For the love of homeland and soul: 20th-century Jewish youth movements inspire Assyrian youth

During the summer of 2014, during the span of just a few months, an estimated 125,000 Assyrians – more than half of Iraq’s remaining Christian population – were stripped of their wealth, property and lands. Some were enslaved, and many were brutally executed, but all were forced to watch as churches and ancient Assyrian cities that pre-dated Christianity (such as Nineveh and Nimrud) fell – defiled and destroyed by black-clad fighters. Sadly, the entire world watched genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State unfold in real time, all aimed at cleansing Assyrians, Yazidis and other indigenous religious and ethnic minorities from their ancient homelands in Iraq.

Now, as the battle for Mosul has begun, internally displaced Assyrians and members of the global diaspora wonder what the future of Christianity in Iraq will be after ISIS is defeated. Many question whether displaced Assyrian families will return to their homes in the Nineveh Plains to rebuild what was lost, or if they will cut ties and place new roots in Iraqi Kurdistan or completely move to the West, never to return. Some are so weighed down by years of humiliation, degradation, and fear of hostile and more powerful ethnic neighbors that they now question whether Assyrians actually possess a right of return to their ancestral land of more than 5,000 years.

But a light has begun to break through this dark, uncertain period in Assyrian history: the Assyrian youth of the Middle East and in the diaspora, who are organizing and taking the reins of leadership. From the ashes of more than 100 years of massacres and a slow genocide, this great generation is both East and West, America and Iraq. Its passion, whether in the Khabur River or in Sydney, reflects the same selfless dream of uplifting its people. Truly, these are young people hungry for leadership and devoted to rebuilding one of the world’s greatest empires: Assyria. They do not just tweet, like and share, but they lead in grassroots organizing, and volunteer their time to help their displaced Assyrian brothers and sisters regain dignity, pride and livelihood in the wake of the Islamic State. Their energy, enthusiasm and love of Assyria are some of the most valuable resources they have in the fight to preserve Christianity in the Middle East.

Young Assyrians can look to the Jewish youth movements of the early 20th century for inspiration on how to rebuild post-genocide. These young Jewish activist organizations – like Hashomer Hatzair, the Betar Movement and Hanoar Ha’oved – produced fearless leaders and fulfilled the Jewish people’s eventual right of return to Israel. They managed to organize and flourish during one of the most turbulent times in modern Jewish history: a Europe fertile to extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism post-World War I, bearing the dark, bitter fruits of pogroms and Nazism.

Jewish Youth Movement Hashomer Hatzair in Sanok, Poland in 1925.
Jewish Youth Movement Hashomer Hatzair in Sanok, Poland in 1925.

Even during World War II, young members of groups like Hanoar Ha’oved led the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazi state, the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II. After the war, these Jewish youths turned their despair about losing 6 million of their people into action through service, volunteerism and the eventual rebuilding of their lost Jewish nation, ultimately resulting in the reemergence of the State of Israel in 1948. Young Jews around the world were able to connect, make history, build Israel and preserve Jewish history, identity and language. These are people who chose to not merely exist as victims in a perpetual reactionary state, but instead to change history.

Our young people are on their way toward moving Assyrians from victims to heroes. These remarkable young leaders have already shown their capacity and love of working directly with traumatized youth through organized social events, relief distributions, toy drives and counseling missions. We can see their commitment to building a better future through youth-run organizations like Etuti in Erbil, which works to bring children and youths together to build a new generation of Assyrian leaders.

Many young Assyrian leaders in the diaspora are also willing to advocate for their peers, fundraise, preserve and rebuild. Young diaspora leaders in Chicago formed Rinyo (Aramaic for “idea”), a nonprofit with a singular focus on preserving Aramaic among Iraqi and Syrian youths who have long been pressured to speak Arabic or Kurdish.

Young Assyrians have the ideas, energy and passion to rebuild. Let’s invest in them and raise them up as the Jewish community did for its youth. Empowered, they embody the truth that terrorism did not destroy the Assyrian soul, but instead woke the sleeping giant called “Assyria” to rise once again for her people. They are new leaders we can all stand behind.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, October 21, 2016 and reposted with permission.

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Juliana Taimoorazy is the 2014-2015 Philos Project Fellow. An Assyrian Christian born and raised in Iran, Juliana is the founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, an organization that raises awareness about the persecuted church in Iraq and helps Assyrian refugees resettle in the US. Smuggled out of Iran in 1989 to avoid religious persecution, Juliana sought asylum in America and obtained her MS in Instructional Design from Northeastern Illinois University.