Northfield joins Assyrian activist movement

by Jennifer Kwon

At the International Festival at Carleton College on May 2nd, 2015, there was a booth that was unfamiliar to many students and residents of Northfield community among many familiar, colorful flags and dishes from countries all around the world.

It was a donation booth for the Assyrian Aid Society to support the recent Islamic State militant group’s attack on Assyrians in northern Syria.

Rinya Kamber, who is the only student of Assyrian descent on campus and the founder of ‘Northfielders for Assyrians’ society, hosted the booth to both raise awareness of Assyrian culture and heritage and reach out for support from the local community. By the end of the two-hour event, she raised $487 which was an unprecedented, large amount of money compared to the past couple of years’ donation collections.

Rinya has started the ‘Northfielders for Assyrians’ group since the ISIS launched an attack on a cluster of Christian towns, mostly resided by Assyrians, in northern Syria on February (and continued to in following months). Over the course of a week, more than 250 casualties have been reported and more than thousand priceless Assyrian artifacts and museums, including the 3,000-year-old enormous winged bull sculptures that serve as the sacred archeological icon of Assyria, were bulldozed and destroyed.

After a couple of days of the attack, Rinya held a panel discussion and the large turnout of almost 130 people led her to create an organization to continue cultivating people’s interest in Assyrian culture.

The event initially attracted students’ interest for it promised to provide “traditional Assyrian brunch of chai, sweets, and other Mediterranean appetizers”, but many have stayed for Rinya’s father and mother’s fascinating accounts of personal stories and Assyrian history.

Rinya’s father spent 21 years in the village that was recently destroyed by ISIS. Having his own father as the survivor of the Assyrian genocide in 1933, he had anticipated the crisis that has now happened long before and immigrated to the States with his siblings and parents, hoping for a better life.

His life in the States can be described as a classic rags-to-riches story; he came here with nothing and worked his way to the top, and now he owns two banquet halls in Chicago area. All the engagements, weddings, baptism, funerals and other significant life events of people in the Assyrian community of Chicago take place in his banquet halls.

Rinya’s mother is also of Assyrian descent but was raised in the States, for her father moved from Iraq before her birth. She is very involved in local Assyrian churches and volunteer work, reorganizing the education system for churches in the community like Sunday school.

Both Rinya’s mother and father are recognized as a strong leader of the Assyrian society in Chicago. While he is socially involved in the community, hosting parties and weddings, through networking and extensive connections, her mother is politically involved. She helps Assyrian people and refugees to immigrant to the United States, and he assists them in getting jobs, finding housing, filing taxes, and talking to lawyers (since many cannot speak English).

And now, Rinya is following the footsteps of her parents and helping her community by raising Assyrian awareness. Her approach to reaching out to the general public, not only the Assyrian community, is somewhat unusual for it has been an exclusive community so far.

“What Assyrians have done in crisis is to lean on each other because the history of systematic genocide conditioned them to trust their own,” she explained.“Even the younger generation who were born in other countries outside of the Middle East are cautious because they have been continuously told by their parents and grandparents of painful, terrifying accounts of genocide,” she explained.

In order to raise people’s awareness, Rinya has been sharing articles about ISIS attacks but also about Assyrian culture and history on social media and student Facebook groups. Until now, Assyrians have never had substantial attention from the media, and she believes they should take advantage of this rare opportunity.

Under her leadership, the college chose to donate the profits from this year’s International Festival to the Assyrian Aid Society. She hopes that gaining people’s attention and informing them of the importance of preserving Assyrian heritage will work as a chain reaction for bigger actions and eventually help establish a safe haven for refugees and immigrants scattered around the world.

“Hopefully, later on in life, when they hear about Assyrians again, I want people to remember that they had a fellow student at Carleton whose family was directly affected by these attacks. Because Assyrian awareness is being lost, and that’s what we are very afraid of: that no one is going to pay attention.”

Rinya said she was delightfully surprised when a lot of her fellow peers at college, including those who are not Assyrians or not even Christians, showed interest in her organization and enthusiastically supported her actions. A junior named Aman Irfanullah who identifies himself to be Muslim commented on one of the Facebook posts on ISIS attacks and emphasized with her situation.

“These people are monsters that have no regard for human life, peace, and the religion that they claim to fight for. I and any Muslim that I have interacted with stand with you and your people during this crisis. I am sorry that these people are destroying your culture, there are no words for this kind of tragedy,” wrote Irfanullah.

But Rinya’s attempt of stepping outside of the bubble and reaching out to people who are not Assyrians, or even Christians, is not entirely unprecedented. Recently, the community has been attempting to raise unity amongst Assyrians and other groups of Middle Eastern Christians under the hashtag “UnitedNotDivided”.

The Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Student Union claimed on its Facebook page that this campaign is to “raise unity amongst Assyrians, regardless of church denomination, political affiliation, self-identification or current geographic location, and to fight for the livelihood, rights and freedoms of our brothers and sisters in our homeland with one loud and united voice.”

This movement was extended to include other Middle Eastern Christians when St. Mary Assyrian Church of the East had a joint prayer with fellow Egyptian Orthodox Christians in the Chicagoland area in late March. It implied the acceptance of other church denominations into the Assyrian community.

A Non-profit organization called “A Demand For Action (ADFA)” also works to protect the minorities (including Assyrians but also to others) of Iraq and Syria. Since the occupation of northern Syria by Islamic extremists and the following domestic invasion of Iraq, the religious minorities have become the victim of daily robberies, kidnappings, rapes, and murders. ADFA strives to establish a refugee camp or any sort of a safe haven to protect these minorities in danger and includes not only Assyrians but also other fellow Christians residing in the Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

Rinya believes that for these movements and organizations in action to gain more power, they need outsiders, who are not directly involved in the situation, to be involved. But she knows that it is impossible to draw people’s attention overnight. That is why she founded the ‘Northfielders for Assyrians,’ to be the building block of a bigger future.

“We want the refugees to be taken care of. We want hostages to be released, and we want, eventually down the line, establish a safe haven for Assyrians,” she said.“Those are big things, that probably won’t start from Northfield, but with some support, you never know what things will end up at.”