ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Melinda Khubiar was moved to tears as she walked down the streets of Erbil in 2013. She had just landed in the city with a group of 30 Assyrians from around the world, as part of a annual cultural tour organized by GISHRU to communities across northern Iraq and Turkey.
“This is where my kings used to walk,” she told Al-Monitor. “From the first moment of the trip it hit me that I’m in my homeland.”
The following two weeks would change her life. After she returned home to Modesto, California, she became more involved in her local Assyrian community, learned the Syriac language and would later make two more trips to Iraq. In 2018, she decided to move to Erbil.
GISHRU, which means bridge in Assyrian, started organizing tours for Assyrians, who are an indigenous ethnic group that traces their heritage to ancient Assyria, in 2008.
The purpose of the tour program, GISHRU co-founder and board member Suzan Younan told Al-Monitor, is two-fold: to connect Assyrians in the diaspora with those in the homeland and to develop projects to help locals on the ground.
In 2008, Younan set out with a group of four friends to visit Iraq. She had been involved in her local Assyrian community in California for years, including serving as the president of her youth group. As she grew older, she heard stories about the Assyrian repression in Iraq and decided to see what the situation was like for herself.
Her group traveled to Dohuk during Akitu, the Assyrian New Year. The celebrations last 12 days and attract tens of thousands from all over the world every year. It was her experience in the Akitu parade, surrounded by Assyrians singing songs while waving their flags, that impacted her perspective about Assyrian advocacy. After the trip, her focus shifted from supporting Assyrians in the diaspora to focusing on organizations and people on the ground.
Upon returning to California, Younan became a board member of the Nineveh Plain Defense Fund and joined the Assyrian Democratic Movement. She also vowed that she would return to Iraq with more people the following year. In 2009, the number of GISHRU program participants doubled to 10 and continued growing every year. By 2012, GISHRU was formally created as a nonprofit organization and a board of advisers was appointed.
This year’s trip took place from March 29 to April 14 and included 34 participants from all over the world. They visited local villages, met with students at Assyrian schools, student union members, a women’s group and politicians in order to learn about what life is like for Assyrians who reside in these regions.
Khoyada, a Chaldo-Assyrian student union with six branches across Iraq, helps GISHRU plan its program and manage logistics. The group’s vice president, Zomaya Eramya, was a local guide for this year’s trip, accompanying the participants to the villages of Alqosh, Sapna, Zakho and the Ninevah Plains.
“It’s important for Assyrians living in the diaspora to come here and see the conditions in which our people live,” Eramya said. “They need to see what is being done here in the community and to feel the connection that will hopefully instill a desire to come back and do work for the community.”
New on this year’s agenda was a daylong workshop. Guest speakers, including Assyrians who have returned to Iraq, covered topics such as investment opportunities in Assyrian communities and businesses, including a local pizza chain in Erbil, and Assyrian Aid Society (AAS) President Ashur Eskrya spoke on the decrease of Assyrian schools across the region.
There are 30 Assyrian schools across northern Iraq and that number is gradually getting smaller, Eskrya told Al-Monitor. Four schools shut down last year. He said these schools close for a number of reasons, including because Assyrians are leaving the country and also due to a lack of funding from the government. For instance, AAS is helping to pay the salaries of 80 teachers as the local government has not been able to provide these funds.
According to a report by the Assyrian Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization launched last year, there are 3.5 million Assyrians around the world. The largest concentration of Assyrians in the Middle East — 300,000 — lives in Iraq. Before 2013, the number of Assyrians in northern Iraq was estimated at over 1.5 million.
Younan anticipates this number to continue shrinking unless participants begin advocating for Assyrians on the ground through fundraising and hands-on community building efforts.
GISHRU participants have worked on several projects in recent years; a group raised money to build a computer room for Khoyada in 2014, and last year, they raised money to help build a stronger irrigation channel in the Nahla region.
GISHRU plans to launch a second tour program that would focus on participating in local pre-selected and advocacy projects, which participants can sign up for after having been part of the original tour of the local communities.
“We want the second tour to be something really tangible where we can take something back with research and stories and present it not only in Washington but across other local governments in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia,” Younan said. No launch date on the second part of the project has been announced yet.
Ornina Tekin, a board member of the Assyrian National Club of Switzerland, returned from this year’s trip with a list of tasks she wanted to accomplish.
Her first project, she told Al-Monitor, is to start talking about her experience with local organizations. She plans to showcase what the homeland is really like through items she received in Iraq including the jolet khomala, a traditional piece of Assyrian clothing often worn at weddings and community celebrations. She plans to talk about the trip with the Assyrian Youth Association of Switzerland as well as the Assyrian National Club.
"The first step after this trip is to bring my experiences to my community,” Tekin said. “GISHRU is not just a bridge between Assyrians in the diaspora and the homeland; it is a bridge between Assyrians everywhere.”
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