Sunday, March 29, 2009

Valley school gives young emigres stability and hope

(DailyNews) "It's sad to think of," 17-year-old Leon Thomasian said last week as he pondered the sixth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. For the young or the old - regardless of their politics or religion - war dramatically alters destinies, he said.

Leon, who was studying to be a being classically trained as a pianist, didn't touch a piano for years after he and his family fled from Baghdad to Syria. He thought his dreams of performing as a professional had forever slipped through his fingers.

"A person wants something so bad," he said. " And then he has to wait years for it."

Nearly 2.5 million Iraqi refugees continue to struggle to survive outside of their homeland, most of them with temporary permission to remain in Jordan or Syria, according to the human-rights organization Amnesty International.

Hundreds of thousands of them were Assyrian, Chaldean, Armenian or other minority communities in Iraq.

The refugees lost access to housing, health care and education, and they continued to live in constant fear of being returned to Iraq, where they face death threats, according to the human-rights organization.

At the Assyrian school, some tell Principal Robin Alkhas that whereabouts of cousins and uncles, lost to kidnappings, remain unknown.

Also troubling to Alkhas is the time these students lost from reading and writing and socializing with children their own age while they awaited the chance to enter the United States. They have lost their formative years in exile, she said.

"I feel these kids had an unfair start," she said. "Iraq used to have the highest literacy rate in the world. Some of the children who came to us, who are now 11, couldn't even write their names. That's scary to me."

The Assyrian American Christian School, which now has about 40 students, opened in 2005 as the first private school of its kind in the nation.

But 10 young refugees, five from Iraq and five from Iran, have given the school an additional purpose this year: to help these students preserve the traditions of their ancestry while preparing them for college in less time than most other students have.

Alkhas wishes the school could afford to take in more students. But resources and donations from the local community are limited. She hopes to receive some assistance or qualify for a grant from the federal government or a philanthropy.

"There were three more students we wanted to take," she said. "But we had to turn them away. "It was heartbreaking for me."

While European countries have offered some form of stability, U.S. policy on resettlement continues to remain murky. The Bush administration was criticized for lacking any solid vision on the issue.

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, said it will try to resettle a minimum of 17,000 Iraqi refugees this fiscal year. From Oct. 1, 2007, to Sept. 12, 2008, the U.S. resettled 12,118 Iraqi refugees; the number in 2007 had been 1,608.

When asked what challenges the United States faces in helping to resettle Iraq War refugees, a State Department spokeswoman said such questions are left to policymakers.

President Obama's plans for resettling refugees remain unknown, said Joel Charny, vice president for policy of Refugees International.

"During the campaign, President Obama actually uttered the words `Iraq refugees' and expressed concern for humanitarian conditions," Charny said.

"We have a president who is able to express concern for the Iraqi people who are suffering, but that verbal commitment needs to be translated into action."

Though Obama also has pledged to end the war in Iraq by 2010, its people need to prove there can be stability, Charny said. So far, that stability hasn't appeared.

"There are people who suffered a level of trauma to which returning is inconceivable," he said.

California remains one of the toughest states in which to resettle refugees, said Debbie Decker, community resource developer for the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service in Atwater Village, the largest organization of its kind in the nation.

"We do resettle a tremendous amount of people," Decker said. "But California is restricted because of limited social services, the cost of living (and) job availability, and housing is so expensive."

Last year, the organization helped about 1,500 refugees resettle in Los Angeles, Decker said. The previous year, the group helped about 1,350, mostly people from Iran escaping religious persecution.

Before refugee status is granted, the United Nations must determine those who apply for it are in real danger if they remain in their native lands. To settle in California, applicants must have family ties in the state and undergo a complex process of paperwork, background checks and verification of travel documents.

But Assyrians have historical ties to California. Waves of them arrived in the Central Valley after fleeing a massacre by the Turks near the end of World War I. Others escaped Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979, and still more families came after the first Gulf War.

With the latest Iraq War, however, the American Assyrian community fears that ancestral homelands in Northern Iraq, where their numbers continue to decline, will be lost to them forever.

At the Assyrian school in Tarzana, the lessons help the students revive hopes and dreams, said the Rev. George Bet-Rasho, who started the school and is the parish priest for St. Mary's Assyrian Church of the East in Tarzana.

"We understand them, because many of us can relate to them," Bet-Rasho said.

Kathryn Yousif, 17, said coming to Los Angeles has helped her feel settled.

Her younger sisters, Sweden, 13, and Moreen, 11, also both at the school, seem happy as they immerse themselves in English grammar by day and songs by Hannah Montana and the cast of "High School Musical" by night.

The Yousifs traveled to the United States with nothing more than the clothes they wore, Kathryn said.

"I miss my friends," she said. "But there is no future in Iraq."

For Leon, the young piano player who is an ethnic blend of Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean, the war landed him in the United States in a most unexpected way.

By Susan Abram

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Help Find Missing 7 Year-Old Assyrian Boy


A seven-year-old, Assyrian boy named Aishu Auraay is missing. He was last seen on Tuesday 2 September 2008 at 5:30 P.M. on the grounds of Mar Oraha Church/School, at Jaramana 10 kilometers Southeast of Damascus.

Father’s Name: Auraay D. Nissan
Mother’s Name: Yuneea A. Zumaeeah
Siblings: Mati, Aumta, Katreen, Linda, and Auleen

Family History

The family lived in Tel Kepe (Telkaif), 15 miles from Mosul, for twelve years before fleeing to Syria on the 16 November 2007. They lived near Mar Oraha in three separate locations within the vicinity of the Church until March 2009 when they arrived in Australia without their son.

This family, like most refugees, has been subjected to extortion and bullying by gangs that view these helpless souls as easy targets. A poor investigation was conducted by local police with no results. Now the family has asked for our help. The hope is to reopen the investigation at a higher level including international aid as well as police agencies.

What you can do to help?

1. Place this photograph on as many personal and public websites and social network websites as possible.
2. Show the photograph on as many satellite television programs if you have connections.
3. Most importantly, other refugees may have been subjected to the same abuse and may have been reluctant to speak up at the time. You can contact family members and friends that live in Jaramana or have recently emigrated from there and ask them to help.


Please do not post incoming information and the contact details below on public forums. All information will be treated with the utmost care and confidentiality however insignificant it may seem to you. It is also important to centralize the information for analysis and distribution to proper authorities, so again, please use the contact details below to submit information.

Thanking you on behalf of the refugee family.

Primary Contact in Australia:
Gaby Kiwarkis
Mobile +0410086479

Secondary Contact:
Ashur Isaac