The worlds 4.5 million Assyrians are currently dispersed with members of the diaspora comprising nearly one-third of the population. The remaining Assyrians reside primarily in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey. Most of the Assyrians in the diaspora live in North America, Europe, and Australia. In the U.S., the Assyrians have very successfully assimilated with the vast majority pursuing higher learning. Assyrians-American have also been quite patriotic- such that many have honorably served in the armed forces while others have sought and held public office.
The probable time frame in which the first Assyrians came to Chicago initially as seminarians and later as medical students would be between the 1880's and 1890's. Eventually, by the turn of the century some Assyrians began to reside in Chicago. In 1909, 30 Assyrian families and 600 Assyrian young men permanently lived in Chicago. Many worked as carpenters, masons, painters, and tailors while others worked in factories, hotels, and restaurants.
Between 1915-1918 during World War I, 750,000 Assyrians were massacred by Turkish and Kurdish forces. The survivors of this Assyrian holocaust were scattered throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America. Consequently, by the middle 1920's, the community in Chicago had increased to over 3000. The greatest concentration of these new arrivals settled around Clark and Huron. Most of these immigrants came from villages in northwestern Iran ( Lake Urmia) and southeastern Turkey (Hakkari mountains).
By the 1930's, the Assyrian community slowly moved northward towards Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Uptown. A steady stream of new arrivals from Iran, Iraq, and Syria continued through World War II. One survey estimated 5,000 Assyrians in Chicago in 1944. Chicago's Assyrian population was three times as great as any other American city. An August 12, 1940 Time magazine article on the arrival of the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun to the U.S. estimated the Assyrian population in the U.S. at 70,000 although this number was not stratified regionally.
Following another wave of persecution in Iran in 1948, more Assyrians arrived in the U.S. from Iran. In the 1960's, larger numbers entered from Iraqi cities such as Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Basra. During the Lebanese War of 1975-1992, many Assyrians emigrated to the Chicago area.
In the 1980's and 90's, larger numbers of Assyrians came to Chicago on account of the Iran-Iraq war. The suffering following Gulf War in 1991 and the subsequent U.N. embargo against Iraq has led to still more refugees fleeing shortages of food and medicine. Many Assyrians continue to arrive from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey as students or as family reunification immigrants.
Most of these Assyrian refugees have been supported by relatives and several private Assyrian social-welfare organizations as well as the various churches. Some Assyrians have been assisted by Catholic Charities and the Church World Service.
There is no reliable official census estimate of Assyrians in the U.S. because they come from various different countries. It is believed that the vast majority of Assyrian immigrants are classified as citizens of their respective countries of origin. Thus, an Assyrian from Syria may be classified as Syrian while one from Iran Iranian, etc. Consequently, only a small portion are classified as Assyrian by the official census. According to the official U.S. Census, the following designations are entailed under the Assyrian identity: Aramean, Assyrian, Chaldean, Chaldo, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu, Kasddem, Kasdu, Nestorian, and Telkeffee.
Estimations indicate roughly half of the newly arrived Assyrian immigrants are employed, 1/4 are homemakers, 1/10 are retired, and 1/10 are unemployed. Culturally speaking, Assyrians place a great emphasis on educational opportunity. As a result, the majority of Assyrians raised in the U.S. are college educated; still more, a growing number are pursuing higher graduate education in medicine, law, computer science, education, and the sciences. Many other Assyrians work in clerical positions, insurance companies, real estate, building maintenance, and hotels. Some Assyrians work in unskilled or semiskilled capacities such as factories and as taxi drivers.
Statistics regarding unemployment are misleading since many skilled or highly educated Assyrians fleeing war-torn countries need to spend years certifying their previous education or experience while others are forced to begin their education anew. Familiar anecdotal stories include the university professor from Iraq working as an unskilled assembly line employee while waiting to rectify in U.S. institutions of higher learning. Also, within the ranks of the unemployed one may find a residency trained physician awaiting completion of a series of board examinations and applications to U.S. residency programs.
The Assyrians are industrious and have a great entrepreneurial spirit. Many Assyrians are small business owners. A review of the Assyrian Business and Professional Directory for 1996-97 showed 390 entries in the Chicago land area. These estimates are believed to be low since not all businesses have been included. Some estimates suggest the numbers may be twice as high. The most common types of Assyrian businesses include video rental stores (estimates range between 43- 150), restaurants, gas stations, auto repair shops, convenience stores, auto dealerships, beauty salons, computer stores, alteration shops, air conditioning and heating, photography, insurance, real estate, and construction contractors. Scores of physicians, dentists, lawyers and accountants are also found in the Assyrian Business and Professional Directory. There are at least two anodizing plants, three manufacturing plants, and two major parking lot chains.
Most Assyrians that arrived in Chicago during the 1970's came from Iraq. With the exception of the elderly, estimates suggest that 80-85 % of younger Assyrians coming from Iraq are college educated without a gender-based difference. As most of the institutions of higher learning in the Middle East are based on English as a second language, most Assyrian immigrants received some or most of their education in English. Few elderly Assyrians including those who directly survived the holocaust of 1915 and their direct descendants received no formal education since they were dislodged from their homes and forced into refugee camps. Of those Assyrians raised in the U.S., the vast majority complete high school and a large growing majority are entering college or trade schools.
The intermarriage rate for Assyrians arriving since the 1970's is quite low with some estimates suggesting less than 10%. Of those Assyrians arriving before World War II when the community in Chicago was still relatively small, the intermarriage rate is higher. Even with intermarriage, though, close links to the community are preserved.
Due to persecution, dispersion and forced assimilation in their native countries, many immigrant Assyrians cannot read and write the Assyrian language. However, with a reawakened nationalist awareness, many Assyrians in the Chicago diaspora are learning the language in Churches and various organizations such as the Assyrian Academic Society and the Mar Zaia Assyrian Organization. In addition, Assyrian children are strongly encouraged to speak Assyrian in the vast majority of Assyrian homes.
Nearly all Assyrian immigrants speak the language of their
native country such as Arabic, Persian, or Turkish and as such, along with
English and Assyrian, are functionally trilingual. Some Assyrians educated
in Lebanon or Syria under the French educational system are fluent in Assyrian,
Arabic, French, and English.
Over time, divisions within these Churches led to other branches including the Chaldean Church, Syrian Catholic Church, Maronite Church (which are all uniate Rites of the Roman Catholic Church) and the Jacobite Church. With persistent Western missionary pressure, especially within the past century, numerous Protestant Churches subsequently arose as well.
Today, the Assyrians in general and in Chicago in particular belong to three main Christian sects: the Church of the East, the Chaldean Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Church of the East has three churches in Chicago (Mar Gewargis, Mar Sargis, and St. John) and one in Bartlett (St. Mary's). The Chaldean Church has two churches in Chicago (Mart Maryam and St. Ephraim). The Syrian Orthodox Church has one Church in Villa Park (St. John the Baptist). Another recent branch of the Church of the East was formed in resistance to certain reforms. This Ancient Church of the East has an active church in Chicago (Mar Odisho).
The various Protestant branches in Chicago include the Assyrian Evangelical Church, the Assyrian Evangelical Covenant Church, the Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and the Carter Westminister Presbyterian.
Regardless of Church adherence, most Assyrians commonly celebrate several distinctive life-cycles such as baptism (Mamaduta), engagement (Talibuta or Shirinlikh) and weddings (Khloola). Mourning over death is very passionately expressed as is a prolonged period of grieving. Several days of visitation to the residence of the deceased or their immediate relatives follow funerals. Keeners gather at the funeral and express the sorrow of the grieving family (a pre-Christian custom). Funeral visitation, called Basamta d'Risha, literally means "healing the head" and reflects a collective communal expression of respect for the deceased as well as comfort and support for the bereaved remaining relatives. Symbolic of Christ's resurrection, three days following the burial, friends and family revisit the grave. Further commemorations are shared in the community on the seventh, and fortieth days, as well as one year after death.
Like many Middle Eastern communities, Assyrians are quite gregarious and place great emphasis on hospitality towards Assyrian and non-Assyrian visitors.
As Christians, Assyrians celebrate the major Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas. Easter is seen as the theologically most important holiday as it commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Consequently, it is called Eida Gura or big holiday. Christmas, commemorating the birth of Christ, is called Eida Sura or small holiday. Lent is observed with abstaining from meat and dairy products. Good Friday is commemorated as Ruta D'khisha (Friday of mourning). Palm Sunday (Oshana) is also commemorated when Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem the week prior to his crucifixion.
The prophet Jonah's mission to the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, is celebrated by a three day fast, usually in February, and is known as the Rogation of the Ninevites (Ba'oota d'Ninwayeh).
Various Saints' Days are enthusiastically celebrated by many Assyrians. The Sharas are commemorations of anniversaries of saints; they can range from small family gatherings to large community picnics. A sacrificial lamb is prepared in commemoration of the saint. The sacrificial meal or Ddukhrana is distributed to all present. The most commonly commemorated saints include Mart Maryum (St. Mary), Mar Gewargis (St. George), Mar Zaia, Mar Odisho, Mar Bishu, Mar Sliwa, Solten Madu, and Mar Pithyu.
Nusardil is an Assyrian holiday that symbolizes the baptismal water rite and is connected to the ancient Assyrian ritual commemorating the autumnal equinox. On this day, Assyrians ritualistically throw water upon each other in celebration of baptism. In 1997, Nusardil will be celebrated on July 6th.
Kaloo Soolaka (ascension of the bride) is celebrated 40 days after Easter and commemorates the day Christ ascended to heaven. Young girls are adorned in bridal apparel and go from house to house collecting treats. The girls are symbolic representations of the House of God. The holiday is meant to celebrate the separation of the "bride" (church) from her Lord Jesus Christ when he departed for heaven.
Somikah is observed 25 days before Christmas (Eida Sura) and 50 days before Easter (Eida Gura). During this holiday individuals of all ages dress in costumes and go from home to home singing traditional songs and acting out mini plays for their observers. The purpose is to serve as a reminder to all that the religious fast is to begin the following day.
Assyrian history is noteworthy as much for the seemingly unending massacres and genocides against the Assyrian people as it is for the brilliant contributions to civilization. Assyrian Martyrs' Day (Shawwa b'Tabakh) is a special holiday that is commemorated on August 7th in remembrance of all Assyrians persecuted throughout history on account of their religion and heritage. Although August 7th, 1933 is the day when Assyrians were massacred in Simele, Iraq, Assyrians Martyrs Day remembers all massacres and genocides including that of 1915 when three-quarters of the Assyrian population was massacred by Ottoman Turks and Kurds along with 1.5 million Armenians.
For special, usually religious occasions, Harisa is prepared consisting of wheat cooked with lamb meat and butter. Girdu is also prepared for special occasions and consists of rice and yogurt topped with melted butter.
Other foods include, Kadeh and Kilecheh,
Reesheh w'Akleh, Jajiroon, Kashka, Kootiltokeh,
Niskeh, Boushala, Shargooma, Sarpidoe, Khweesa,
Dikhwa, Martookha, Kipteh, Gurgur, etc.
Besides the dietary restrictions of meat and/or dairy products during certain religious holidays, and Wednesdays and Fridays during the week throughout the year, there are no dietary restrictions on Assyrians.
As a result of Arabization and assimilation programs, in the past, Assyrians were given only a first name followed by the name of their grandfather as a last name in order to cease the perpetuation of the "Assyrian" family name. Thus, even now, many Assyrian families have last names that appear as first names such as George, Joseph, Michael, Benjamin, Daniel, Esho, Oraham, Yako, Nimrod, etc. Some Assyrians were given Arabic or Persian names depending on their country of origin. Not only did this discontinue the family name but replaced them with non-Assyrian names (thus, wiping out the Assyrian identity in this aspect).
Numerous Assyrian journals and newspapers written in English,
Assyrian, Arabic, or other languages such as Nabu Quarterly, Journal of
the Assyrian Academic Society, The Assyrian Star, The Voice From the East,
Nineveh, Huyodo, Bet-Nahrain, Zenda, Assyrian Quest, Assyrian Sentinal,
Aghona, and The Assyrian Guardian among many others, maintain close links
amongst the various Assyrian communities internationally. Aside from these
publications there exist countless web pages, electronic journals and sites
on the superhighway: Social.Culture.Assyrian (newsgroup), Assyria On-line
(homepage), Nineveh On-line (homepage), Assyrian Academic Society (homepage),
Mar Zaia Assyrian Organization (homepage), Assyrian School Action Committee
Unique Health Concerns
There is growing concern amongst Assyrian physicians caring for the Assyrian community regarding cigarette smoking in the community. Physicians counseling Assyrian patients often must contend with a fatalistic outlook that diminishes a patients will to quit smoking. In addition, occasionally poor control of hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes increases morbidity within the community. Moreover, education regarding regular screening for early detection of other illnesses such as cancer needs to target the Assyrian community.
Like many immigrant ethnic communities, language and cultural barriers may limit access to adequate health care for some elderly or more recently arrived Assyrians.
Myth: Assyrians are a religious
minority in Iraq.
Fact: Assyrians are an ethnic minority, with a separate language, culture and heritage grounded in Christianity.