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From left, Youil Qaryaqos of Modesto, Edward Haskel, Alphonse Odisho and ex-Illinois state Sen. John Nimrod converse at the 37th annual Assyrian State Convention on Saturday at Modesto Centre Plaza.
DREW FLEMING/THE BEE
Assyrians feel a new sense of urgency
By JULISSA McKINNON
BEE STAFF WRITER
Published: May 25, 2003, 07:46:49 AM PDT
The destiny of the Assyrian people in Iraq is being mapped in hotel conference rooms across America.
This is where the Assyrian elite -- the presidents of political and social organizations, lobbyists, journalists -- come together to debate politics, trade business cards and organize.
About 50 such leaders gathered late Saturday afternoon in a basement room of Modesto Centre Plaza. The meeting was one of many activities of the 37th annual Assyrian State Convention, with activities in Modesto and Turlock.
The program continues today with a banquet dance party at the Red Lion Hotel in Modesto, and a separate dance party at Modesto Centre Plaza. A picnic is planned Monday at Tuolumne River Regional Park.
Saturday afternoon's meeting started more than an hour late, but everyone there shared a common sense of urgency. Even as they spoke, the new Iraq was taking shape -- in the wake of the U.S.-led war that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Assyrians say they need to act now if they are to play a role in the new power structure.
"It's a historic opportunity for our people and country," said Rommel Eliah, representative of the Assyrian Democratic Movement for the United States and Canada. "In the new Iraq we want representation in all branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial."
Many Assyrian organizers believe that the fight for Assyrian representation in Iraq will be won on U.S. soil.
If not for such conventions, the U.S. State Department may never have taken heed of this small, mostly Christian ethnic minority in Iraq.
Over the past year, Assyrian groups in the United States have unified their voice and streamlined their message to U.S. leaders, driving home the point that Assyrians are the indigenous people of the land that now is Iraq.
"Our priority is for a secular democracy in Iraq and for recognition of our roots in the country," Eliah said.
But for Assyrians to get a foothold in the emerging Iraqi government, Assyrian leaders admit that they need U.S. assistance in establishing a democracy. Without a democracy, the Assyrians who comprise only 10 percent of Iraq's population do not stand a chance at a voice in government.
Former Illinois state legislator John Nimrod, an Assyrian-American, has been informing congressmen of the Assyrians' plight for decades.
"You can't tell people what you want until they know who you are," said Nimrod, who is secretary of the Assyrian Universal Alliance.
In the past year, the State Department added the Assyrian Democratic Movement to its list of legitimate Iraqi opposition groups. President Bush cited the oppression of Assyrians and other ethnic minorities in his Oct. 7 national address.
Two weeks ago, the California Assembly unanimously passed a resolution acknowledging the Assyrians' plight in Iraq.
Carlo Ganjeh, secretary of the Assyrian Universal Alliance, talked about the decadeslong persecution of Assyrians: "We try to lobby different people in government, in the House and Senate, because we have to make sure that Assyrians are protected."
He expressed concern that the minority Assyrians will be overrun during the chaotic transition after Saddam.
In the past two weeks, he said, he has heard reports of several Assyrian store owners being killed, and Assyrian girls being kidnapped. He expressed consternation at news that several churches in Baghdad have been surrounded by speakers hooked up to mosques, booming out Koran readings and prayers.
"Other Iraqi opposition parties will try to ignore us," Ganjeh said. "But the United States will help us be represented in all levels of government. If we're not, the future doesn't look good. If we are to preserve our history, language, culture -- we need to stay centralized in that region."
But like many Assyrians now settled in America, Ganjeh said he is not planning to move back to Iraq. He came to America with $17 in his pocket, he said, and now runs his own mortgage company in the Bay Area.
"It's a melting pot in the U.S. We all become Americanized. Eventually you lose your language culture and heritage. That's why we're hoping that people remain in the homeland."
Bee staff writer Julissa McKinnon can be reached at 578-2324 or email@example.com.
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