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Turlock remembers Assyrian genocide
Martyrs Day pic
Sabri Atman, the keynote speaker at the Assyrian Martyrs Day event held Monday at Stanislaus State, addresses the Assyrian genocide to an attentive audience. - photo by PAUL ROUPE/The Journal

Inside the Stanislaus State theatre building, a crowd converges into the hall before the Assyrian genocide remembrance.

While they wait, there is excited chatter, a table with Assyrian foods like dolma (a grape leaf wrap stuffed with rice and meat) and an exhibition of Assyrian art depicting their systematic persecution.

The paintings are vivid and bold, a stark reminder of what cruel fates have befallen the Assyrians.

The use of dark colors, especially black, and the frequent portrayal of ghoulish humanoid figures devoid of any humanity illustrate the themes of alienation, genocide and fear.

But though these fractured scenes tell of the horror, the people here today have come to remember these atrocities so that they do not get swept into the dustbin of history.

They are here at the annual Martyr’s Day remembrance to shine a spotlight on mankind’s barbarism and honor Assyrians who have been killed, displaced or martyred since World War I.

Four thousand years ago, after the fall of the Sumerians, the Assyrians, who are indigenous to Mesopotamia, claimed their independence in a homeland centered in what is now northern Iraq.

They were once at the helm of a mighty empire with great kings such as Sargon II, who established new borders, founded a new capital city, built extensively, and commissioned works of art.

Assyrians were one of the first peoples to adopt Christianity, and they founded their church in the first century A.D.

Reverend George Shahbaz of the United Assyrian Evangelical Church, a pastor and 36-year resident of Turlock, is ecstatic about this event because it educates non-Assyrians about their plight.

He wants others to know specifically about the massacre of Aug. 7-11 1933, in which the Iraqis and Kurds killed over 3,000 unarmed villagers in the town of Simele in northern Iraq.

This remembrance means a lot to Shahbaz, and he is glad that others share his attentiveness to these grim events.

Turlock is the perfect place for such a reflection because, as he mentions, there are over 25,000 Assyrians who call it their home.

“One of the reasons it is done here is so the community and the dignitaries like congressmen, can know about our case and go to Washington so we can have that protection and attention to us.” He also knows how important it is that “we remember and pray for them (martyrs) and have a coalition of unity. This is only the first or second time that all of the Assyrian organizations are together.”

After the formalities start and all of the seats are filled, we are reminded of why we are here: to remember, reflect, and promise never to forget.

The speakers come from a variety of different backgrounds: a bishop, the Assyrian poet Rabi Yosip Bet-Yosip, historians, researchers, humanitarians, and the keynote speaker Sabri Atman, the founder and director of the Assyrian Genocide Research Center.

There is talk of keeping Assyrian history alive through building up a large archive of the Sarguis collection, made possible by a generous donation to Stanislaus State by Francis Sarguis, who sought to allow people to discover and preserve modern Assyrian culture. 

 Mona Malik, member of the Assyrian Aid Society of America, gives three strong points as to why such horrible things keep happening. First, when you reduce a people to second class citizenship, it is much easier to malign and mistreat them. This leads to forced eviction, appropriation of lands, and destruction of heritage sites.

“Instead of never again, it seems to be again and again,” she says. “Once a minority capitulates to a tyrant, they become vulnerable to disaster.”

She speaks of scientific studies that have shown trauma can be passed down genetically, manifesting a defeatist attitude into a certainty of hopelessness. But even so, she stresses the will to fight, and gives as evidence the 4,000 Armenians who were driven from their homes by the Turks but fought back and survived for 53 days. They were rescued by a passing French naval ship.

Perhaps the most pressing point was her call to resist the tide of extinction by staying “engaged, be active, and participate.”

When Sabri Atman takes the stage, his tone is forceful, passionate.

“There is not enough emphasis on the pain,” he says. “Genocide is a crime against humanity which demands action.”

Villains who pop up often are the Turks and Kurds, who still refuse to take responsibility for their hand in the massacre that took place during World War I. In 1914 until the end of the war, they not only killed nearly 300,000 Assyrians (plus a large number of Armenians and Greeks) and took their land, but they destroyed their language, their national identity, and a future of a unified homeland.

This continues up to the present day, and Atman shows slides of churches that have been confiscated by the Turkish state as recently as last month. The current Islamic president Recep Erdogan has seized 50 churches and transferred them to the national treasury.

There have even been incidents of ethnic cleansing in 2015 in Iraq and Syria by the fanatical members of ISIS.

“The world doesn’t remember our loss,” says Atman, “and we have a moral obligation to remember.”

Near the end of his speech, he has a question for the audience, one that is meant to linger long after he has walked off the stage.

“Will you forget about all these atrocities, or will you hold them (those responsible) accountable?”

As Middle Eastern historian Stacy Fahrenthold said earlier, one way to combat future atrocities is the continual encouragement and support of higher education, and she makes her plea simple and direct.

“Knowledge and educated minds are our best weapons.”