by Danial Zabo
Image: Levi Meir Clancy / Unsplash
*DISCLAIMER: This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.*
The rise of ISIS in the mid-2010s brought chaos and hardship to an already ailing region. At its height, the militant group held about forty percent of Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Among the hardest hit were minority communities in the subdued nations, a prominent example being the Assyrians, an ancient, largely Christian ethnic group that had already endured historic persecution. The Nineveh Governorate of Iraq, of which Mosul is the capital, has long been a historic center of the Assyrian people, and its three-year occupation by ISIS has left the community in ruins.
In the wake of the devastation and the mass migration of the region’s indigenous inhabitants, those who remain rebuild their lives, beset on all sides by strong regional powers and caught in the complicated web of Iraqi politics. This interview invites Ranna Abro, a founding board member of the Shlama Foundation nonprofit NGO, to share her experiences in working to provide Iraq’s remaining Chaldean Assyrian community with economic assistance, infrastructure, and emergency response services.
Q: Could you give some historical context – both before and after ISIS – for the region that Shlama operates in?
A: Even before ISIS, the Chaldean Assyrian community wasn’t in the best position in Iraq; since the start of the Iraq War in 2003, much of the country was exhausted of resources and help wasn’t reaching people. We weren’t technically in a “danger zone” where people were being evacuated; it was “just” bombings once in a while. People were still fleeing, a lot of people didn’t want to live there anymore, but when ISIS came, it got really bad. People that lived in the country, Iraqi citizens – it was like a switch went off, and the radicals came out. They gave an ultimatum: leave by tomorrow at noon, or pay the jizya tax, or convert, or be killed. Nobody’s going to take their chances with the tax, so almost everyone fled. It was just the city of Mosul at first, and that was when we started the Shlama Foundation. Mosul was Iraq’s second largest city, after Baghdad, and a lot of people from all of the villages would go there for work, so there were large numbers of professionals – doctors, teachers, attorneys, all different kinds of jobs. It was a booming city, wealthy, running water – a regular city. So when that happened, we protested. It wasn’t just us; all over the world, wherever our communities are concentrated, there were people holding rallies and protests to try to get their respective government’s attention to help somehow. We weren’t getting a big response at first, and then we started seeing all these countries around the world announce that they had donated billions of dollars . . . but a lot of those donations were going to the UN. We wouldn’t actually see anything from them for a while. Then we decided to take matters into our own hands.
Q: Can you talk a little more about yourself and why you decided to help found Shlama?
A: I’m Chaldean Assyrian. I was born in America after my parents migrated during the Iran-Iraq War, like a lot of people did. I was fortunate enough to have a comfortable upbringing, but people from past generations who grew up in Iraq weren’t as “comfortable,” and they didn’t have the privileges that I did; they were focused on their own survival, their businesses, and their most urgent needs. I realized that I have to help my own people, because no one can really see your own community as much as you can. We aren’t a very visible community. Not a lot of people in the world even know who we are – they think we died out in Biblical times. We’ve lived there for a long time, and we used to be in the millions. Now we’re in the hundreds of thousands. There aren’t many of us left in the homeland, but those millions have moved into Western countries; now we have these people in all these different countries in various concentrations, becoming acclimated. We’re losing thousands of years of culture and heritage and identity. My parents were among the first to move after seven thousand years. Everyone in our community has the same story, a story of how they fled.
I had some organizational experience, and I felt like if we don’t do something, no one will. I’m just one of five cofounders. One of our friends used to live in America but decided to move back to Iraq to return to his roots, and he was being approached by people asking him to take things back to their own families there, so he decided to fundraise and take the money to help the people in need. There were, however, trust issues with the Iraqi government – one of the most corrupt governments in the world. There were sanctions by American corporations like PayPal and many banks, because no one could tell where the money was going. We even found out that a restaurant here was funding terrorism. We needed some sort of vehicle to send funds securely and in a way we knew would reach the people, so that’s how the Shlama Foundation started. When we first started with the initial donations, there weren’t many charities in Iraq. There was a socialist government, so services were provided by the government – the only public servants were government workers, religious workers, and soldiers. They were the ones helping us – people didn’t really understand the concept of “volunteers.” When people started receiving aid, they didn’t understand why we were even helping them. We’ve grown since then, and now we’re considered a “small organization,” which is bigger than a “grassroots organization.” We have an amazing team of great workers, and try to create opportunities for women.
Q: How is the Chaldean Assyrian community different from surrounding communities in the same country?
A: This is something a lot of Westerners have a hard time understanding because we live in a very diverse culture where it’s normal to be different. People even strive to be different – everybody wants their own personality, their own identity, their own interests, and it’s encouraged and respected here. There, it’s the opposite. It’s a very conservative society. There’s a sense of “this is our village, this is how we all live; this is our religion, this is how we all behave; you’re different, we’re superior.” We live in a country where we are not the superior religion, or the superior culture. Under Saddam and still to this day, we are considered inferior by the Iraqi constitution. We don’t get as many rights and privileges. We’re discriminated against in court and in government, and we don’t have freedom of speech in a culture where insulting someone is considered worse than breaking a law. Because we’re such a small community, many have found peace and freedom only by joining with the majority, looking past the continued oppression of their own people.
We don’t have much independence; when we go to local governments for services, which government do we go to? They’re all at odds with each other. We’ve been developing the philosophy of ganam gha ganam – “ourselves for ourselves.” We help ourselves. We lift ourselves up and we do our best to help ourselves grow. I’m very proud of the new generation. Everyone is working hard and working together, not looking at village differences. Still, there are ridiculous injustices that discourage many people from making a difference. For example, some young people sanitized a school during the pandemic as a charity activity, but their mayor gave them a ticket and took them to court, and they were fined. What we really need are rights, which is something that we don’t really tackle at Shlama as a humanitarian organization. We don’t really get involved in politics – the most we can do is advocate for human rights.
Q: Could you go into more detail about your relationship with the local Iraqi Kurdish government, and with the national Iraqi government?
A: I’ll give you a few examples. We had a village with a water tower that was damaged – rotting, oxidized, it couldn’t be filled with water anymore. Several villages were without water. They were told that they were within the Kurdish region, so they went to the Kurdish government for help, only to be told to go back to the national government; each government is broke because of the conflict, so they just pass us around.
Another example is between Turkey and the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, who are at odds with each other and always fighting. The PKK wants more land, and Turkey doesn’t want to give up any land. So the PKK is in Iraq, hiding in our villages, not their own. We have nothing to do with them, we aren’t involved in this conflict, but they come hide in our villages and then Turkey bombs our villages. That’s why we’ve had a lot of fires recently. In our community we have people called “returnees,” young people who grew up in America and decided to return to their homeland to try to make a difference; a group of them fundraised $13,000, and we were able to equip some young men in the villages with fire-fighting equipment, with safety masks so they don’t have to inhale the smoke, and with water carriers – they were climbing up mountains with jugs before this, and using leaves to take the flames out. If they don’t stop the fires, they lose their whole crop, and it could eventually reach their actual homes. These fires are only there because of the Turkey-PKK conflict. We’re fundraising to solve our own problems and stay out of politics. All we can do is advocate and take care of ourselves.
We’re caught in “disputed” territory, but we don’t see anything “disputed” about it. We live there. We’ve lived there for thousands of years. You can dig into the ground and find our ancient artifacts. But it’s politically disputed. The Kurdish region now has power and weapons and guns from selling natural resources to the Western powers. They have a lot more money now, and a lot of their own people are upset about how it’s being spent, which is true for many governments around the world. Local leaders are not elected, but instated – somebody decides who to put in there. If we could have elections, at least we’d know that the people are happy with our leaders. Now, people are afraid to speak out. For example, in the town of Alqosh, the governor is instated by the KDP, or Kurdish Democratic Party. There are no elections. The governor blocks all dissent on her social media. She does some unjust things, and she does some good things. But we have no way of knowing what the people want. They act like they have democracy. They act like they have democracy because America came in and “saved” them, but real democracy is real elections, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. We know what it is because we live in the West.
Q: What kinds of projects does Shlama work on?
A: That’s what we really love to talk about. We have six project categories. The first is emergency response, and that’s what we started with. When Mosul was evacuated, our villages were all still intact, so our original goal was to go help them with all of the government services that weren’t being provided: trash pickup, access to water, things like that. Before we even started our first project, the entirety of the Nineveh Plains was evacuated. For the first time since the very beginning of Christianity, there were no Christians in the Nineveh Plains. A very small number of people couldn’t bring themselves to leave, like some elderly who refused to budge; others were really trying to pull them out of there. At that point, most of our community was homeless. And at that time, we thought: if our community that was concentrated here – Chicago, Michigan, California, Phoenix, a few in Texas and Massachusetts – if those hundreds of thousands of people were homeless, our response would be crazy. I know how our community is, it’s like a family. Everybody would be out there, trying to help people, take care of the children, the families, whoever’s in the most need. But this happened in our homeland, and because so much of our community is thousands of miles away, it’s harder to connect. We’ve been removing those miles through social media: Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Tiktok. That’s part of our mission: to erase those miles, so that our community sees our people no matter where they are in the world.
We start with our own people first, because of that feeling of “I have to take care of my people, my family,” but of course, we have had the most generous, overwhelming support from outside of our community. We do interviews, we share our experiences with policymakers, and we’re working with the Assyrian Policy Institute which does a phenomenal job in defense of Christians, as well as other active organizations in DC. We do similar political outreach in many other countries outside of the United States as well, like Australia, the U.K., France, and of course Iraq . . . we have people in all of these places, concentrated communities. But we’re first generation. We’re still learning how to get involved in policy, and we’re learning from other communities that have used resources like foreign aid in the past. The big question is about how that foreign aid is directed, how we can get America to see our needs. We work very closely with U.S. aid, we’re working on a project right now and we have a good relationship. And when people from outside of your community come to help you, it’s very emotional.
Q: Who or what do you believe is most responsible for the current situation of the Assyrian community in Iraq?
A: There are so many factors involved that it’s impossible to hold one person responsible. A lot of people want someone to blame, but the causes are multifaceted, so the solutions are multifaceted as well. One of the biggest issues is the literacy rate. Such a low literacy rate among the people of Iraq makes them easier to manipulate, and that leads to more political issues, more sectarianism, and more radicalism. School reforms are a must.
In the 1950s, it was better in the Middle East. Industry was booming. There was more freedom. Things were hopeful. But since Saddam came to power, endless wars drained the country of resources, poverty rose, and a lot of people fled in the sixties and seventies to avoid the draft. This is what wars do. As Americans, we know that having the same person in power for so long is not a good thing as well; people change, and not having term limits on leaders is an issue. Having a constitution which disrespects other religions is also an issue.
We are very appreciative as an organization of what America has done to make amends, but there was a lot of recklessness on their part with the Iraq War, and there’s still copious damage that’s yet to be acknowledged. America is somewhat responsible, just like Saddam is somewhat responsible, and the radicals are somewhat responsible, and the schools are somewhat responsible. But we never come from a hateful perspective, only a proactive one, and we only ask that the past be acknowledged, so we can move forward and work together.
Q: What’s the best way for people in other countries around the world to help Shlama?
A: I’ll tell you what America did that was very helpful. When money was supposedly coming from the United Nations, all we saw from them after months was a few tents. And we’d been begging for those tents. But we’re seeing every day on the news that billions are being donated towards our cause through the UN. With social media, it’s a lot harder to lie than it used to be. I remember being so excited hearing about all these countries and political candidates donating all these big numbers, thinking we’d finally get help. But nothing came. People were sleeping on the grass in 100 degrees Fahrenheit weather, so asked for something, just some tents at least. Those, we did eventually get. But I remember Ikea donating mattresses that people are still using. Something visible, where people can’t just lie and say they gave. We would rather one country donate $100,000 that we can actually see, than the United Nations donate $100MM that nobody ever sees because it has to go through so much bureaucracy. So what America did, after much advocacy, is donate to faith-based groups and nonprofits in ISIS-affected areas. A grant came out right away called the New Partnership Initiative, designed to be smaller amounts for local organizations active in the community. We were one of many recipients, and that allowed us to start our solar program. These grants have been renewed for more years, and more grants have been rolled out across many departments. U.S. aid and many other nonprofits have been doing a lot of amazing work, but it wasn’t always being seen by the public because they couldn’t communicate properly. We’re using social media and telling the local people who did this work – that it’s U.S. aid, that it’s Shlama, that it’s the Assyrian Aid Society, and many other organizations. We really appreciate the U.S.’s decision to adapt, and other organizations and countries like France and Hungary have followed suit. That’s our recommendation for countries that want to help: look locally. Don’t trust organizations just because they’re big and full of bureaucracy. Sometimes all of their money just ends up being spent on salaries. When we got that solar grant from U.S. aid, the only people we paid were engineers. We’re not at the level where we can have salaried positions at Shlama, but we’re not in a hurry to get there, because our priority is taking care of people. If paying our people is going to take away from the cause, we aren’t going to do that. We aren’t going to pay people out of other people’s donations. It’d have to be through either a grant or administrative fundraising.
America also sent volunteers and leaders responsible for designating funds to help and actually witness the reality of the situation, which helps them apportion funding.
Q: Is there anything else that you think people need to hear?
A: We get a lot of negativity, a lot of hopelessness. We really want people to be positive and supportive and encouraging. We know we’re surrounded by threats, but we want to be friends with our neighbors. We don’t care that they have a different religion. We don’t despise anyone, not even those who’ve caused us harm. We want to see them change. People are hesitant about “forcing” Western ideas on a different culture, but there are certain principles and values that we have for a reason. Women’s rights, for example, have nothing to do with religion. We can still respect all religions, and allow women to be able to read, go to school, and have jobs if they want to. Certain rights are determined by the United Nations as inalienable.
We want to build love, trust, and community, but we’ll need a long time before we can trust anyone. A lot of people in Iraq, especially minority groups, don’t trust anybody anymore. They’re only focused on taking care of themselves and their families. The people of Iraq have been betrayed over and over again. We live on an ancient land with a deep, rich past. There are so many histories and mysteries to uncover, and if we had peace, we could focus on learning, growing, and becoming a better society. Instead, we’ve been focused on survival and repairs.