CERES — Alice George flew almost 7,500 miles before she arrived at a small-scale version of a Mesopotamian palace, decorated with life-size portraits of long-ago Assyrian kings and tucked between industrial buildings off Highway 99.
George traveled from Australia to Ceres on Saturday for a two-day conference of the Assyrian National Congress, one of the world's largest Assyrian organizations.
Other people had roughly the same distance to travel as George, but had much more trouble making the trip.
Iraq's one-man delegation was stuck at San Francisco International Airport halfway through the first day of the conference.
The man had left his family to travel to Jordan six weeks ago to obtain a visa. The visa finally was granted Friday, said Sargon Dadesho, president of the ANC.
The Iraqi delegate missed the playing of the Iraqi national anthem, which followed the U.S. national anthem. George said she was "touched" by those who spoke of creating unity to fight for peace in Iraq, considered by many Assyrians to be their ancestral homeland.
George left her native Iraq for Sydney, Australia, with her husband and four children in 1969, a year after Saddam Hussein co-engineered a coup that brought the Arab Baath Socialist Party to power.
She didn't return to visit her family in Iraq until 1993. George said that visit "broke her heart."
"Iraq was the best country in the Middle East," George said. "I dream for Iraq to be as it was before."
Dadesho said the goal of the conference, held at the Assyrian Cultural Center of Bet-Nahrain, was taking the first steps to create a "parliament in exile" representative of "Assyrian political parties, intellectuals, all types of Assyrians."
The ultimate goal, Dadesho said, is to secure an Assyrian state in northern Iraq — within Iraq's political framework.
The ANC is one of the world's largest umbrella organizations of Assyrians, but there are many other political parties that represent Assyrian people.
Hamid al-Bayati, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, spoke to the delegation in Arabic, urging Iraqi people of all religious backgrounds to unite in order to fight off the terrorist insurgency.
Al-Bayati told the tragic story of his own family, which he said lost five of its members during Saddam Hussein's regime. Two disappeared and never were found. The bodies of others eventually were discovered and returned to his family.
"I'm just one example of thousands of Iraqis," he said.
Christopher Ross, a former ambassador to Syria who works in the U.S. State Department, said his presence Saturday was not an endorsement of the political organization. But he expressed concern about the "well-being of all Iraqi communities."
"We have our own agenda," Ross said. "Our agenda is to try and strengthen the voice of moderation, the voice of tolerance in Iraq."
Ross said unity among Assyrian people is essential for them to gain a stronger voice in Iraqi government. He pointed out that only one Assyrian holds a seat in the Iraqi parliament.
Some estimates put the number of Assyrians living in the San Joaquin Valley at more than 15,000, making it one of the largest Assyrian populations in the United States.
The Assyrian empire, which fell in 612 B.C., covered parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Assyrians remain a minority in the predominately Islamic Middle East.
Shamoeil Pira was one of roughly a dozen delegates attending the conference from Iran.
Pira, a professor of English literature at the University of Tehran, said he hoped to tell delegates that to create an Assyrian "living nation," young Assyrians must develop their intellectual abilities through higher education.
"If you do something great in this world, that's the only hope," Pira said. "There are many countries that have land, but they are forgotten."
Members of the public can meet conference delegates from 12 countries at a rally at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Assyrian Cultural Center of Bet-Nahrain, 3119 Central Ave., Ceres. For more information, call 528-9801.