Assyrian students unite

10/19/2005 3:36:44 PM
Paul Benjamin of ASA

When he tells people he is Assyrian, Paul Benjamin is no longer surprised by the often-confused looks he gets in return.

He has heard people say Assyrians are extinct, had others ask him if he means he's from Syria and has memorized an explanatory talk on his heritage.

The lack of awareness of the existence of Assyrian culture and ethnicity is something Benjamin, a second-year business economics student, and several of his peers hope to change.

With the aims of preserving their culture, meeting fellow students with similar backgrounds and educating the campus population, they recently formed the Assyrian Students Association.

At the moment, ASA has about 25 members on campus, said Kimona Issa, the group's president and a fourth-year physiological science student.

With a worldwide Assyrian population of five million or less, Issa said it was exciting to see so many Assyrians at UCLA.

"We're a pretty small minority in the world in general," he said.

At its peak in 650 B.C., the Assyrian Empire stretched as far east as the Persian Gulf, as far west as Egypt and as far north as present-day Turkey.

With a rough history in Iraq and Syria, the ability of Assyrians in the United States to come together and express their ethnic identity is special, said Michael Fishbein, a lecturer in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

In Syria and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, there was no tolerance for Assyrians attempting to maintain their own non-Arab identity and language, Fishbein said.

"In the United States, in some sense, one is free to express an ethnic identity without the political overtones," he said.

Members of the association are excited to express their identity and share the existence of their culture.

"We want to expand other people's knowledge of who we are," Benjamin said.

"When someone asks me what my ethnicity is, I tell them I'm Assyrian. Their first question is if I'm Persian, and then they're like, 'Oh, Syrian!'" Benjamin said.

"Then I have to go through this 20-minute spiel on what it means to be Assyrian."

Benjamin is not the only one with a spiel. Other Assyrian students have very similar experiences.

"You never really come across anyone who knows what Assyria is," said Holly Nabiey, a fourth-year Arabic and political science student and historian of ASA.

"We don't even exist to a lot of people."

The Assyrian population is a small one and many people don't know about it, agreed Fishbein.

Assyrians are people "whose ancestors came from one of the communities that preserved the modern Aramaic language in the Middle East. ... They have a good deal of folklore and music and art in common and a common ethnic identity," Fishbein said.

Modern day Assyrians speak various dialects of Aramaic, the prevalent language for most of the Middle Eastern population prior to the Islamic conquest, Fishbein said. The Islamic conquest took place in the mid-seventh century.

The dialects of Aramaic spoken by Assyrians are in danger of being lost for political reasons in the Middle East, as some governments attempt to rid themselves of local ethnic and minority identities which are seen as subversive, Fishbein said.

Assyrians are very aware of their identity, and many have moved to Iran and the United States in an attempt to preserve them, he said.

"They're conscious of being, by and large, Christians in an environment that has become overwhelmingly Muslim ... they're conscious of not being Arabs, and they think of themselves as the people who were there before," Fishbein said, noting that there are some Assyrians who are not Christian.

Those Assyrians who have moved to other countries live in tight-knit communities.

"All Assyrians pretty much know each other," Nabiey said.

Besides providing a place for Assyrian students to get together and spread knowledge about their ethnicity to other people, the association hopes to work with churches in the local area to help Assyrian kids go to college, Benjamin said.

For students like Benjamin and Nabiey, being Assyrian means being part of a larger, culturally-rich community deeply rooted in history.

"It's just pretty cool being part of something that you think has a lot of meaning," Nabiey said.

"To be part of something that's so ancient makes you think, 'Wow, my roots go so far back.'"

"The language that we speak is the one that Jesus used to speak," Nabiey said.

"I'm proud to be an Assyrian," Issa said.

"But at the moment it's kind of difficult because not many people know about Assyrian culture," he said.

As far as having Assyrians called an extinct people, Issa had one response.

"I'm Assyrian, and I'm alive," he said.