The Assyrian Empire was an ancient country located in Mesopotamia between two well-known rivers Euphrates and Tigris. It existed from the second half of the third millennium BC until the destruction of its capital city Nineveh, which took place in 612 BC. It seems to be so long ago, but nowadays it has a strong connection with the city of Mechelen in which about 4.000 Assyrians are living right now.
Melkan Ishak, is one of them. He is an Oriental Christian refugee from the Middle East. He also has a Belgian passport. Melkan Ishak came to Belgium as an young boy with his family. He still has a wide knowledge about his ancestors and the place where he was born. He is proud of his origin although Assyrians do not have their own country at this moment.
Hard times under occupation
Those refugees used to live in their villages located on the border between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, where they had to face wars between their neighbors. Sometimes they were occupied. Turkey tried to get rid of them especially after the genocide in 1915. The main reason was that they were Christians. Many of them were killed during this time and the others, who survived thought that they were the last Christians in the world. It explains why the traditions were and still are so important for that community. They do their best to keep them alive.
The Assyrians are one of the oldest nations that adopted Christianity. Since the second century AD those people from far Middle East stick to their Christian beliefs, which are very strong and they try to live according to them. Moreover the community speaks Aramaic, which reflects the language of Jesus Christ. So indeed they were one of the first Christians.
Oriental Christians from the Middle East were guided in their faith by the Nestorian Church of the East and then by the Chaldean Church of Babylon. That is the reason why their ceremonies are different from Roman Catholic traditions. Nowadays they are a shining example for the Catholics from West Europe, where the Christian religion gets less and less attention. Assyrians do their services in four Catholic churches in Mechelen. Every Sunday when it takes place the churches are full.
One of Assyrian villages were called Hassana and that is where Melkan used to live. It was considered to be the biggest village inhabited by Assyrian Christians in Turkey. In the book The Tragedy of the Assyrians we can find little description of what the villages looked like. They were small, so everybody knows each other. The houses were built of stone, mostly on the knolls in the narrow valleys.
Assyrian share economy
Another important thing in the Assyrian community is the solidarity and cooperation in daily life. Melkan told as just one simple example of their share economy. Let’s consider that you need to go somewhere far from your home, so you need a transport but you don’t have a horse on your own. In this case you just go to your neighbors and you will get help. The next day they can come to you and ask for something else. It was based on good relations and kindness. As we heard their system was not only about money and living for yourself. From this moment we have found it difficult to say something against this charming community.
Life without respect
Melkan also described how different their life was over there. The neighboring nations, Turkish people and Kurds, didn’t have respect for the Assyrians. They had to speak Kurdish and Turkish. It was forbidden to teach Assyrian, so now many people from the community are not able to read and write in their own language. Only the spoken language has survived. The school system was very poor, they have learnt only the alphabet, how to count and the Turkish history. Most of the villagers were farmers and didn’t know that they were living so isolated from the other part of the world. The Kurds and Turks took advantages of Assyrians by kidnapping people and stealing goods. Moreover even Turkish Government treated them as fourth class people.
It was very sad to hear about all of the pain they had to suffer. Especially when Melkan told about the reason why he had to flee with his family from his village. In the seventies the situation was so harmful that many Assyrians tried to escape, hoping to find a better future. One of those people was his uncle who successfully escaped with three other people, at first to Istanbul and later on Europe. They went to Amsterdam and saw how good life could be.
Abduction of married woman
In those years it became common that Kurds abducted young Christian girls when they were searching for a bride. The situation was bad, but in 1983 it really escalated. A married woman, a member of Melkan’s family clan, was kidnapped by a Kurdish man from the neighboring village. At this point Ishak, the father of Melkan, who had an important role in Hassana, knew that some steps had to be taken. Otherwise Kurds wouldn’t see any obstacle to repeat this kind of crime all over again. So, the angry crowd from Hassana decided to take revenge. They marched towards the offender’s village and tried to trace the missing woman but that didn’t have any results. Ishak then decided to make a complaint to the Turkish government. What he did was actually a breaking point in the relations between Assyrian Christians and the Kurds with their feudal system. It was sure that it would lead to some kind of punishment for vulnerable Christians.
Not long after Melkan’s father sold his property and left the village with his whole family, because he knew that they are no longer safe there. It wasn’t an easy decision to travel with six children; Melkan was then ten years old and he was the oldest one. Moreover they didn’t have any destination planned in advance. That was a ‘question of life and death’, and the family just headed out in big rush to Istanbul. Then they bought a ticket to go to London, but because of some unusual circumstances they arrived in Brussels. Without any idea what to do next and without any knowledge of European languages, father Ishak decided to show by making the sign of the cross that he and his family were Christians in danger of death. It all happened on 16 December 1983; so it was already around Christmas and the police was not so strict for the refugees without visa or just felt sorry for this poor family. At this moment they were about to settle down in Amsterdam where they had relatives, but Holland appeared to be stricter than Belgium. Melkan’s uncle was refused asylum. This sad news led to the opening of a new chapter in Assyrians history. At this point it is good to indicate how undeterred are those people. After so many struggles they did not give up on their dreams of a better life and escaping from Islamic yoke.
Mechelen: a new home for Assyrians
The city of Mechelen, became a new home for the Assyrians. Of course the fresh start in completely new place was not easy, but they knew that this country give them all of the chances to be somebody. So they loved it from the beginning.
Later on almost the whole Hassana village of reunited in Mechelen. In autumn of 1993 the last of them were evicted from the village by the Turkish army. All of the Christian villages were destroyed. Fortunately most of the refugees did not have problems to get permission for staying in Belgium. At this point Assyrians refused the Turkish nationality and decided to become citizens of Mechelen. Those new Belgians work here and their children go to school. They invest their money and time to integrate to the Flemish society by learning the Dutch language. Of course now they have to face some problems of daily life, but finally they can feel equal and Belgian authorities take care for their human rights to be ratified.
Antwerp fashion designs
Last but not least thing to add is Assyrian specialty in making clothes. Mostly it was a man’s job. Many of them were weavers and tailors at the same time . As we read in the book Mechelen aan de Tigris by August Thiry: ‘ The typical shella-costume for men consisted of three parts: a pair of trousers (shella), a waistcoat without buttons (sapikka) and a jacket with broad sleeves (heleke).’ Nowadays we can find their workshops in Antwerp, which enrich Belgian culture. Even Antwerp fashion designers are impressed by the Assyrian craftwork, which has been shown on some exclusive European catwalks.
Text: Ada Kostrubiec, pictures: © August Thiry, Pieter-Paul Moens