EPIA Conference

Assyrian Diaspora in Europe:
Past, Present, Future



The final EPIA activity, Assyrian Diaspora in Europe: Past, Present, Future was convened in Berlin (3-4 May, 2014). The conference was organized by the Yoken-Bar-Yoken Foundation in cooperation with the other EPIA partner organizations, Inanna Foundation, Institut Syriaque de Belgique and Assyriska Föreningen i V. Frölunda. Around 60 participants from different European countries attended to the conference. All sessions were recorded by the Assyria TV for future broadcast.

The conference also attracted the attention of the Turkish authorities. Huseyin Caliskan from the Turkish Prime Minister Advisory Office was also present. He has had the chance to talk with many participants to better understand the expectations, critics and demands of Assyrians in relation to Turkey’s minority policy.

The conference was the first gathering of its kind to discuss the integration of Assyrians in Europe from different perspectives. The conference consisted of five sessions: ‘Country specific experiences in the formation of Assyrian diasporic communities’, ‘Identity and Integration’, ‘Second Generation’, ‘Mother tongue education and Integration’ and ‘Media and Integration’. Overall, the conference had a very positive atmosphere for developing social and intellectual contacts. Both speakers and listeners actively participated in the discussions. We can easily say that the closure event of the EPIA project has achieved its aims and objectives.

After the welcome word of the conference organizer, Abdulmesih Barabraham from the Yoken-bar-Yoken foundation (DE), the EPIA coordinator Soner Onder from the Inanna Foundation gave an introductory speech about the EPIA project and summarized the previous project activities.

Session I: Country Specific Experiences

The first session was chaired by Dr Aryo Makko, and speakers from four different European countries addressed the main patterns of emigration and settlement in their respective countries.

Aziz Said (DE) in his speech explained how the first settlement of Assyrians in Germany took place in the 1970s. The first civic association (hudro) was established in 1973 in Berlin. Many individuals played a strategic role in the development of activities. However, according to Mr Said, the name conflict among Assyrians affected their settlement and their integration. As also happened in other European countries, Assyrians have suffered even at social level due to the name conflict. According to him the Syriac Orthodox Church took a negative standpoint towards the community members who adhered to the Assyrian identity. They were even refused to receive church services, such as baptism. Throughout the settlement process, most of the organizational efforts focused on solidarity activities for the homeland. Mr Said ended his speech by expressing his hope for the future in which he thinks Assyrians have better chances to be successful compared to the first period of settlement where most of the Assyrian newcomers were not educated and arrived from a rural society.

Dr Gabriel Oussi (SE) delivered a speech about the settlement process of Assyrians in Sweden, and elaborated on their integration level in the Swedish society. The first Assyrians from Lebanon arrived in Sweden in 1967. They established the first association and the church. The name of the church was then Assyriska kyrkan. When they were 200-300 the conflict among them had already begun. The emigration from Turkey speeded up during the 1970s, particularly after the occupation of Cyprus, and the remaining people almost emptied their homeland during the civil war between the PKK and the Turkish state. Today, in Sweden there are more than 100,000 Assyrians living. They have two federations as umbrella organizations, each covering 25 associations, two soccer teams, and MPs at the Swedish parliament. During this process, according to Dr Oussi, civic associations have lost foot in relation to the Church which have become bigger and attract more people than these organizations.

In relation to the topic of integration, Assyrians are a successful immigrant group. They are involved in politics. In the field of economy, they have established themselves well. At the same time, they have thousands of educated human resource in Sweden. Although Assyrians have integrated themselves well in the Swedish system, the integration of civic or religious organizations fall behind the people whom they are supposed to represent. According to Dr Oussi, they have not adopted their mentality to the new and changing conditions. Transparency and democracy are still lacking and are therefore major problems for these organizations.

Adnan Challma (NL) in his speech pointed out that Assyrians have had good opportunities in the Netherlands to establish their culture and identity. The emigration of Assyrians to the Netherlands has similar patterns as in other European countries: It started in the 1970s, but intensified mainly in the 1980s, originating predominantly from Turabdin, Turkey and later from different countries in the Middle East. Since there is no statistical source, the population of Assyrians living in the Netherlands is not known. However, it is estimated that approximately 25,000 Assyrians are living in the Netherlands, mainly in the Twente region (Enschede, Hengelo, Oldenzaal). Across the country they have 12 churches and the well-known St Ephrem monastery. Mr Challma explained the problems of integration in relation to the position of Assyrians in their homelands: they emigrated from a rural society to a modern urbanized society. This has also affected the outcomes of integration. Furthermore, Mr Challma underlined the different dimensions of integration: One dimension is integration within the Dutch system; the other dimension is the integration within the community. Cleavages in the Assyrian diaspora impacted the integration process, and accordingly, the community could not develop a collective approach to the problems and challenges of integration. During their settlement process, the main problems began to occur, especially among the second generation. Although Assyrians represent relatively a well-established group, when it comes to the mentality change, Mr Challma said that they have not changed so much, especially those born in the homeland. They still have problems with being pluralistic and tolerant to other ideas. One of the impacts of the internal conflict is that successful individuals distanced themselves from the community and thus, do not invest so much time and energy to solve the people's problem. Assyrian individuals in general are caught between isolation/segregation, a more inward looking approach and on the other hand distancing themselves from the community. Educated individuals either become part of the problems or are afraid of receiving negative reactions from the community for their criticism. In order to describe the problems, Mr Challma gave several examples from his own experiences.

Regarding the situation of civic organizations, Mr Challma said that the Church in the NL has established itself much better than secular organizations. Another problem he mentioned was the decrease in the use of the mother tongue, particularly among the second generation. For the problems of integration, Mr Challma addressed the unsuccessful practice of Assyrian organizations (including political parties) which are supposed to develop solutions and work on these issues.

In the last presentation of this session, Abud Gabriel (BE) described the situation of Assyrians in Belgium. In short, the political system of Belgium as a multilingual country has also impacted Assyrians. In the Flemish part, integration policy has an active approach, and language learning is linked with the acquisition of citizenship, whereas in the French speaking parts of the country integration policies are different. Assyrians mainly live in the French speaking parts of Belgium. The first families arrived in Belgium in 1969, others followed in the mid-1970s, and the main migration wave to Belgium took place in the 1980s. In the 1980s they were numbering about 10,000. First civil associations were established in Brussels, Liege, Mechelen. Today, they are with approximately 20,000 in Belgium: 12,500 members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, 500 members of the Syriac Catholic Church, 5500 members of the Chaldean Church, and 1,500 members of the Assyrian Church of the East. Ninety per cent of them hold Belgian nationality.

  • Assyrians in Belgium have 12 cultural or sports organizations, 7 mother-tongue schools (madrashyotho), 2 institutes, 2 political parties active in BE, and 2 youth associations.
  • The educational situation is more or less the same as that in other European countries. The first generation was/is mainly small entrepreneurs; the second generation is good in the language of host country, but only 5% studied at higher educational institutions. This has changed among the third generation; ca. 20 percent of them has studied at higher educational level.
  • When it comes to intermarriages with other people, among the third generation the number of such marriages has increased and in contrast to the older generations, the third generation do not question the topic any longer.
  • The mother tongue use among the third generation has decreased drastically: 90% of the young generations talk French even at home in the family. The personal name choice among the concerned generation has been mainly Europeanized; only 5% of them keep the traditional names. In the same line, the cooking culture and dishes have been changed. Today, one can find a mixture of dishes belonging to different cultures.
  • The aforementioned societal change has not affected the position of Assyrian women much, especially their position in religious and secular organizations. Until recently, there was no women involvement. Today, a female Assyrian has become the head of Assyrian federation in BE. Church-going among the third generation has decreased remarkably , and has been mainly limited to the attendance of the Church ceremony during important days.
  • Since 2000, one can observe the involvement of Assyrians in Belgian political parties (at the moment 5 Assyrians have been elected at municipality level).
  • Similar to other country experiences, in Belgium as well Assyrians have had good opportunities to establish themselves, and have managed to create a ‘good’ image among Belgians and the authorities. They are regarded as a well-integrated group compared to other migrant groups. Regarding the homeland, Mr Gabriel pointed out that Assyrians in Belgium see Belgium as their ‘new home’ and do not have any intention to return back to their ancestral homeland.

In the Q&A session, the integration question in the homeland was discussed. Participants emphasized that Assyrians were faced with assimilation politics in their homelands (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran). They were categorized according to the Millet system which originated from the Ottoman rule and based on the religious differences. Accordingly, the Millet system aimed to develop parallel societies based on religious differences. A second topic of discussion was about the educational situation of Assyrians in different countries. Discussants commonly mentioned that today there are many educated Assyrians in all European countries. Differences between countries are partly related to the differences of the host countries’ educational policy. The third discussion topic was about the rise of nationalist extremist parties in European countries and its impacts on the integration of Assyrians. Discussants have different ideas about this issue. Some argued that extremist parties are anti-Islam, and Assyrians as a Christian group are not targeted. Some others argued that extremists do not distinguish between foreigners. They put all of them in one big category as ‘foreigners’. Nevertheless, participants commonly expressed that the extremism has not become a government policy, and the rise of extremism can be explained with the failure of other political parties that are not confronting with the real problems brought by emigration. Another discussion topic was related to the internal integration of East and West Assyrians. Participants mentioned the practice in Sweden where a few East Assyrian organizations are represented in the Assyrian Federation, and this can be called as a ‘modest integration’. The last discussion theme was focused on the role of the social class dimension (poor, less educated, neighbourhood) in the process of integration.

Session II: Identity & Integration

In the second session, the identity question in relation to the integration was discussed. There were two presentations.

Dr Aryo Makko (Stockholm University) in his presentation In, Out or Both? Identity and Ethnic Activism Among Young Diaspora Assyrians discussed the basic patterns of resettlement of Assyrians in certain cities/neighbourhoods in Western diaspora, and its impacts on their identity formation. Dr Aryo pointed out that migration has undoubtedly been a main feature of modern Assyrian history. Several hundred thousand Assyrians have left the Middle East to participate in the rebuilding of post-War Europe, flee social and political oppression in Turkey and Iran; to carry out advanced studies or simply save their lives from the horrors of the wars in Iraq and Syria. He, furthermore, stated that the basic patterns of resettlement are well known and applicable to the Assyrian case: migrant communities often try to resemble their old lives by gathering near family and fellow countrymen. Accordingly, ethnic neighbourhoods with nicknames such as ‘Chinatown’, ‘Little Italy’ or – in the less known case treated here – ‘Mesopotälje’ bear witness to these facts. The second and third generation then faces the task of finding a balance between their migrant heritage and a presence and future as citizens in Western society. Strong kinship ties and a fair amount of religiosity at home often stand in stark contrast to Western individualism, liberalism and secularism. Using the Assyrian Youth Federations in Sweden and Germany as case studies, Dr Makko argued that ethnic activism in its current form is rather counterproductive to the goals of Western European governments and EU funding bodies. Ethnic activism in its current form fosters a backward mentality among Assyrian youngsters rather than stimulating them to participate in multicultural society. Dr Makko concluded that Assyrian organizations in Europe need to develop more balanced strategies which take into account both ethno-cultural preservation and integration goals.

Bachar Malki (PhD Candidate, Free University of Brussels)in his presentation Syriacs of Europe: Process of Identity Construction and Acculturation Process stressed that most research in social psychology investigating immigration in Europe has focused on Turkish and North African groups without paying attention to the internal composition of these minority groups. As a case in point, immigration from Turkey, is not only constituted by members of the majorities who reside in these countries but also features a variety of minorities with different characteristics (e.g., Syriacs). Mr Malki defined Syriacs as a ‘double minorities’, because they are a minority in both contexts, in the host country and in the country of origin. Accordingly, this creates a complex situation where we need to consider that people can define themselves by different collective identities and adapt themselves to the two majority groups (Arab /Turkish and Europe). Following the main findings of his PhD research, Mr Malki pointed out two interrelated processes: 1) ethnicization of identity construction (at a community level and untied the country of origin) and 2) acculturation process. An active self-presentation of in-group culture coupled with high distinction from the majority members of country of origin, but also victimization strategies’ on their situation in country of origin as a minority. According to Mr Malki, when the status (minority/majority in country of origin) of the immigrant groups is made salient, members of the host country accept more ‘double minorities’ (Syriac) compared with immigrants who are majority in their country of origin. Particularly, this happens when the members of Christian/Syriac ‘double minority’ present themselves, to the host country, as a victim in their country of origin.

Session III: Second Generation

In the third session, the focus was on the situation of second generation Assyrians. Three speakers held presentations on the different aspects of the theme.

Dr Andreas Önver Cetrez (Uppsala University), in his presentation Breaking the Silence: An Intergenerational Transmission of Fear and Distrust focused on the impacts of trauma on post generations. At the moment, he is conducting research about trauma among Iraqi and Syrian refugees. In his speech, Dr Cetrez focused on the importance of the psychological dimension of a trauma such as genocide. Although it happened in the past, scholars such as Duran et al. (2008) point out the importance of understanding how history affects our present mental well-being. In intergenerational trauma two fields describe the survivors: the death of time and the death of language (Connolly 2011). Closely related concepts such as narratives, collected stories, collective memory, culture, are also discussed. According to Dr Cetrez, previous studies on trauma and genocide have mainly focused on survivors of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Bosnia and Rwanda. Psychological research on Sayfo is very limited, if not absent.

Dr Cetrez in his well-packed presentation demonstrated how a trauma such as Sayfo has on-going effects on Assyrian-Iraqi individuals who have faced the new traumas of the Iraqi war and who have emigrated to Sweden. Accordingly, the analysis shows that Sayfo is often used with expressions of fear, intergenerational relations, obsessive storytelling, meaning, self-image, transmission of distrust, religious differentiation, lessons to be learned, feeling unsafe, and existential questions. Dr Cetrez has drawn out two cases from his empirical material in order to show the on-going effects of the trauma: 1) Social effects - ‘Do not trust Muslims!’ Within this context, for instance concepts like ‘Rumoye, Janderma, Muslims’ are used to teach children their limits. This can also be called as the socialization of fear: for example most common parental recommendation ‘Do not be late. Otherwise you will be killed'. 2) Existential questions - 'They killed us because we were Christians!' (constructing the story), or referring to the recent developments, ‘Sayfo will be repeated! It is not far-fretched!’ Sayfo has become personal again through the recent developments and the stories reconstructed. All images are created anew. According to Dr Cetrez, ’the communication between generations is cut off after the Sayfo. We can talk about a long period of silence for the victims of the Sayfo What we are doing is rebuilding the past.’

With departure from the aforementioned examples, Dr Cetrez argued that Sayfo has today resulted in a culture positioned between the poles of binary oppositions, a dualism of ahna (us) and hënne (them). Such a culture draws strong boundaries in social relations. This creates a culture of strong stereotypes about the out-group and strong prototypes of the in-group, which may become dysfunctional. He concluded his presentation by underlining the importance of changing the victim psychology for healing the experienced trauma.

Dr Gabriele Yonan (author of A Forgotten Genocide)in her presentation Genocide and Diaspora: A History that Does Not Pass explained how the Seyfo issue has become central among Assyrians. She said that there were no reactions from the Assyrians even after the publication of her pioneering book A Forgotten Genocide. ‘Forgotten genocide’ had a double meaning: not only it was forgotten and ignored by the international community, but it was also forgotten by the victims of this genocide. Dr Yonan underlined that there were at least three generations of silence about the Seyfo. After the WW I, at the Paris Peace conference they were very eager to express the Seyfo, but when the conference was over and left alone by the international community, they entered into a silence period. In the diaspora, the first decade(s) they were looking after their life, they tried to establish themselves. In 1968 in the AUA conference in France, there was a declaration on Memorial Day (9 August) referring to the Simele massacre, not the Seyfo. The then activists knew about the Seyfo, but they did not have it in their political agenda. They were even saying ‘[t]he question of the Seyfo is something related to the past. We are now looking more at the future.’ Apparently, the Seyfo question was something beyond this group's aims and objectives. It was towards the mid 1990s that the Seyfo question began to take place in the political agenda of Assyrians. We can call this period as the the beginning of Sayfo activism. In 2000, genocide question became an issue for Assyrians, especially through the court process against Father Yousef. He was the one who declared that it was not only Armenians, also Assyrians who were massacred. Thereafter, in Sydney, in California and in Brussels several conferences and workshops, memorial days have been organised. This attracted the scholarly attention. The silence of decades was broken in the 21th Century. Dr Yonan concluded her speech about the importance of writing the modern history of Assyrians. Consequently, there are still many research topics open for next generation researchers.

Abraham Staifo (Journalist, Göteborg Posten) in his presentation titled Media-shadow: Consequences for the Second Generation Assyrians Remaing Silent explored mainly the impacts of social media on the visibility of Assyrians in the broader Swedish society. Compared to other migrant groups, such as Kurds who are quite active in social media, Mr Staifo argued that second generation Assyrians remain silent despite the big opportunity of modern IT and communication technologies. Back in the 1970s Assyrians were working hard to get a meeting opportunity with the authorities. Now there is a theory that says you are one handshake away from influential politicians and public figures, particularly with the help of social media. Mr Staifo exemplified his claim by displaying some of his Facebook friends. He argued that although Assyrians have successful individuals, but they are not visible in the society. Referring to the example of Kurdish activists, Mr Staifo said that Kurds are not shy in showing their stands. This is something which Assyrians lack in Sweden. Accordingly he stated ‘We still demonstrate outside the parliament. Instead, we should update the means and methods we use. Social media channels are much more efficient than the traditional ways of doing politics’. The reason for the silence and inactivism of the second generation Assyrians according to Mr Staifo is related to the complex internal problems of the community, particularly the name split. He gave the example of people using different names for the same group. One group of people reacted to the Swedish news programme Aktuell, when the word ‘Assyrier’ was used in the subtitling of a news item. Some community members reacted very strongly and the TV channel was obliged to change the name to 'Syrianer'. This is one of the main obstacles that affects the second generation and has impacts on the perception of Assyrians from outsiders. As an experienced journalist Mr Staifo shared his critical observation about the interaction of Assyrians with broader society: ‘The most common questions asked about Assyrians are: what is the difference between Assyrians (Assyrier) and Syrians (Syrianer)? Are you Christian or Muslim?’ Mr Staifo concluded his speech by emphasising the importance of social media for reaching the broader audience. In order to increase the visibility of the group, he underlined that Assyrians should overcome their ‘shyness’ and ‘victim mentality’.

In the Q&A part, participant asked questions about the experienced trauma, the impacts of victim mentality and the use of innovative ways for increasing the level of visibility of Assyrians in the host societies. Speakers stated commonly that in the Assyrian case, trauma is mainly destructive because of the long period of ‘silence’. In the diaspora, this trauma has affected the integration level of Assyrians and become one of the main obstacles.

Session IV – Mother Tongue & Integration

In the forth session there were two speakers who explored the importance of mother tongue education for social cohesion and successful integration.

Professor Shabo Talay (Free University Berlin, University of Bergen) in his presentation Mother Tongue and Integration - Surayt (Turoyo) as a Case Study stressed the importance of preservation of the mother tongue (Surayt) for the future presence of the community, particularly in the diaspora. He also showed the essential role of the language in the identity formation by referring to Bishop Dolabani’s words 'Our language is our nation'. Furthermore, professor Talay explored the differences in the languages used among the community and elaborated specifically on ‘Classical Syriac’ (liturgical language, language of the national movement in the 19th and 20th Century) and ‘Turoyo/Surayt’ (the vernacular of Turabdin, mostly spoken among Syriacs in the diaspora) with regard to their potential for becoming the modern standard language of the community at the present-day.
According to professor Talay, integration is not a new phenomenon. Even in the Middle East, we integrated the language of the majority cultures where we live in. He gave several examples for his claim: For instance in the 13th Century, Isoyab bar Malkun from Nisibin used Arabic in Syriac letters; those converted Suryoye (Mhalmoye) changed also their language to Arabic. In terms of identity, according to professor Talay, Assyrians have brought three things to the Western diaspora : 1)Aramaic language, 2) Christian religion, 3)Independent culture. The one which will remain is the language, said professor Talay, and added that ‘Our language is the centrepiece of our identity’. Furthermore, he expressed the importance of bilingualism and said that integration does not necessarily mean the loss of mother tongue. As concluding remarks, professor Talay mentioned several on-going projects and processes regarding the revitalisation of the spoken language. One of them is the Aramaic-Online Project in which an on-line course in Surayt and standardisation of writing of Surayt both in Syriac and Latin letters are aimed at. Another initiative is the independent primary schools in Sweden with Syriac or Turoyo/Surayt in their curriculum. The last example which he mentioned was the language shift from Syriac to Surayt in the divine service in the church.

Abdulmesih Barabraham (Yoken-bar-Yoken Foundation) in his presentation Youth's Expectations to Adopt Surayt: Feedback from a Language Workshop shared the main findings of a workshop organised last year about the mother tongue in Germany which attracted 30 youth participants. Mr Barabraham said that among the Assyrian youth, there is a confusion both in naming the language (Assyrian, Aramaic, Turoyo, Surayt) and in use of Syriac and Surayt. However, he added that all workshop participants shared the idea that language is very important for the preservation of their identity. Regarding the use of Latin or Syriac letters, the workshop participants underlined the importance of including Latin letters in the writing of their language which will contribute to the preservation of this language. They were mainly positive, but also concerned about the disappearance of Syriac letters which are considered as one of the identity markers. As a solution, they suggested the use both alphabets. With regard to the relationship between Surayt and identity, they pointed out the potential of their language to unite their people and overarch the internal conflicts. Another point which was discussed in the workshop was the lack of Surayt literature and language learning books, such grammar books, self-learning books, literature, comics, conversations, listening books, dictionaries, children books, old traditional stories.

In the Q&A session, the participants discussed the use of Latin letters in Surayt. They were mainly positive and open for including Latin letters in the writing of their language. Furthermore, participants and speakers gave examples about the revitalization of endangered languages, exchanged ideas about the on-going projects with this respect.

Session V: Media & Integration

In the last session, Dikran Ego (journalist, chief-editor of Assyria TV) shared his critical observations about the transformation of Assyrians in the diaspora. His speech From migrants to active citizens – A journalist's observations on a social transformation process among Assyrians in Sweden was focused on the question to what extent Assyrians have changed their victim/slave mentality after their settlement in Western modern societies. According to Mr Ego, Assyrians are coming from a culture where individuals do not have space in the community and where collective ties (community, family) and institutions (church) come at first place. Furthermore, he gave several examples about incidents which took place within the Syriac Orthodox Church and most importantly about the reaction of the Church leadership. Mr Ego pointed out that the Syriac Orthodox Church should be open in all its affairs and transparency and justice should become the main principles of this ancient institution. Although Assyrians experienced a remarkable transformation process, the Church did not follow this trend. In a way, the Church has fallen behind its people, and has mainly remained in the same position as it enjoyed in the Middle East; it did not transform and modernise itself. This has, according to Mr Ego affected seriously the successful integration and establishment of Assyrians in the European diaspora. To support his argumentations, Mr Ego gave some examples about the Church elites (bishops, priests etc.) who escaped openly from accountability, despite their scandalous activities.

In the discussion part of this session the participants actively shared their ideas about the role of community media in the transformation of Assyrians by developing a special critical eye on the practice of Assyrian civic and religious institutions.

After the discussions, the two-day conference ended with the closing speech of the organizers. EPIA project partners expressed their gratefulness to all people who have participated in project activities or followed them on digital sources. They also thanked Assyria TV for the dissemination of all EPIA activities. The conference was the closure event of the EPIA project which has been financed by the EU commission within the Lifelong Learning Programme. The project partners will produce and share the final report of the EPIA project shortly, before the official end of the project.


Inanna Foundation
May 2014

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