As Turlock’s Assyrian community convened for the third annual Assyrian Genocide Remembrance at Stanislaus State on Wednesday, they chose to not only remember their fallen ancestors as martyrs, but as heroes.
Lawmakers, city leaders, university officials and other ethnic community members joined in solidarity with local Assyrians to commemorate Martyrs Day, a day to remember the victims of genocides perpetrated against their nation, such as the Turkish genocide of Assyrians that claimed the lives of 750,000 Assyrians between 1915 and 1918, as well as the lives of 1.5 million Armenians and 500,000 Pontic Greeks.
Aug. 7 was chosen as Martyrs Day because of the massacre of Assyrians in August 1933 in north Iraq, which was conducted by the Iraqi Army and Arab and Kurdish irregulars. During that three-day period, 3,000 Assyrians in the town of Simmele were massacred.
Many Assyrian community members in the audience on Wednesday were related to either survivors or victims of genocide and some shared the firsthand accounts of the devastation as told by their ancestors. Turlock High School graduate John Betbabanta shared the journals of his grandfather, who saw much of his family murdered in the attacks.
As Betbabanta recounted his grandfather’s terror, audience members wept. Their culture was decimated during the attacks, with not only women, men, elderly and children losing their lives in often the most violating of ways, but Assyrian relics, property and sacred sites destroyed or taken as well.
To this day, much of Turkey rejects the Assyrian claims that their people were victim to genocide. Martyrs Day continues to not only educate Assyrians and other communities alike about the atrocities committed upon the Assyrian culture, but to also raise awareness and promote recognition of the genocide.
In attendance during Wednesday’s vigil was Rep. Josh Harder, who serves as Chair of the Assyrian Caucus and recently introduced a resolution in Congress to recognize the horrific genocide.
“When I think about the Assyrian community through the last several millennia of its history, I see the strength and the resilience of a people that — despite terrible persecution — have continued to build a wonderful culture and community that we share here today,” Harder said. “The only way that we can truly say never again is if we come and recognize the enormity of what happened.”
The event’s keynote speaker Steven Leonard Jacobs, a professor specializing in Genocide Studies, delved into the origins of the word genocide and how society can learn from the word’s past moving forward. Of German-Jewish descent, Jacobs is also family to genocide survivors of the Holocaust.
He likened the genocides of Assyrians to atrocities committed on other cultures throughout human history, including the current separation of families at the U.S./Mexico border.
“If one is to seriously take the tragedy of one’s own people and its horrific lessons…morally and ethically, we cannot ignore the pain and plight of others: Jews, Cambodians, Bosnians, Rwandese, Palestinians, Sudanese, Native Americans, African Americans and yes, those children and adults who find themselves in detention centers, in horrific conditions in these United States,” Jacobs said.
Stanislaus County Board of Education Chair Alice Pollard is the granddaughter of genocide survivors and shared the story of her family who escaped to France in 1921 after several years living as refugees. They came to the United States in 1926, and her father ultimately settled in Turlock 10 years later. He purchased a farm where Brown Elementary School is today and Pollard’s parents helped to start the Assyrian American Civic Club as charter members.
“They didn’t treat themselves as victims. They looked to be positive, so when they came to the U.S. they tried to be as successful as possible,” Pollard said. “There is something to be proud of in our history. It’s tragic and terrible, but Assyrians are a proud people, they’re successful and they instill that in their children.”