Assyrian students unite
HUDSON HOU/daily bruin
10, 19, 05
Paul Benjamin receives various responses from people when
he tells them of his ethnicity. Along with other Assyrian students,
Benjamin helped put together the Assyrian Students Association
to help spread the word about their heritage.
By Lindsey Morgan
DAILY BRUIN CONTRIBUTOR
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
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
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,"
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,"
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
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
"All Assyrians pretty much know each other," Nabiey
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
"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.
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