Interview from 1996, I believe

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Posted by Jeff ( on October 11, 2001 at 10:53:36:

I am copying and pasting this here because even now, it seems very relevant...

What I love is how there is a village where even the non assyrians speak Sooreth...

Interview with Reverend Benny Beth-Yadegar Priest of the Assyrians in Georgia, in the former Soviet Union

Q: Tell us a few words about yourself.
A: My name is Benyamin Beth-Yadegar. Everyone calls me Benny, and I was born in the village of Zomalan in Urmi in 1963. After finishing school there, I was sent by Rev. Toma Miram to Tehran in 1982 to study priesthood. I was among the five students who started the first class in the newly established theological school directed by Mar Youkhana Essai. After studying there for four years, I left Iran in 1986 for Italy and entered the Seminary. I finished in 1994 and then came to the United States. I was ordained here in San Jose by Mar Avrahim Avrahim, the Bishop of the Assyrian Catholic Church in the United States on September 18, 1994.

I spent a month in Georgia in May 1995 at the invitation of the Vatican Ambassador and visited the Assyrian communities there. I came back and asked the Vatican to allow me to serve the Assyrians in Georgia and have been doing so for the past year.

Q: How were you informed about Assyrian communities in Georgia?
A: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Vatican established relations with the former Soviet Republics and opened embassies there. The Catholic Bishop of Georgia who held religious services for all of the Catholics there had noticed that among the people who regularly attended Mass, there were people who called themselves Assyrians. These Assyrians had come to the Bishop and explained to him who they are; that they had come from Bet-Nahrain during the pre-Soviet era, and that they had their own priests and churches in the homeland. They had asked the Bishop for an Assyrian priest to serve their communities.

When the Bishop came back to Vatican, he notified church officials about the Assyrians in Georgia and their demands. Vatican, which is very familiar with Eastern people and has an Eastern Congress to interact with Eastern Churches, informed the Bishop that there is in fact an Assyrian in Vatican studying to become a priest. I received a phone call and met with the Bishop. He requested that I write a letter in Assyrian to the Assyrians in Georgia.

Two months after the Bishop had gone back to Georgia, I received a fax from him informing me that everyone in the Assyrian community there had copied my letter and pinned it to the wall in their houses. They had told the Bishop, "he is our priest and we want him here", having absolutely no idea who I am. I went to visit them for a month, then decided to stay and become the priest of the Assyrian communities there.

Q: Where did these Assyrians originate?
A: The majority of them went to Georgia during the Assyrian exodus from Urmi during World War I. Some even date back to earlier times, when Assyrians from Urmi would go to Russia for work or trade.

Q: How many Assyrians live in Georgia, how many Assyrian villages do we have in Georgia, and where are their geographical locations?
A: The population of Georgia is about six million. The majority are Georgians themselves, but there are also about 400,000 Armenians and several other nationalities which made up the former Soviet Union. There are about 400 Assyrian families in one village called Kanda. In Teflis, the capital of Georgia, we have about 500 Assyrian families. In another village called Gardebani we have about 200 Assyrian families. My estimate of the population of the Assyrian communities that I have visited is between five to six thousand. There are also other places which I have been told that a significant number of Assyrians live but I have not yet visited. For example in Kutaisia, a city four hours away from Teflis, there are about 250 Assyrian families. In Krasnavar there are about 400 Assyrian families. In the whole of Georgia I believe that we have over 10,000 Assyrians.

A lot of Assyrians in Georgia have in the recent years moved to Russia in search of jobs. Kiev and Moscow both have large Assyrian populations most of whom migrated there from Georgia. There is parish of the Assyrian Church of the East in Moscow which is served by Qasha Khamis, sent there by Mar Giwargis of Baghdad.

Q: Tell us about the Assyrians of Kanda.
A: Kanda is over 80% Assyrian and you hear only Assyrian being spoken there. Even the Georgians who live in Kanda speak Assyrian. The youngsters in Kanda speak Assyrian flawlessly, and it is so embarrassing to tell them that young Assyrians born in the United States, in this land of freedom and opportunity, can not speak the Assyrian language. The youngsters in Teflis on the other hand, are not so fluent in Assyrian. So what I do is to bring a lot of young Assyrians from Teflis to Kanda. When these youngsters meet each other, they are forced to communicate in Assyrian since it is the only common language between them. (The youngsters in Kanda can speak the Georgian language, but not much Russian. The youngsters in Teflis on the other hand can speak Russian, but not much Georgian) They have so much fun in Kanda that the youngsters in Teflis tell me, "Rabi, let's go to Kanda more often, it's a lot of fun and we learn Assyrian there."

Q: How have the Assyrians in Georgia been able to maintain our language and heritage?
A: During the communist era, they were free to teach the Assyrian language and promote our culture. The only thing that they were not allowed to do was to practice religion.

Q: Tell us about the prominent Assyrians there.
A: They have a lot of learned and cultured Assyrians within their ranks. Some of the Assyrians I have met there are among the most educated Assyrians we have in todays world. I have seen books at Yosep Bet-Youkhanna's house, written by prominent Russians about Assyrians, and I am talking about encyclopedias of several volumes. We have musicians, technicians, people in design and construction, doctors and engineers. There are big government houses built by Assyrians that are truly works of art. We have a brain surgeon in Moscow who is very much in demand all over Europe. He helps the Assyrian communmity in many ways and treats a lot of his Assyrian patients for free. We also have an Assyrian general in the army who is in charge of several hundred thousand soldiers.

Q: Is there a fear of Georgians intimidating or oppressing the other nationalities in Georgia?
A: There are obviously nationalist sentiments and preferences for Georgians when it comes to job opportunities and key positions at the expense of the other nationalities. But Georgia is a free country that is moving towards a democratic society and nationalist sentiments are kept in check by the nascent democratic intitutions that have been established there since the fall of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Georgians are dependent on the skills and the labor of these other nationalities as Georgians themselves are unwilling or unable to provide the goods and services offered by these nationalities.

Q: Is there war in Georgia right now and are the Assyrians caught in the cross fire?
A: Two, three years ago there was war. Our Assyrian general prevented a lot of our Assyrian men from being drafted into the military. The ones that were drafted were not sent to the front lines. Thus we escaped those years without any Assyrian casualties. But life became very difficult and the Assyrian community lived in fear of the war. Since Edward Shevarnadze became president couple of years ago, peace has returned to Georgia. There is war in the neighboring republics however. There is war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in Chechnia.

Q: Tell us about their economic conditions.
A: With the breakup of the Soviet system, the economic ties between the former Soviet Republics have been severed and there is a general breakdown in Georgia's economy. During the communist era, the Russians used to operate the factories and manage the industry in Georgia. Once Georgia gained independence, the Russians either left or were fired and most of the factories in the region are sitting idle either due to lack of spare parts or expertise of the locals. Georgia is a cold place which lacks minerals and natural resources. Right now agriculture is the main industry and even that is not a year-round activity since the growing season is a short three to four months per year.

As a result, lack of employment is an acute problem. A large number of Assyrians do not hold jobs. You will see groups of Assyrians on the street all day, playing domino or cards to kill time until the day is over. Some Assyrian men, when they manage to raise some cash, go to Turkey to buy goods and sell them in Georgia for a profit. A lot of our educated Assyrians who used to hold high paying jobs now shine shoes on the streets.

Q: Tell us about the health conditons of the Assyrians in Georgia.
A: For one thing, their food is healthy because they can not afford to add chemicals to what they grow or raise. On the other hand, Georgia is a very cold place for most of the year and especially in the villages, except for firewood, people do not have any other means of keeping their houses warm. Often times people stay in bed until noon, when their houses get warm enough for them to move around. Illnesses from cold and humidity are very common. Sanitation is also a big problem due to lack of hot water. A lot of people in villages suffer from illnesses in their digestive systems; a lot of youngsters have worms in their digestive tracts. A simple cut or infection may take months to heal due to lack of hygiene and antibiotics. Children especially are very vulnerable under these conditions and simple diseases can and do become fatal.

The drugs and medicines that are available are sold in conditions that are absolutely unbelievable in terms of Western standards. Drugs are sold in boxes that lack an expiration date, or that have expired 2-3 years ago. Russian drugs are scarce and even when available, are sold at horrendously expensive prices. Yet, they are not as effective as Western drugs. The drugs I am taking with me; basic drugs like aspirin, antibiotics, antibacterial creams, and vitamins since I am not a physician, are mainly for the Assyrian children in the villages. I am also taking insulin with me as we have a number of diabetics who are losing their eyesight and hearing due to lack of insulin. Depending on the needs that arise and other emergencies, I will call or fax your Association here to inform them of the type of drugs we need so that they can make arrangements with the local Assyrian doctors and send them to us.

Q: What are you planning to do with the donations that you are collecting from Assyrians here? A: The money that I am raising here from individals and organizations, which I hope will be a significant amount, I plan to use in Georgia to create jobs for the Assyrians. I would like to start with simple projects, for example, raising livestock to supply our communities with meat, milk, hide, and wool. Or purchasing sewing machines for our women to sew clothes. We will try to meet the needs of our communities first and then sell the rest to raise money. This money we will use to make the operation self-sufficient and create more jobs. We can also buy gas stations or coffee shops which only cost several thousand dollars in Georgia.

Q: What are your expectations of our Assyrian communities here?
A: I am well aware of the fact that money does not grow on trees in this country and people work hard to meet their monthly financial obligations. Nevertheless, I expect my fellow Assyrians to support us for a few years with their donations until we can stand on firm grounds with our projects. If we can have a thousand Assyrian families here that donate $10 or $15 a month, it will be of tremendous help to us. These donations can be made through your Assyrian organizations or Churches for "the Assyrians in Georgia". We have established an account with the Vatican for this purpose and I have made the account number available to Assyrian organizations and Churches in this country. The money collected in this account will be sent to the Vatican Embassy in Georgia for us to collect.

This I believe, is the most convenient way to support our Assyrians there. It is quite costly for me to travel back and forth between Georgia and the United States to raise money every time. I can also ill-afford to stay away from our Assyrian communities there for weeks at a time. And I am asking for your support for only a few years. I do not anticipate that our Assyrian communities there will need help for more than five years. Georgia's economic conditions will definitely start improving in the next few years. Western companies have already come in and are beginning to invest there. Once these companies open up new plants, more job opportunities will become available to Assyrians. But for now, they desparately need our help.

Q: How is the Vatican helping you?
A: The mission in Geogia was established by Vatican. True, I am a Catholic priest there, but as an Assyrian Chrisitian, my services are for all of our Assyrians there, irrespective of their denomination. Whoever speaks my language is my brother or sister, and I am there to help him or her in any way I can.

Vatican itself has serious problems and budget shortfalls. But I do receive help from the Vatican Ambassador there, even though it is small and limited in scope. For example, they do pay me a salary of $210 per month, which they actually do not have to. They can tell me that these are your people and they have to support you through church offerings and memberships as is the case in other parishes. But they know that our Assyrian people there just do not have the means to do so. The offerings we collect do not amount to more than two to three dollars per week. For this reason we do not collect offerings; I have placed a box at a corner of the church and whoever wants to make an offering can do so. Everytime the box fills up, we use the money to provide and care for the Assyrian needy.

Q: Tell us about cultural and educational activities of our Assyrians in Georgia.
A: Georgia has a Motva which is in charge of these activities. In addition to being a member of this Motva, I head the committee in charge of educational and cultural activities, and teach the Assyrian language. With the video camera donated by one of the Assyrians here in San Jose, I intend to conduct interviews with elder Assyrians to record the history of Assyrians in the former Soviet Union. They have stories to tell of how they came to these places from Bet-Nahrain, how they were exiled to Siberia by Stalin, and how they managed to live under communist rule. I intend to document our villages and the history of Assyrian settlements there. This history can be published in Assyrian newspapers here and the video footage can be shown on Assyrian TV stations. I also have a lap-top computer there that we use for both Church and Motva needs when it comes to publishing fliers or documents in Assyrian. However, we can not undertake significant projects because people's basic needs are not met on a daily basis. We need to provide our Assyrians there with improved living and employment conditions.

Q: Do you have anything else to add?
A: I would like to thank the Association and the Assyrian Churches in San Jose. They have welcomed me with open arms and have been very supportive. Everyone in the Assyrian community in San Jose has been quite generous. I am also grateful to our communities and associations in Central Valley, LA and San Diego, Detroit and Chicago who have been very supportive. This has made me extremely happy since our Assyrian communities there have their eyes on the road and expect me to return with good news. Once we start with our projects there and send you reports and video footage of our activities, I am certain that our people here will be motivated to support us even more generously

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