A running joke among the Assyrian community is ‘I’m not a Syrian, I’m Assyrian.’
There are somewhere between 5,000- 7,000 Assyrians living in west London, with the majority in Ealing, but does anyone really know who they are?
I met up with four members of their non-profit society at Assyrian House in Temple Road, south Ealing, to find out.
Who are Assyrians:
Throughout history Assyrians have endured and continue to face persecution, currently at the hands of radical Islamist group IS.
One day Assyria was a country. It had a capital and cities until about 600BC, I was told by Paul Darmoo, owner of Fantastic Lighting in Kent.
Assyrian people are now mainly in Iraq, Iran and Syria with some in Turkey, Jordan and as refugees in Lebanon.
Modern day Assyrians live all over the world, including Ealing which became a hub after the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East Mar Dinkhna was ordained in 1976 and came to the borough.
Assyrians fleeing from persecution would follow the head of their church, particularly since the early 1990s after the Iraq/Iran war.
They have their own language, Assyrian, derived from old Aramaic which they believe to be the language of Christ. The second language for Assyrians living in middle-eastern countries is Arabic.
Miriam Karam, of Ealing, said: “We do not have a country of our own anymore. Our mother tongue keeps us alive and differentiates us.
“It’s always been difficult for us to fight for who we are, our Christian religion and language.
“We have some fantastic Assyrian singers and every one of them has a patriotic song. We are proud people. We are proud to be British but we also have our ethnicity, and religion is an integral part of the way we live.”
A strong bond:
Assyrians are a very close-knit community. I was told they grow up together and marry within their friendship groups.
They also like to make people aware of who they are. The Assyrian Food Festival held for the first time last year, and again last month was a way of showing people what goes on in Assyrian House, giving Ealing’s community a taste of their food and culture.
Ms Karam, a solicitor, said: “As a community we all have the same want. We all want kids to study, to know their language, to integrate in society but not forget who they are. Education is key.
“The future of the Assyrian community here lies in the hands of the younger generation.”
Assyrians in London have family spread out worldwide.
Mr Darmoo said: “When you are on the run it doesn’t matter where you go. People have fled from the places where IS have come into Iraq and people here are sending them clothes to make sure they are warm in winter because they know what they are going through and have been there before.
“You do not know if you are going to see your house again. In the mind of IS, they identify Christians with the people they hate. IS have identified houses which belong to Christians and mark them.”
Ms Karam described the situation in Iraq as devastating, worse than people think. She said people are sleeping on concrete floors and church gardens.
Ms Karam said a regular attendee of the house in south Ealing was living in a hole under a piece of cloth for six years before coming to Ealing and making a life for himself.
Shamiran Khoshaba, of Ealing, who works in Reuters, said her brother ran away from the army in Iraq, walking from country to country to try find safety.
Assyrian Society is a non-profit UK organisation.
Bob Babakhan of Ealing, one of the trustees, said they aim to put on fundraising events to raise money for displaced Assyrians.
St Mary’s Church in Westminster Road, Hanwell, has a collection box with money going to St George’s parish in Baghdad, distributed to the church in Iraq.
The Assyrian church of the East Relief Organisation ACERO, US charity Assyrian Aid Society, and Assyrian Society Limited fundraise to help their people.
The main aim is to help homelessness but the society is hoping to work with other charities, including in Ealing.
A demonstration on the need for a safe haven was held outside 10 Downing Street on September 7 with influential speakers including MP for Ealing North Steve Pound, Baroness Nicholson, Trade envoy to Iraq and founder of AMAR foundation, and MEP Charles Tannock, Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Spokesman for the UK Conservative delegation.