schooling of the new immigrants.  The Taw, Meem, Simkath School Association was established in 1899 to provide children of the massacre victims with proper education.  In 1949 Archbishop Athnansius Yeshue Samuel, Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Jerusalem, arrived in Jersey City and brought relief to the United States for the refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine.  He had become well known worldwide due to his connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran.  It was he who brought them to the United States and made possible their exposition and study.  Even today the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese exhibits some of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  Following the 1948 conflict in Palestine, several thousand [As]Syrians from the Holy Land immigrated to the New Jersey area and settled in and about Hackensack and the Syrian Archbishopric.  These refugees were originally from Tur Abdin.  They had settled in Palestine as a result of the displacement caused by the Turkish persecutions.  Most of them were businessmen and a number of them established their own factories and firms in New Jersey.  Some of the refugees from Palestine settled in Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.  The wave of immigration has continued due to the continued Arab-Israeli conflict, the Kurdish rebellion in the north of Iraq, and the social and political uncertainties in Lebanon and Syria.

  In the 1970’s there were 400 families in New Jersey alone.  It was a thriving community with several interconnected organizations.  The Mor Ephraim Syriac School provided classes for both children and adults to learn how to read and write the Syriac [Aramaic] language.  There were several other organizations.  The Senharib Soccer Team played against many soccer teams all over New Jersey with much success.  The Kowk Bet Oroam Dance Group performed statewide in the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976.  The Ladies of Shameran Society played a vital role in fund-raising for scholarship programs and for aid to the needy. [24]

 It is interesting that although “Syrian Arameans” claimed they did not recognize themselves as Assyrians, nevertheless they named their various organizations by ancient Assyrian names.  Perhaps they were not all of the same mind.

 The Assyrian Chaldean Community in Michigan

The first Chaldean Assyrians came to U.S.A. from the village of Telkaif in Northern Iraq as migrant workers between 1910-1912, and settled in Detroit, Michigan.  With the onset of WWI and the uprooting of the Assyrians, the men brought their families over with the intention of permanent settlement in this country.  In 1923 there were ten adults from Telkaif and a few Chaldeans from other Iraqi towns, namely Mosul.  The first parish was established in 1947.  At that time the population had reached eighty families.  In 1952, the community had increased to 120 families, and by 1957 it had doubled to 230 families, or 1000 persons.  Political tensions in Northern Iraq brought a steady flow of refugees to this community such that by 1978 the community numbered 2,674 families or 11,452 persons.  Since this number is greater than the number of persons living in Telkaif itself, it can be concluded that the Telkaif community in Northern Iraq was effectively transplanted to the Detroit Metropolitan Area by 1970’s.[25].  A number of Telkaifees came to U.S.A. after an initial move and residence in Baghdad.  Others joined the Detroit community from other parts of the world, mainly from the Chaldean colony in Mexico.  The first Chaldean rite priest, Fr. Thomas (Rauphael ) Bidawid, arrived in Detroit in 1947.  The first sanctuary, dedicated in August 1948, was called “Mother of God”.  It was later demolished for highway development, and a new sanctuary was built in 1956.

 

The first Chaldean immigrants lived in Detroit’s near East side.  By 1960’s the community had relocated to the northwest areas of the city and in the northwest suburbs.  The earliest immigrant opened retail grocery shops.  The later immigrants specialized in this line of business as well.[26] 

 The Flint, Michigan Assyrian Community  

 Assyrians came to Flint initially from the refugee camp in Baquba in 1918..  Most were uprooted Ashiret tribes from Drenaye, Tergawar, and Urmia.  They were later joined by the Assyrians from the settlements on the Khabur River.  Being the home of the General Motors Corporation, Flint attracted Assyrian refugees in search of jobs.  Their basic occupation from the first was production work in the Buick Motor Division of the General Mortors Corporation.  They worked as press operators, machine operators, grinders, or autoworkers at Buick.  Many also bought small farms on long-time contracts.  While men worked in the factories, women and children tended the farms.  Due to the seasonal character of the automobile industry, with its periodic layoffs, the Assyrians in Flint were among the poorest section of the Assyrian immigrants in U.S.A.   By 1944 there were 600 Assyrians in Flint.  Due to their poverty they lived in the less desirable sections of the town.[27]

In Chicago many of the American born, or American raised Assyrians grew up around Clark Street where Assyrian homes, businesses, and particularly the popular Kasha Hedou’s church was located.  It appears that the Clark Street community was a closely-knit and very lively immigrant outpost.  It satisfied most of the new immigrants’ needs and insulated them from the unfamiliar world that surrounded them in the new country.  Kasha Hedou’s church, known as the Carter Memorial Church, was not only a church, but also the ethnic civic center and post office as well.  It was a post office because as one old-timer said:  “We were all working people and changed our address frequently.  All letters came to 56, West Huron St. and were distributed on Wednesdays after a sermon.”  The new immigrants preferred to go to Assyrian physicians and dentists because they could communicate their problems to them in Assyrian.  And in the Clark Street community there was an assortment of Assyrian professionals.  The best remembered are the David brothers.  There were four of these:  Dr. Eshap David and Dr. Ropus David were both physicians; another brother was a dentist, and one was a priest.  As one old timer mentioned, people used to tell them for joke:  “On of you should have been an undertaker; then you could take care of a person from cradle to the grave.”  In sum the Clark street community was a relatively self-sufficient social unit and most of its members did not have contact with mainstream America beyond the workplace and the marketplace.

 The first Assyrian newspaper published in Chicago was the American Assyrian Herald.  From 1915-1919 the publisher and chief editor was Rev. Paul Newey, who had graduated from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1913.    Rev. Newey also created the Assyrian Press with its own east Assyrian types.  Many Assyrian authors and publishers used this press. [28]

 In terms of living standards, the American born generation grew up in working class families.  As stated earlier, the original immigrants had not found in America the opportunities for work they had expected.  Most did not know English well and were certainly unfamiliar with the American world of business.  Although they were literate in several Middle Eastern languages, and were skilled craftsmen and artisans, in America they started off as unskilled laborers in the hotel, restaurant and construction business.  Often women had to find work outside the home as well to supplement the family income—a situation that was unprecedented in the old country.  In spite of the hardships of the twenties and the depression of the thirties, these immigrants made a valiant effort to work hard, save every penny, educate their children, and improve their standard of living.  We know that theirs is a success story because their offspring became professionals, or white-collar workers.  They became homeowners, and were able to move into better parts of the city in whichever state they lived.   Perhaps the Assyrians were too successful in their effort to make the American dream come true.  By 1950’s the rate of assimilation was so high, that the American born and raised generation could not converse in, much less read and write the Assyrian language.  The business of the civic organizations began to be carried in the English language.  The English language section of the Assyrian periodicals published in the United States was growing, that of the Assyrian language section diminishing.  It must be noted that the continuity of Assyrians as a distinct minority in the United States has been due to the constant inflow of new immigrants into the country.  Assyrian Americans have not set in place substantial educational institutions or otherwise an economic infrastructure to maintain Assyrian ethnic continuity.

 Before World War I overseas migration for the purpose of permanent settlement was small compared to the rush of refugees that followed the uprooting of Assyrians after the war.  The settlement pattern of Assyrian colonies indicates regional or even village clustering.  For instance, the “Jacobite” Assyrians from Turkey and Syria settled initially in New York, New Jersey, Rhodes Island, and Massachusetts. “Chaldeans” (Catholic Assyrians) from Northern Iraq settled in Michigan, Assyrians from the villages of Gogtapa and Taka-Ardishay (located in Northwestern Iran) in Connecticut, and Assyrian highlanders from the Ahiret tribes in Flint, Michigan.  As a major industrial city in the Midwest, Chicago became the locus of Assyrian migrant workers from both Iran and Iraq.  Turlock in California was unique in the sense that it was not composed of migrant workers.  Founded by Rev. Dr. Isaac Adams, from the beginning it was designed for permanent settlement.  For the first time in their history as Christians, the dispersed branches of the Assyrian nation had an opportunity to live within a single country. 

 A more detailed profile of the establishment of the different colonies follows.

 Organizational Unification and Emerging National Identity

 As mentioned earlier, before WWI the Assyrian communities in the United States were composed of migrant workers whose ultimate goal was to return back to their homeland.  The religious and civic organizations they established served sectarian or local social needs, but the genocide of Assyrians and Armenians right before and during WWI forced both the Assyrians in the Middle East and those in the United States to take united action on a national level.  The Jacobite Assyrians of New Jersey and Massachusetts became aware that there were Assyrians from Iran in other parts of the United States.  In 1915 The Assyrian Jacobites from Turkey and the Assyrians of Iran formed the Assyrian National Association of America with branches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Chicago, and Flint, Michigan.  They chose an Assyrian Baptist Minister, the Reverend Joel E. Warda who was an able leader, a brilliant orator and the publisher of the Assyrian language newspaper, the “Izgadda”, as the president.  After the murder of Mar Benyamin Shimun and the uprooting of the Assyrians from their homes in Iran and Turkey in 1918, the political leadership of the Assyrian nation fell effectively into the hands of the Assyrians in the United States.  Under the banner of Assyrian National Association, in 1919 the Assyrians sent two delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference in France to negotiate for an autonomous Assyrian state in the Middle East.[29] These were Rev. Joel Warda, president of the association and Major Dr. A. Yoosuf, the vice president.   The Assyrians from the United States were joined in Paris by other Assyrian representatives from Turkey (Dr. Zebouni, Mr. Namick, Mr. Najib, Mr. Raji, Mr. Ablahad and His Grace Serverius Afrem Barsaum).  There were also three delegates from Tiflis, Caucasus (Lazar Yacoboff, Shimon Ganja and Rev. Lazar George representing the Assyrians of Russia.  The Assyrians who were divided for centuries by sectarian, denominational and political boundaries, for the first time came together as a single nation.  Rev. Joel Warda sent a cable to the Prime Minister of Great Britain that reads in part:  

The Assyrian atrocities are well known to the British people, and the Assyrian unwavering loyalty has been proven on the fields of battle.  Our slain cover the hill tops of Kurdistan, and our martyrs the valleys of Persia.  Intense as the fire of our persecution has been, we have not been consumed.  There is still a sufficient remnant left entitled to a portion of our fatherland.  There the Assyrians would return from the interior of Turkey, from Armenia, from other parts of Mesopotamia, from Persia, from Caucasia, from Russia and elsewhere to enjoy the life of national freedom under the same protection that has redeemed us from our bondage.  Our desire for the province of Mosul including Sapna, Barwars and Beth Badin we are making known to President Wilson and we are now presenting for the just consideration of the British government and that of her allies.[30]

 

With the Assyrian intellectuals murdered or uprooted in the Middle East, the task of documenting the history of the Assyrian genocide fell on the shoulder of those who were in the United States.  The first publication on the history of WWI Assyrian genocide was by Dr. Abraham Yohanan (1853-1925).  He wrote The Death of a Nation that was published in 1916.  He was the first Assyrian to obtain a PhD. from an American University and the first Iranian that was a professor in one of the largest and most prestigious universities in U.S.A., namely Columbia University.  Rev. Joel Warda wrote and published The Flickering Light of Asia in 1924.  Rev. Samuel David, who had come to Chicago to serve the Assyrian Chaldean Catholic Church in 1913, published Tasheeta d-Atour-Chldea (The History of Assyro-Chaldea) in the Assyrian language in 1923.  Yousif Malik published The British Betrayal of the Assyrians in 1935.

 

Various Assyrian organizations were established across the different States of U.S. A. to provide relief for the refugees stranded in various parts of the Middle East.  They began publishing newspapers or monthly magazines to keep the Assyrians abreast the latest happenings in the Middle East, or the activities of the Assyrians in the United States.  Among such publications were:  Bet Nahrain by Naum Faiq, mimeographed in Turkish and Assyrian; Hoyoto (The Assyrian Voice) published by Senharib Balley, from Paterson N. J. in Turkish and Assyrian; Cavecho da Manooko by  Gabriel Boyajy, in Turkish and Assyrian from College Point, N.Y.; The New Assyrian by Charles S. Dartley, in English and Assyrian from Jersey City, N.J.; The Assyri-Chaldean Union published by  Assyrian National Association, in Assyrian, English, and Arabic from New York City.

Izgedda. by  Rev. Joel Warda, from New York, N.Y. in Assyrian.  Note that most of these publications were spearheaded by Assyrians from Turkey of the Syrian Orthodox or “Jacobite” denomination.

 

The impetus for national reunification took another boost in 1933 in the aftermath of the Semeil massacre. In 1932 when the British mandatory government granted Iraq political independence, the Chaldean Assyrians accepted Iraqi sovereignty; but the Nestorian Highlanders remained adamant in their request for a homogenous resettlement in the Mosul region with a measure of local autonomy under their own patriarch.  This was in accordance with the recommendations of the Mosul commission, which was appointed by the League of Nations to look into the problem of these refugees in 1924.  But these recommendations were never enacted.  In 1933, on the eve of Iraqi national independence, the military forces entered Simail, an Assyrian village north of Mosul.  An indiscriminate massacre of over 600 unarmed men, women and children followed.  60 other surrounding villages were looted. The number of casualties reached 3,000 before the massacre stopped.  The Patriarch, Mar Eshaia Shimun was exiled to Cyprus. [31]

  The reaction of Assyrian Americans was to establish the Assyrian American Federation (AAF) in 1933 to send relief to the victims, and plead the case of Assyrians before international organizations. Senharib Balley was the architect who envisioned the structure of an umbrella organization uniting the different regional associations.[32] He was inspired by the political structure of the United States which, in turn was borrowed from the Native American Confederacy of the Iroquois nations.  AAF united all the Assyrian American Associations organized in different states as its affiliates.  This was supposed to be a historical landmark for the Assyrians in the sense that a unification of various sectarian groups was achieved under a national agenda.

 After the exile of Mar Shimun from Iraq, the seat of the Church of the East Patriarchate was moved to Chicago, U.S.A. in 1945. 

  The establishment of the Assyrian Universal Alliance was another major step in the promotion of unity among the Assyrians now that they had become widely dispersed on a worldwide scale.   Although spearheaded by the Assyrians in the Middle East, it was later to come under the leadership of Assyrians in U.S.A.  Its goal was to serve as an umbrella organization linking all Assyrian associations worldwide into a federated system with a unified national agenda namely, one name, one language, one flag, and one national goal.[33]

 Each political jolt in the Middle East created a fresh wave of Assyrian refugees that needed to be rescued by the Assyrian organizations in the free world.  Such was the case with the Kurdo Iraqi war of 1970’s, the Khomeini Islamic Revolution of the 1978 in Iran, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980’s, and the Gulf war of 1991.   For instance, during the Kurdo-Iraqi war (1971-1975) the Assyrians inhabiting Northern Iraq were caught in the war zone.  Their villages were shelled and the refugees fled to Turkey, Greece and Italy, and remained stranded there.  With the intervention of the Assyrian Universal Alliance (established in 1968 in Pau France), and the help of the World Council of churches, close to 2,000 Assyrians were admitted into the United States of America over the years within the limits of this country’s quotas.  The majority settled in Chicago, Illinois [34]

 Both the Orthodox Syrians (Jacobites) and the Chaldeans had members in their leadership that identified themselves as Assyrians and were keen supporters of a unified Assyrian front.  Among the Jacobites a fervent supporter of the Assyrian cause was Dr. David Perley, an attorney at law, who wrote and published several books and treatise defending the Assyrian name and Assyrian national rights. The Jacobite Assyrians had several periodicals that voiced the call for national unity.  Jacobite Associations such as Mardinly Educational Foundation worked closely with other Assyrian organizations in the United States.  Less vocal were the Chaldeans who dealt very with nationalism very reservedly and remained aloof from the Assyrian patriotic and nationalist sentiment and rhetoric.  To impress upon the Chaldeans that they were regarded as members of the Assyrian nation, the leadership of AUA elected Mr. Aprim Rayis, a prominent Chaldean from Detroit, as the president of the AUA for consecutive terms in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  This measure was only marginally successful. 

 During 1920’s when Great Britain was preparing to make Iraq an independent country, the Chaldean Church opted to become integrated into the Iraqi society and not embrace the claim of Assyrians to their national rights.  There was still a large Chaldean population in Iraq that guided the political choices of the immigrant outposts in the United States. However, in 1974, Mar Raphael Bidawid, the Chaldean bishop of Beirut, a distinguished clergy and highly educated person, came to visit the Chaldean parishes in the United States.  In a groundbreaking declaration he stated:  “Before I became a priest, I was an Assyrian.  Before I became a bishop I was an Assyrian.  I am an Assyrian today, tomorrow, forever, and I am proud of it.”[35]  Mar Rahael Bidawid later occupied the position of the Patriarch of the Chaldean Church.  

 Assyrian Americans were at a stage now where they could take a leadership role in unifying the scattered elements of the nation, and take steps in passing onto the next generation of Assyrians the ethnic language, heritage, and a sense of national awareness.   For the first time the Assyrians were living in a country that granted freedom of organization and expression.  Assyrian-Americans had the highest standard of living compared to Assyrians elsewhere.  In AANF and its regional affiliates, they had built the organizational base for unifying and strengthening the Assyrian-American Diaspora.  It was time to put these structures to work.  Anticipating the critical historical moment, William Daniel, a resourceful writer and social critic, wrote and published a book titled:  Assyrians of today Their Problem and a Solution[36].  Among the solutions that he suggested were foremost the establishment of a national fund; an end to voluntarism in the rank and file of the Federation; the formation of professional organizations and craft unions on a local level to provide legal assistance, employment for the new immigrants, and to set up professional and vocational workshop to serve the community.  Foremost was the establishment of private schools to provide high quality education for the children of Assyrian Americans, with a curriculum that would include classes in the native language and heritage.

 The Failed Promise: Organizational Regression

 At the turn of the 21st century both AANF and AUA had very little to show the Assyrian people in terms of achievements.  AANF and its affiliates had failed to provide the educational and cultural services they pledged in their constitutions.  The AUA receded from an umbrella organization to a sectarian political party.  The causes of failure are both internal and external, and it is instructive to examine them.

  Structural Problems within AANF 

 One of the major problems of AANF rank and file was that it failed to staff the leadership of the organization with paid professionals.   In the absence of a national fund, its affiliates could not launch the necessary educational programs and social services to help the next generation of Assyrians.  Their own children were fast disappearing in the American melting pot.  While the leadership delivered rhetorical speeches about the perdition of their nation through violence in the Middle East, they did not take notice of the fact that, as one Assyrian aptly put it, “This country is known as a melting pot, and it is very successful in causing minority groups to disappear non-violently”.[37]

When the original founders of the Assyrian National Federation retired or passed away, the next generation of Assyrian Americans, raised and educated in this country, was the best candidate to take over and mold the Assyrian institutions for optimum performance in the American sociopolitical system.  Most were educated, professional and well off economically; however, that generation was lost through assimilation.  Those who inherited the leadership of the Assyrian national organizations were mostly first generation immigrants from the old country who volunteered their time, and did not have the know-how of building the immigrant community at the grass root level. They even lacked the vision that the founders had.  Consequently the AANF together with its affiliate state organizations deteriorated into social clubs in most cases struggling just to meet the rent or the mortgage on the association building.  Thus the focus shifted on entertainment programs to raise the necessary funds for basic maintenance purposes.  Lacking a unified program of action, these organizations were inept in conducting their business in a systematic and professional level.  Political Action Committees and a public relations agenda were next to nonexistent.

The Federation received a hard blow when the Chaldean constituent, under the leadership of their Metropolitan Mar Ibrahim Ibrahim, approached the bureau of Census 2000 with a request not to be subsumed [categorized] under the general appellation of ‘Assyrians’.  While back in Iraq, the historical position of many Chaldeans with regard to their identity was to claim themselves as “Arab Christians”. With this new Census 2000 move there seems to be an urge on the part of many Chaldeans to claim an altogether separate ethnic group from the Assyrians traced back to ancient Chaldeans. Among the Jacobite Assyrians as well, the Syrian-Aramean faction proved to be stronger than the Assyrian one; they, too, requested to be identified separately.  To preserve a semblance of unity, 15 advisors who were approached by the census bureau, recommended a slashed designation, under which the three groups would be counted separately, and yet maintain the façade of unity.  Although the slashed designation was for census purposes only, it began to be used as a title on articles or announcements that formerly would have carried the title “Assyrian” only.  

The breakdown in the Assyrian national unity cannot be blamed entirely on the Assyrian organizations.  The leadership of a Diaspora does not have a power base like nation states, to impose unity on secessionist elements.  To empower itself and implement a national agenda, the leadership needs to first hook on to the political superstructure of the host nation state.  In the United States, this is accomplished through political action committees that work on a rigorous public relations agenda, mobilize their ethnic constituents to participate in the local elections, and gain support for their action items in Washington through their representatives:  the state congressmen/women and senators.  In the case of Assyrian Americans, a big stumbling block was ineligibility of white or green cardholders to vote.  Moreover, the Assyrians, in general, did not understand the political process in the United States.  It was, therefore, important for the political action committees to hold periodically educational workshops and inculcate in the people how a simple phone call to the office of the mayor or a state senator or a signature on a form letter can be effective in pushing forward an action item.  When such awareness did finally grow with the advent of the Internet, it was a little too late. 

 The leadership of a Diaspora has a second critical role.  That is gaining the loyalty of its constituents, and maintaining cohesiveness among various groups.  Lacking hegemonic power to enforce unity, and often being a self-appointed group, the only way it can establish credibility among its constituents and gain their confidence is through rendering dedicated service at the grassroots level; conversely, the Assyrian local institutions adopted a ‘welfare’ mentality.  If the government can provide free education and free social services, why create parallel institutions?  It was easier to talk about sweeping national aspirations than to implement practical social services. This is partly the drawback of leadership based on voluntarism and non-professionalism.    

  External Pressures upon Assyrian Organizations and Communities

 The Assyrian Diaspora in the United States was never free of political repression that drew it to exile in the first place.  A case in point is the Assyrian Universal Alliance.  The organization became infiltrated by Iraqi agents who compromised its integrity in the 1980’s.  The leadership of the organization lost its credibility as it was accused of corruption.  Finally AUA was split in two during its 13th congress at which time a faction voted to expel WilliamYonan and Sam Andrews who were both Assyrian-Americans and had monopolized the executive positions of the AUA for 14 years.

In the case of Chaldean-Americans, the Ba’th regime tried to placate them by threat or bribery.   According to the State Department officials, in November of 1979, the Iraqi government doled out close to $10 million dollars to Assyrian churches in the United States of America in an attempt to improve its image.[38]  The Iraqi government’s gifts to the Chaldean churches and organizations in Detroit alone was estimated at $1.7 million in 1980.[39]  In Turlock, the Chaldean Church received $250 thousand with disastrous results to Monsignor Najor who accepted it without complying with the terms.  The priest was shot and severely wounded in November of 1981.[40]  The FBI agents confirmed the claims of the Assyrians in Detroit that the Iraqi agents pay individuals on regular basis to report on fellow-Assyrians in the immigrant communities in the United States.[41]  As generous as the Iraqi government was towards its supporters, it also turned vicious towards dissidents.  “The hand of revolution is long enough to reach anybody, anywhere, at any time” was the warning of Mr. Habib, the Iraqi’s chief attaché in the United States, to the Iraqi immigrants in Detroit.[42]   There was a record of beatings, arson, and even homicide in the Chaldean immigrant communities.  It is interesting to note that the FBI failed to apprehend the culprits who committed the acts of terrorism as reported by those agents themselves.

 In brief, Assyrian organizations in Diaspora have had to content against great odds both internal and external to maintain a national agenda.

 The Assyrian Americans at the Threshold of 21st Century:

Analysis and Conclusion

 With an estimated population of 350,000, the United States was the largest Assyrian outpost in the world in the year 2001.[43]  In fact, after Iraq, United States had the largest Assyrian population.  The areas of highest population concentration were Chicago, Detroit, and the Turlock-Modesto region of California.  Some regional population shifts were noticeable in that due to the high cost of living in California, Assyrians from the East or Midwest were moving to Phoenix, Arizona or Las Vegas upon retirement.  Such communities had become large enough that they had established their own Assyrian American Associations, and were affiliates of the AANF.  The national conventions sponsored by AANF drew close to four to five thousand Assyrians during the Labor Day Weekend at the end of August and beginning of September each year.  The Assyrians celebrated Kha b-Nissan, the Assyrian New Year with parades in Chicago and Turlock.  To the host of periodicals and radio and television programs, was added the Internet that connected Assyrians all over the world.  Assyrians seemed to have found a homeland in cyberspace.  There was an aura of ethnic vitality during large community functions that drew thousands of people together.  But the participants were mostly recent immigrants with very few American born Assyrians participating in ethnic events. Thus, the ethnic vitality was not generated from within the preexisting ethnic community.  It was rather due to the injection of new blood, so to speak, from the recent refugees and immigrants from the Middle East.    Behind the façade of vitality lied a gloomy reality.  The young American born generation did not participate in ethnic community organizations or events.  It did not speak, let alone read or write the Assyrian language.  Even the Assyrian churches that had invariably maintained the Assyrian language in their services, conducted their bible study or Sunday school classes for the children and the teenagers in English. (There were a few exceptions.)  Even the children of new refugees and immigrants spoke English at home.  At this rate, within the next two generations, the American melting pot would effectively eliminate the Assyrians as a distinctive ethnic group.

  Fortunately, though the native language and identity are vulnerable to erosion and loss, they both can be revitalized and reinvigorated if effective measures are set in place.  However, the reversal of erosion through revitalization is a monumental task. It requires an infrastructure that is not presently in place in the Assyrian-American communities. The only realistic hope of language revitalization and cultural renaissance is the continuous success of the model of native language and culture promotion and maintenance initiated by the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Iraq. If the post-Saddam era adopts a secular and democratic constitution and implements it, the hope for better native language and culture maintenance will be enhanced. Without democracy in Iraq, in particular, and in the Greater Middle East, in general, the last window of opportunity will be closed on the Assyrians as a historical people and nation.  

[1] Editorial Note:  Quotes from the Assyrian publication Kokhva are translations from Assyrian into English by the author of this article.

[2] (Issawi, C. (ed.) The Economic History of the Middle East. Chicago. The U. of Chicago Press. 1971:7-8. 

[3] (Kazemzadeh, F. Russia and Britain in Persia. New Haven.  Yale U. Press. 1968:288.

[4] Shoumanov, V.  Assyrians in Chicago. Chicago.  Arcadia Publishing Co. 2001:10.   

[5] Sengstock, M. The Chaldean Americans New York Center for Migration Studies 1982:42. 

[6] Shedd, M.  The Measure of A Man  N. Y.  George H. Doran Co.1922: 58.  

[7] Kokhva: 1906:1:5:34

[8] For more on the condition of Assyrians in Urmia during this period see A. Ishaya   JAAS: 2002:26:

1: 55-76

[9] Kokhva. 1906:1:8:61

[10] Kokhva 1907:2:9:98-101

[11] Ibid

[12] Kokhva 1908:2:23:274.

[13] Kokhva 1906: 1: 10:1

[14] Kokhva 1907:2:10:102

[15] Kokhva 1907:2:10:101-102

[16] Kokhva 1907:2:4:42

[17] Smith, G. From Urmia to Stanislaus. Unpublished PhD Dissertation.  U. 0f C. Davis. 1982:241).

[18] Sarah Paz Interview. 1982

[19]Kokhva 1907:2:10:101.

 

[20] Kohva.1907: 2:1: 6-7. 

[21] E. D. Beynon. The Near East in Flint, Michigan The Geographical Review 34:1944:267

[22] Ishaya, A.  Class & Ethnicity in Central California Valley. Unpublished PhD Dissertation. 1985.

[23] Arthur Chavoor. 1977: Interview: Belmont, Massachusetts

[24] G. Marogi “The Syrian-Arameans in New Jersey”.  Source: Unidentified Encyclopedia article. Date N.D.

[25] Sengstock, M. Chaldean Americans Center for Migration Studies. New York: 1982:42-47.

[26] Sengstock, M.  Ibid.

[27]Beynon, E., The Near East in Michigan, in Geographic Review.1944:34:267-269.

[28] Shoumanov. Ibid:27.  

[29] Joseph, J. The Nestorians and Their Muslim Neighbors. Princeton University Press.  Princeton: 1961:153-154

[30] Rev. Joel Warda.   Copy of Cable sent to The Prime Minister Lloyd Gerorge.  London, England

[31] Joseph, J.  The Assyrian and Their Muslim Neighbors Princeton. Princeton U. Press. 1961:207;

 R. B Betts Christians in the Arab East John Knox Press. Atlanta, GA: 1978:34-38).

[32] The Assyrian Star: 1972:16:5:5. 

[33] Aprim Shapira “AUA Forgotten History”  Zinda magazine, 2003.

[34] The Assyrian Sentinel 1976:1:1:1; 1:2:1; 1980:5:4:2: 5:6:1-4.

[35] The Assyrian Star: 1974:5: Cover Page.

[36] Daniel, W.  Assyrians of today, Their Problem and a Solution Chicago. Author. 1969

[37] Francis Sarguis.  Comments on the 59th Annual Convention addressed to the AANF Delegates 1992

 

[38] San Francisco Chronicle 1982:1:18:5

[39] Dtroit Free Press 1981:3:1:1A.

[40] For detailed coverage see Turlock Daily journal: November12-December 23; For an overall summary see San Francisco chronicle 1982:1:18:5

[41] Detroit Free Press 1981:2:1:15A

[42] Detroit Free Press 1981:3:1:1A

[43] J. Mangaliman.  San Jose Mercury News. Sept. 2, 2001.

 
 
 
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