A Dialogue on the Assyrian Homeland and Diaspora
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Robert DeKelaita (left) and Dr. Edmond Betmaleck, Assyrian activists living in the United States. ( AINA)
(AINA) -- Dr. Edmond Betmaleck, from Los Angeles, and Robert DeKelaita, from Chicago, recently discussed the situation of the Assyrians in the last few years. The two professionals have been active in Assyrian affairs for decades. Edmond Betmaleck has been an activist for the Assyrian cause most of his life and has served in various levels of directorships. He is currently a member of the Board of Advisors for the Assyrian American Association of Southern California. He has practiced Optometry in a private practice for over 20 years.

Robert DeKelaita, an attorney for over two decades, has been active in Assyrian affairs for many years, travelling to Iraq on numerous occasions to investigate the situation of the Assyrians there.

The two corresponded on the important topic of whether the Assyrians should commit all of their resources to the homeland or whether more should be done in the Diaspora. The discussion pits ideals against practical solutions as the community struggles with limited resources and limited time.

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Edmond Betmaleck (EB): In the last century, the Assyrian Nation has exhausted every possible aspect of manpower in supporting our homeland by pouring thousands of dollars politically and socially, fighting for our lands, rights, existence, identity, inheritance and sovereignty. Sadly, and unfortunately, to no avail!

Robert DeKelaita (RD): I share that view to an extent; things have not turned out as we had expected and certainly not as hoped. However, I would not say that the efforts of the diaspora have certainly helped many projects and efforts and instilled a perception that there is a coordinated effort between and for the benefit of Assyrians world-wide.

EB: Our lands, properties, churches, artifacts are being demolished, destroyed, taken, we have no rights, our people are leaving, our youth are restless with no jobs and no future, our political parties are in a disarray, we are facing constant voter suppression and injustices.

RD: There is a lot there to analyze. For centuries, we have steadily lost lands, and this has actually been accelerated with our departure, forced or otherwise, from our homeland. You can imagine that if we are not present, our lands and properties, including our churches and artifacts, would more easily be lost to us. Do we have rights in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey? Yes, but to a limited extent; the Assyrians living in those countries must abide by the laws of their countries and face their limitations. They cannot expect to have more rights under the laws of a particular country above and beyond other citizens. The assertion that "our youth are restless" is largely correct. In general, youth in the East, regardless of their ethnicity or religious background, will tend to gravitate to the West if they are attracted to better jobs and a more stable future. In the case of the Assyrians, relatives and friends who have migrated to the West will act as a powerful magnet to attract those in the East, creating that "restless" impulse among many Assyrians, in particular when persecution and instability are present.

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EB: Opportunities have come, but they have been squashed, overruled, mishandled and misrepresented over time, with no tangible outcome of having our own land and sovereignty. There are many reasons: constant fighting and wars from our neighbors and enemies that we cannot defend, win or control, geographical enemies and neighbors that don't want us to have our own land and to succeed and prosper, internal dysfunctional political parties that have stagnant autocratic leadership lacking democratic rule-of-law and term-limits, rampant corruption and abuse, lack of global secular leadership, constant displacement of our people, loss of lands, lack of security and protection, abuse of human and religious-rights, atrocities, martyrs, and genocides. Our people have had it! They have mostly fled the homeland or are on their way leaving, just like we have and the ones before us! The basic necessities of happy, free and prosperous life are not obtainable in our homeland. Our people cannot withstand these atrocious life conditions, abuses, neglects and are leaving for better future, life, jobs, education and security for their children and themselves.

RD: No doubt, the conditions being faced by our people as a result of many conflicts are horrendous. And we can certainly criticize our leadership or leaderships in the homeland, but also being mindful of the difficulties they too experience and the limited power and skill they may possess. The task at hand is certainly an overwhelming one. I said long ago that the diaspora community cannot simply sit by and simply assign to itself a collective death while relying on those in the East to do all of the reviving.

EB: In the meantime, over the past fifty years or longer we have neglected, ignored, pushed-aside our communities and people in the diaspora.

RD: I agree with that. Although we have, as a community, formed organizations, we have not had the necessary focus on the development of the diaspora community. There are some exceptions, but they are certainly lacking. Leadership is sorely needed. I don't mean the usual crass grab for power we see in many of our organizations, I mean genuine, intelligent, creative solutions with money and courage to support them.

EB: Our population in the diaspora is growing by the numbers and we are slowly but surely melting in the pot. Death by Assimilation! Our language is going to become extinct; our people live far from each other; our families are displaced and torn apart, we are disconnected and lack the spirit of tight knit community.

RD: I share the concern about the culture, language, and sense of belonging that Assyrians world-wide share. However, there is a silver lining here. With the spreading of our population came the ability to communicate via the internet. Social media and the many tools now available facilitate communication like no other time in history. That "spirit of a tight-knit community" can certainly be attained if on a virtual level. This is significant.

EB: Most of our Assyrian organizations in the diaspora have no support with little to no financial savings; our Assyrian Centers are aged, dilapidated and in undesirable neighborhoods. The current Assyrian centers are trying their best, some better than others to improve and better themselves. The usual picnics, parties, once a year conventions, kha-bnissan celebrations, martyr day commemoration, sporadic and limited Assyrian language, culture and history classes are meager at best. These centers are important and are needed, but not good enough to sustain our identity in the diaspora. If we stay the course, as-is, and do nothing about it, we will soon be extinct as a Nation. It is time to shift policies and ideas from concentrating in the homeland to the diaspora!

RD: Yes the diaspora communities need help and improvement. It is certainly necessary and I share the concern about the lack of focus on the diaspora -- certainly a lack of a coherent comprehensive plan. But why can't we do both? Focus on the diaspora communities, but don't forget about the homeland. There is, without any doubt, a heroic aspect to the existence of Assyrians on the land of Assyria, practicing their customs, speaking their language, and struggling to survive. That survival in Assyria is a spark that keeps all diaspora communities inspired and working together, though one could argue that it shouldn't be the only thing.

EB: The only way to survive this eminent extinction is to put all our efforts in establishing "Super-Communities", Assyrian Townships in the diaspora. It is time! For the next twenty (20) years, Emphasize and apply our minds, manpower and efforts financially, economically, politically, socially, into "Assyrian Townships" in the diaspora.

RD: I like the idea of the creation of "Super-Communities" to strengthen the world-wide 'body of Assyria.' However, I do not agree that we should ignore those in the homeland, who are an integral part of that body. We gain nothing by doing so.

EB: Questions will arise: but we need to help our people in the homeland? We should never give up hope? Our people can't leave the homeland, if they leave, we have lost it all? How can we forget about our homeland? I am not saying that we have lost hope or to forget about the homeland and our people. The bridge between the diaspora and the homeland should always be open. Times have changed, it is time to shift priorities and emphasize in establishing and strengthening our cause in the diaspora. Once we are strengthened and have the financial and voting power in diaspora, we can then plan far better and sustainable future in the homeland.

RD: The problem here is time. It may be too late to do anything meaningful in a few years to save the remnants of the homeland. That being said, I would add that the most reliable partner and friend of the community in the homeland is a strong and engaged diaspora community.

EB: Majority of our people who are younger and at a working age want out and it's only the older generation that is staying behind. Most have already left, are leaving, and soon we will have few physical presence in the homeland and they are not returning, just like we are not returning. We have to face reality and accept it! We cannot support and sustain both the homeland and the diaspora at the same time, because we simply don't have the financial and political organization, backing and power to do it.

RD: We certainly should face the reality of the decline of our sustainable presence in the homeland. However, we should strive to protect both as both are complementary to each other.

EB: Now is the time to shift priorities and concentrate our efforts in the diaspora. Our brave people in the homeland have managed to prevail. We need to put things in action, regroup ourselves in the diaspora and implement plans that are sustainable long-term for a better living and path to self-determination. Start with a structured "master-plan" that is well thought-out. This master plan will be the pattern and guide for every region to implement, so that we are self-determinant, self-reliant and accountable to our own and the whole community at large. Build concentrated, "Assyria Towns" in every part of the world. These "Super-Communities", will allow us to support each other, have our schools and churches, live, work, organize and commute within 15 minutes of each other.

These Assyrian communities should be near major cities that have renowned colleges and universities, so that our children can easily commute and once they finish their universities they can come back to the Assyrian Townships and establish themselves with their new families. The hub of these communities will be "Assyrian Centers.". These centers will be home to all Assyrians no matter their religious denomination, tribe and politics. They will administer in accordance to democratic, term-limited, elected representative governance, where all Assyrians living within that region will have the right to have a voice. The elected representatives of each community will lead, organize and manage the affairs of the regional Assyrian Townships. These centers will build and provide formal schools that will prepare our children for the best Universities as well as teaching our children the Assyrian language, history and culture from kinder-care, all the way up to high school. These centers will have halls for our state and national conventions, social gatherings, and sporting facilities. They will financially help support all the local Assyrian commerce and qualified businesses to thrive and be successful assets of the community.

With the help of our own professionals, the centers will establish medical clinics, law-firms, accounting-firms, engineering-firms, senior living centers and banking institutions that will be able to lend and support the local businesses. In establishing these strong communities, we will be closer to each other, support each other, revive the spirit of nationhood, our youth will see each other more frequently that will increase the odds of marrying our own and increasing our population. Our language will stay alive and be sustained. The parents will be willing and able to take their kids to Assyrian schools when it's financially affordable, productive and accessible with shorter commute. We will be able to mass organize the annual trips to the homeland, for all ages and levels of personal, social, and business related in buying back our lands, farms, manufacturing as assets and job opportunities for our people.

Most importantly, living in democratic countries such as U.S.A., Canada, Australia and Europe, we are given the rights and the freedom to organize and vote. We can have enough of our people in a concentrated community to harness the voting power to place and elect our own in city governance and politics. We can have one of our own people being the local city mayor, council-member and congressperson. Each local Assyrian Township will elect representatives to National level of governance, and the National-governance will elect representative members for the Global Assyrian governance. With these advanced, planned, structured and rooted Assyrian communities in the diaspora, we will keep our identity, generate and empower our own, financially and politically. By being organized, united and inclusive, we will have the finances and national political power to fight for our rights in the homeland and keep hopes alive.

RD: You have obviously given this much thought. I like the ideal view created here. There is hope and optimism in this vision. I join Edmond in calling for this type of reorganization in the diaspora to better the present and future of all Assyrians throughout the world. The fact that the Assyrian people are dispersed all over the world is a detriment for many observers. However, in the age of the internet, this dispersion can be a point of power. Let's get our thoughts together and courageously pursue a new path -- in the interest of all of our communities worldwide.

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