McQuade: A lone Assyrian’s singular struggle

Being the only member of an ethnic group on campus is a tough burden to bear.

“Khigga,” “sharah” and “hareesa” are some of the most recognizable and iconic words to an Assyrian – an ancient Christian ethnic group indigenous to northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey that speaks various dialects of Neo-Aramaic   – yet you probably have almost no idea what or who I am talking about.

I am, I suspect, the only Assyrian on campus. When I’m asked about my ethnicity and I say “Assyrian,” in foolish hopes that, by emphasizing the first syllable, the person will somehow understand what I am saying. He or she immediately either responds: “Oh, so you’re Syrian,” or, after at least a five-second pause, the dreaded and all too familiar, “Wait, didn’t you guys go extinct thousands of years ago?”

After this game of 21 questions is over, I usually have to delve into a brief history lesson in which I say that even though the name fell into oblivion with the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.E, its people were never destroyed. I then hear a faint, “Oh.” They’re already uninterested and I give up.

Unfortunately, this situation isn’t a rare occurrence. It’s become a part of my initial conversation with almost anyone I have met who asks about which ethnicity my name is from.

During the past, and even here at Temple, when I’ve told people that I speak a modern dialect of Aramaic, which was the de facto language of western Asia nearly 2,600 years ago, I have been tested – the person asked me to say a few words in the language, and I complied, saying “shlamalukh,” meaning “hello,” and a few other words, only to have the person to tell me I am lying and don’t how to speak the language I claim to know.

And it’s always been like this. Growing up as one of the only Assyrians in Philadelphia, and as the son of an Iranian Assyrian immigrant, I didn’t expect that Temple would have any Assyrian students, since the total population numbers around 1.5-2 million throughout the world, and the Assyrian population in the U.S. is nearly 110,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It is still recovering from the genocide that decimated half of the Assyrian population nearly 100 years ago.

It wasn’t until a few weeks into the semester that, as I was riffling through the list of cultural clubs on OwlConnect, I became not unsurprised, but upset – upset that, just like my four years at high school, I would again be acting as a sort of emissary whose responsibility was to educate students whenever they ask me about who I am.

With religious and cultural organizations present on campus, students feel free to celebrate holidays, talk about upcoming cultural events, understand and enjoy the music or simply speak to each other in their respective languages about even the most trivial topics.

These clubs are almost essential in helping a student keep their identity. Without them, it is much more difficult and the chance of a student maintaining their identity decreases.

Eventually, the corollary of no clubs and nowhere to share or express one’s culture results in a loss of identity.

And for an Assyrian, identity, an idea so abstract, it is paradoxically one of the most salient and concrete objects they have.

With almost no Assyrian organizations outside of California, Michigan and Chicago, and no organizations on campus, there have been myriad times at Temple where I have thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be much easier to simply stop telling people who I am and who Assyrians are? Are my explanations even worth it?” Some part of me still believes it is.

With such a small population in the United States and throughout the globe, in general, you can see why community is so important.

Some students on campus have asked why I care so much about being Assyrian. I care because no one else cares. When one’s history consists of genocide, nonstop massacres, persecution and oppression, someone has to remember it.

With no Assyrian state, this affirmation of who I am is the only way to connect with others, even if they are thousands of miles away.

Not mentioning I am Assyrian is detrimental because it only perpetuates the idea that we are not here and haven’t been here for thousands of years.

Since no more than 1.2 million Assyrians remain in their homeland across four nations and most of the population lives in the diaspora, throughout the Middle East and the West, I am doing a disservice to myself by not mentioning who I am.

The more I think about those stationary ancient ruins – the stones, monuments and statues of the ancient kings – the more I believe that the Assyrian people, although scattered, are also a part of this phrase: They too are the ruins of Nineveh.

Assyrian activist Rosie Malek-Yonan once said, “I may not have a country, but my country is in me.”

And if giving a short lecture is what it takes to educate one person, and reaffirm that my country is in me, so be it. It’s the least I can do.

Romsin McQuade can be reached at romsin.mcquade@temple.edu.

27 Comments

  1. It is worth the explanation young man because there are people like me in the world who honor and respect the position you are in and would like to offer our sincere desire to educate ourselves. That being true, I would also like to offer this…the Assyrian people will never die off because like your activist citation notes…it lives within you. All of our cultures live within us and while we need community to strengthen identity we don’t need it to validate ourselves. Be proud. I am proud of you for speaking for your people where the hateful have sought to eliminate you from history.

  2. Great article! I truly respect your struggle and effort to educate others about the Assyrian culture and nation!!
    Although I have always had some Assyrian with me at every school I have been to, it has always been my goal to educate anyone I come into contact with about my heritage!

    Keep up the great work!

  3. Congrat’s on you’re article and the fact that an Assyrian from Canada is reading it, how grand!!
    As a Social Service Worker I get the biggest attention due to my name and the fact that they play the guessing game of where are you from?? I must say I enjoy that because they never in a million years come close to thinking that im from somewhere in the middle east ( Iraq). Then my historic lecture begins. I love when there eyes become wide and entrigued and there question in dismay to question my truth. I’m proud of our heritage but I hate that we’re so unrecognized till this day 🙁 so if it’s a bit of work to educate others lets continue to do it. In my field I have a duty to report dangerous situations to the Government organization to help assist people’s safety why not protect and have a duty to report about my Ethnicity! Good luck and God bless ( Allaha Khamilokh) 😀

  4. I am proud of you brother. Never shall we deny who we are or stop educating the world.
    One person at a time.
    You may be alone in person on campus, but we are all with you.

  5. Good on you Ramsin — I am an Assyrian living in Sydney, Australia. You’re not alone. We’ve all been in your situation at one point or another. Keep doing what you do.

  6. Many ethnicities, cultures, empires and religions have come and gone, whether organically or otherwise. What makes the Assyrians so special? The Assyrian Empire itself that modern day “Assyrians” worship cared little for the many cultures it conquered. They implemented assimilation policies to “Assyrianise” other peoples. Maybe that’s why we still have people identifying as Assyrians today. Or maybe it’s simply due to the reference to Assyrians in the Bible being given a place in heaven or some crap. Is it just a coincidence that Assyrians are synonymous with their Christianity?

    • @Someone

      The remnants of the Assyrian empire, after 612 B.C.E., were those who held on to Ashurism, the Assyrian religion. Additionally, the Assyrian people were around and existed hundreds of years before their empire as members of the independent city-state of Ashur in modern-day northern Iraq. The Assyrians today do not merely identify as Assyrians because of a Biblical prophecy. Instead, the Churches that the Assyrian people belonged to — the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Church — professed their flock, speakers of a unique language, culture, and religion, as Assyrians since the beginning of Christianity. The Assyrians have always known of their history, but others have not.

    • Please forgive grammatical errors:

      To answer your questions, Someone: True, Assyrians stemmed from, and enveloped, the cultures that it conquered – Sumerians, Akkadians, etc… But genetically speaking, they are of the same makeup as the folks who identify as Assyrians today* (see below.)

      Some things that make us important come from the word ORIGINAL…Origin. Yours and mine (I am Assyrian) are shared: Law & Order, The invention of the wheel, First civilization (Sumeria,) becoming an Agriculture-based society vs. Nomadic, Writing as we know it today (non-heiroglyphic,) Taxes, Mercantile/Trade Record keeping. If you’ve taken part in any of these things, you, my brother, are benefiting from The Assyrians. If you haven’t…well you best keep up with your taxes! (That’s some Assyrian humour for you.)

      In the Bible, the Assyrians are mentioned as war-hungry and destructive, actually. They are not written in as “the chosen ones.” Which is what I imagine what you mean by “a place in heaven or some crap.” Historically speaking, concerning Christianity, Assyrians believed in Christ immediately, and the Assyrian Church of the East is one of the oldest Christian sects. Fun Fact: The gospel was spread in Aramaic by Jewish-Christian orators. Assyrian is Neo-Aramaic; Aramaic is the tree of language from which Arabic and Hebrew stem! The reason why Assyrians identify with Christianity today is because, as many people who are oppressed, and though they may be indigenous, are denied certain rights, they cling to faith. Faith is the government of the poor man. When your government holds you under, what else can you do but seek a non-earthly governor for salvation (be it Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, etc…?) Economically oppressed people are often times forced to work instead of seek school-education. Many times faith-based stories (think of them like myths) are what are culturally passed down from generation to generation. When you don’t have land to pass down, when you don’t have monetary things to pass down because your family has constantly had to flee from genocide and hate-crimes, well, you hold on to what they can’t take away: often times that is faith, ritual, and tradition…things that are found in Christianty (and any other religion…but Assyrians happened to be Christians first.) There are Jewish Assyrians, too. And also Assyrian Athiests.

      Regarding “Assyrianising” other cultures during their Empire…
      Very few cultures throughout ancient history chose to allow the people they conquered to keep their individual cultural identities. And those that did, did not do it from the goodness of their hearts. They did it because it benefited the Kingdom/Empire in some economic way by exploiting those groups. Modern text books have chosen to focus the one chapter they have on Assyrians as war-hungry, barbaric, ruthless killers…because it sells. It’s thrilling. You would find only a sentence or two dedicated the former, great, accomplishments I mentioned in the first paragraph of this comment in that same chapter.

      True, they were one of the greatest military forces of history, but they also originated amazing art, literature, and math/science, from which other cultures, with whom they traded, borrowed and expanded – it’s why we have a lot in common with Medditerrenean, Eastern European, and West Asian cultures.

      Regarding modern Assyrians actually being descendants of the Ancient Assyrians…making sure “our place in heaven” is warm and kept is not the reason my great grandmother refused to convert as The Ottoman Empire’s henchmen made her and thousands of others march for 10 days; Eastern Orthodox women, children (mainly girls who weren’t yet “married” and raped yet; hardly any men involved in the marches, because the men had been castrated and tossed in ditches along the road; Assyrian, Armenian & Greek) with no shoes, through rain and cold in what was to be the extinction of their people…wasn’t because she refused to give up her heavenly seat.
      Assyrian Identification today is deeper than that, Someone (a very vague moniker, by the way….)
      Scientific studies have found that Modern Assyrians are, archeologically, anthropologically, and genetically linked to the original Assyrians from The Empire. And genetically differ than the other cultural groups that inhabit those regions today (Be they Arab, Kurd, Armenian, Jewish, etc…) It’s scientifically proven that we are genetically linked.

      I am happy for your curiosity, brother/sister, and hope that you continue to ask questions! Ramsin; In answering folks who are not aware of my culture, I find my own identity to be strengthened, and reaffirmed. Thanks for the article. I wrote one for my school paper, once, titled “Not ‘One Syrian;’ Assyrian.” Keep it up!

  7. I commend your efforts Romsin. You effectively describe an all too familiar experience and I hope the comments you receive act as motivators to that ancestral passion you already have coursing through your veins. The greatest challenges we Assyrians living in diaspora have to overcome are attitudes of indifference, patience, and attention span (both within us and others). These are preferable challenges to those our brethereb living in the East have to endure (i.e. ongoing massacres, cultural and religious suppression and compromise, just to name a few). For this reason, we must all strengthen our resolve and continue to educate people on our awesome culture, relevant and significant history, and our ongoing threats.

    Keep up the good fight brother and know that you’re not alone. Just the other day, after weeks of brief conversations, my lecturer stated that he will update the matierial he recommends to a class for a particular unit, to include Assyrian contributions to the realm of leadership. Those little lectures make a difference.

  8. Shlomo,
    Great article! I’m an Assyrian from New York and have the same struggle. Although it gets tiring, you have to keep explaining to people. We need recognition!

  9. Great Article Khona. Keep up the good fight. This is not only your struggle. It is ours as well, no matter where we live. I salute you khona from an Assyrian Swedish person. Have a nice day all of you and keep the Assyrian spirit alive.

  10. Thank you for the article.

    It made me glad and hopeful to read about your struggle to always have to explain who we are. People like u bring me hope, that we one day shall have Assyria back

    Love, Catherine from Sweden

    P.s Rosie malek younan shared your article on Facebook. =)

  11. Excellent article. I know exactly how you feel. For my entire life, I have always had to explain that I am Assyrian, not Syrian. Exaggerating the first syllable never works. Haha! You get used to it over time. But like you, I always feel compelled to give people a brief lesson on who we are.

  12. I think it is very admirable that you feel this way and that you’re interested in your people and culture. However, you’re mistaken if you think you will gain any interest by continuing to pose your people as an “Ancient Christian Ethnic Group”. First of all, you speak Neo-Assyrian, which is linguistically closer to ancient Assyrian (what they incorrectly call Akkadian) than Aramaic. Secondly, by continuing to emphasize the Christian part all you will get is pity, and pity doesn’t get people much in this world, nor should it. Emphasize your people’s knowledge of self, our contributions to humanity, and the Ancient’s knowledge and use of symbolism to convey deep intellectual secrets to those who were open to knowing. No, I’m not saying skip telling them about the genocide (because that is very important) but emphasize the Assyrians’ contributions.

  13. I know how you feel.
    I have to play the same game every time I introduce myself to somebody. It’s very difficult being the only Assyrian in a community of people, most of whom don’t know or care who Assyrians are. It’s even more difficult when I can’t even identify with most other Assyrians because I don’t go to church and don’t agree with many of our peers lifestyle choices. Living in AZ as well I deal with this a lot, but more often than not people I talk to will tell me they know somebody who is also Assyrian (they think) or in the rarest of cases they may know a lot about Assyrians because they took an interest in ancient Sumerian/Mesopotamian mythology which led them there. The most I’ve ever seen mentioned about Assyrians in my schools growing up was a single paragraph in a world history textbook about how we were ruthless warriors and would collect heads like piles of rice, which everybody in the class seemed to have simply glossed over, as well. At least we have a story to tell. If people will open up to it then they will learn quite a bit and possibly begin thinking about their own heritage, and those are the people who I always end up building stronger connections with.

  14. The Assyrians have all but been ethnically cleansed (by Muslims) from many of their original homelands.

    Just as is happening today in Egypt where the Coptic Christians are being ethnically cleansed (by Muslims), and is also the case for the Chaldean Christians in Iraq, so too has been the fate of the Assyrian Christians.

    It’s long past time Obama quit supporting those who are killing Christians, Animists, Buddhists, Jews, i.e., Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood – and began supporting the people who share Western civilization’s values: People like you and your people.

  15. My father dedicated his whole life to the Assyrian Identity. With very little recognition from from his own people. Still now while his health has deteriorated he only cares about his Assyrian Heritage. I believe this need to yell out I AM ASSYRIAN is hard coated in us all.

  16. I loved reading your article. Your words have described my days over and over. I live in Turlock where Assyrians thrive, but work a half hour away in Merced and still they have no clue who Assyrians are! Keep writing about us and spread your beautiful voice and language!

  17. Hey Romsin,

    Great article, I now exactly how you feel having grown up in Sydney the school I went to had a large group of Assyrian students, and the surrounding area also had a large population of Assyrians, so explanation was rarely needed when growing up. However once I commenced university, only 2 of my Assyrian friends got into the same institution I did, and boy oh boy the amount of times I have heard the ohh your “Syrian” response would have made me a millionaire if I got a dollar every time someone said that. I really do feel your pain when there is no one to talk to about your culture, identity and festivities, but sometimes we just have to make the most of our opportunity to meeting such people with a void in knowledge and educate them about our great culture and identity, as I know the many people that I have, have absolutely loved it, especially the pacha and dolma!

  18. I feel your pain. I am half Assyrian. Try convincing other Assyrians you too are Assyrian even when you cannot speak a lick. Lol Now, my spelling will be bad, but I can say, ghudma breesha. I am from the Yonan family. I am related to the Alexanders as well as the Elishas. My guess is when my father’s father came over in 1909, his last name was changed to MATTHEWS.

  19. You have echoed my sentiment . Like so many of our people ,I too have struggled to educate the others around me for the past 43 years in Palmdale California.
    At least in Iran ,where I was born ,almost everybody knew who Assyrians were.
    Let us never give up. Now with the help of the internet and digital media at our disposal, our struggle to re-introduce Assyrians to the modern world arena has just begun. We will prevail, B’Khelet Allaha .
    With my deepest love and respect to my fellow Assyrians.
    Thank you Romsin. Yul (Tatoosh)Gevargis. Palmdale California.

  20. Great job son of Atour Romsin, as most of my Assyrian brothers and sisters mentioned that we all go through similar situation like you do but don’t get discouraged even get prouder and this should be the least duty of each one of us to do, and keep working until Assyria rise and see each other one more time in Assyria. ”
    KHAYA ATOUR”

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