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Assyrians in East Valley break silence on Iraq
As war looms, immigrants raise voices condemning Saddam
BY BILL BERTOLINO TRIBUNE
— Tribune writer Bill Bertolino can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling (480) 970-2352.
Nobody wants Saddam Hussein’s regime toppled more than Gilbert resident Fred Rustam and his fellow countrymen who emigrated from Iraq to Arizona to escape religious persecution.
"The destruction of Iraq started way back, when Saddam started killing his own people, when he sent millions of kids to war for no real reason, when he destroyed neighborhood after neighborhood — that is real destruction," said Rustam, a 46-year-old engineer who came to the United States in 1980.
Rustam is one of an estimated 8,000 Assyrian-Americans living in Arizona. Until now, they have lived mostly quiet lives. But as President Bush unveils his agenda to oust Saddam, the local Assyrian community stands vocally behind him, drumming up support in the Valley to topple the dictator.
Indigenous to a region of northern Iraq, the Assyrians, a Christian minority, have been persecuted for decades under Saddam’s regime on the basis of their religious beliefs and ethnic identity.
They number about 2 million people, and their calendar year is 6752, yet they aren’t recognized as a people in Iraq. Their nuns have been beheaded, priests killed, villages wiped off the map, women raped and 1,500-year-old churches destroyed, according to the Assyrian Aid Society of America, a group that catalogs the human rights atrocities.
They are a prideful, yet powerless people living under a constant cloud of fear.
The ones who have come to the East Valley and other parts of Arizona are proud Americans, thankful for a democratic society and personal freedoms. They are shopkeepers, social workers, engineers and real estate agents.
Yet underneath this veil of normalcy, the Assyrian-Americans in Arizona — and the estimated 300,000 throughout the United States — are supporting Bush’s efforts to oust Saddam, collecting money for their relief organizations and trying to raise awareness that their people are in constant danger.
They are launching letter-writing campaigns to Congress and holding fund-raisers to restore damaged churches and schools in Iraq. They also are active in the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a political organization here and in Iraq that supports the removal of Saddam and a free society thereafter.
The prospect of a U.S. invasion is an emotional tug-of-war for many Assyrian-Americans who have relatives in Iraq, but one that is deemed crucial.
"They are so numb. To them, many say, ‘If it’s going to take me dying for my country to change it for my children, I am willing to do that.’ They have just had enough," said Chandler resident Nahrain Lazar, who works with the Assyrian Aid Society. "They say, ‘We’re alive, but we are not living.’ They are looking toward the future, and they are willing to take that step."
While there is seemingly strong backing for Saddam in Iraq — last week’s election portrayed 100 percent voter support for the dictator, who was the only candidate on the ballot — the Assyrians here say it is hollow support. It is based on fear, they say.
"If the Iraqi people know for sure that America’s goal is to get rid of Saddam, they will give up their weapons; there will be no fight," said Sam Darmo, spokesman for the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Arizona. "The people will greet our soldiers with flowers."
Since Saddam took power in 1979, many Assyrians have fled the capital city of Baghdad to a northern region of the country protected by the United Nations, Darmo said. But about half of the Assyrian population still lives in Baghdad and faces the greatest threat from the dictator.
The awareness of the Assyrian plight has gained more recognition in the past year than it has in recent history, Darmo said. For instance, President Bush spoke of the oppression of the Assyrians, and other ethnic minority groups, in a public address to the nation Oct. 7.
The secretary general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, Younadam Kanna, also met with State Department representatives in September to press the point for Assyrian participation in Iraqi-opposition meetings, according to the Assyrian International News Agency.
But with that recognition comes a daily reminder of the tyranny they face.
"It is very unfortunate that the Assyrians were forgotten for so long," Darmo said. "We are appealing to the world, especially the American public, to hear our case."
Ewan Gewargis, who hosts the Phoenix-based Assyrian Star program on KTKP (1280 AM), said he wants his relatives in Iraq to experience the same liberties, such as freedom of speech and press, that he found long ago in America.
"Iraqi people have been dreaming and dreaming because they are powerless . . . to see a savior to save them from the cancer that is Saddam Hussein," said Gewargis, 61, who came to the United States in 1975.
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