Some estimates count 250,000 Assyrian people massacred in Turkey, northern Iraq, northwest Iran and northeast Syria by Ottoman Turks and allied Kurds between 1915 and 1918 — but the Assyrian Genocide is an often-overlooked moment in history.
Stan State, located in the heart of one of the first Assyrian American communities, has worked to change that with the 3-year-old Sarguis Modern Assyrian Heritage Project and the Sarguis Modern Assyrian Heritage Collection in the Vasché Library. The project is dedicated to student projects and research documenting Assyrian history and culture with a special emphasis on Assyrians in California.
This effort is going global, thanks to a California Humanities grant that will fund “Tell Our Stories: Artifacts from the Assyrian Genocide.”
Proposed as an exhibit in the University Art Gallery with memorabilia, photographs, deeds and other artifacts that fleeing Assyrians carried with them to America, the exhibit also will include oral histories of descendants of those who survived.
The exhibit will be digitized, in part by students, under the direction of Erin Hughes, professor of history and political science at Stan State, who is collaborating on the project with Kathy Sayad Zatari, whose grandmother escaped the genocide, and fellow scholars Ruth Kambar and Hannibal Travis.
“I feel honored to be part of this amazing team,” said Hughes, who began teaching at Stan State in fall 2019 and is the director of the Modern Assyrian Heritage Project. “It’s an important topic, and important for the University.”
Hughes, who teaches modern Assyrian history, explained the work toward the California Humanities grant, one of 16 awarded in June and worth nearly $20,000, was underway before she arrived and gives credit to her colleagues.
Sayad Zatari admits to having the original dream of a collection, which was inspired by tracing her own genealogy, but heaps praise on the team’s scholars.
The grant is a matching grant, although it need not be matched with funds. Instead, Stan State is providing the exhibition space and technology to create a virtual version of the collection.
When Hughes arrived last fall, Stan State’s Modern Assyrian Heritage Project was in place, and she was impressed with the collection assembled in the Vasché Library.
“I was thinking about how we can support Assyrian scholarship within and outside the University,” Hughes said. “I was approached about the Cal Humanities Grant, and in the course of that, it gave me the idea to build a website for the project that has a lot of public history on it. We hope to do a virtual version of the exhibition that we’ll have up permanently.”
That Stan State should be a partner of the project initiated by Sayad Zatari, who grew up in Chicago and lives in Phoenix, is a testament to the legacy of Turlock’s Assyrian community.
“There are social groups in California of descendants from little towns in the Middle East where parents and grandparents were from,” Sayad Zarati said. “One of those little towns is Aada, a suburb of Urmia, Iran, where my grandmother was from. Every year in Modesto or Turlock they have a get-together, and I go to it. On one of those occasions I met Carmen Morad, a local Assyrian who knows everything about the Assyrian community.”
That connection led to Sayad Zatari speaking at Stan State. She told the story of her grandmother, whose husband and two young sons were slaughtered in the genocide. But she managed to walk hundreds of miles across the desert to the safety of a British refugee camp. Sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, she moved to Chicago, married and started a new life.
“That’s where I showed the land deeds my grandmother brought with her, more to illustrate this is real to the holocaust deniers. People were fascinated by these things,” Sayad Zarati said.
Morad connected her to James Tuedio, dean of the College of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, who connected Sayad Zarati to Hughes.
The goal, pandemic willing, is to open the exhibit in June 2021, where it will remain until August.
In the meantime, the work goes on. Digital materials Sayad Zarati called for have been submitted from around the world, and she is transferring them to the University, which will archive the collection.
Hughes and Kambar, who is based in New York and did her Ph.D. dissertation on oral stories of Assyrians, will handle the oral histories. Anyone interested in sharing a story is encouraged to reach out to Hughes via email.
Even in its early stages, the project has been eye-opening for Hughes.
“A lot of my scholarship looked at power structures: government, community leaders, things like that,” Hughes said. “With this, it’s the power of individual stories, the power of one family’s experience. It personalizes it and strikes you and breaks your heart and inspires you in all those ways that previously I had not thought about.”
Sayad Zatari has just one such story.
To hear them all, to see this project come to fruition, is a dream come true for her.
“I learned, as an adult, about my grandmother’s experience and that this happened to tens of thousands of people, and nobody knew unless you were from an Assyrian family,” Sayad Zatari said. “You can’t go back and fix this. As an attorney, I know how important it is to make a record of what happened so there is no denying. Turkey denies to this day they slaughtered all those people. This happened. It’s important to us. They’re not going to give us anything, but they need to acknowledge it.”