Tel Tamr, Syria: Assyrians cling to their homeland despite threats

by Ayham Merhi, Al-Akhbar English

The Syrian crisis has altered the demographics of areas witnessing changes from the war. More than half of the Syrian Assyrian community has left their main city – Tel Tamr in al-Hasaka’s countryside – to neighboring Arab states and other countries. But those who remain are still holding on to their land, refusing the temptation of emigration.

The situation in the city of Tel Tamr in the western countryside of al-Hasaka seems unreal.

Tel Tamr is no longer crowded with its residents, who used to breathe life into the city. The city was famous for being the capital of tourism in Hasaka and the homeland of Syria’s Assyrians, in effect becoming their main city. People from all over the district used to travel tens of kilometers “to eat the local burghul at Umm Hani’s in the village of Tel Nasri or the grilled fish in Tel Jumaa or Tel Jazirah.” This is in addition to the droves of people from al-Malikia, 200 kilometers away, who spend their holidays at the banks of al-Khabour river.

But today this is no longer possible, as more than 500 Assyrian families emigrated, along with dozens of Iraqi Assyrian families who settled in Tel Tamr after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Most of the Iraqi Assyrians had went to Lebanon, Sweden, the US, and Europe, with only a minority that settled on the Syrian coast, with the hope of returning to their hometowns in Iraq one day.

The Sunday sermon at the Virgin Mary Church in the city of 30,000 (two thirds of whom were Assyrian) has not ceased. However, the number of worshipers has been dwindling month after month.

The situation of Tel Tamr is similar to the adjacent villages of Tel Rumman and Tel Wardiyat, whose monastery was commonly used by the people of the region. It remains, but very few people are attending its sermons. For example, the Virgin Mary Festival held in mid-August has been reduced to a simple mass and lacked the customary celebrations which used to last until the early morning.

Consecutive waves of emigration of the Assyrian community began almost two years ago on November 8, 2012, when the Free Syrian Army (FSA) entered Kobani and allegedly threatened Tel Tamr 40 kilometers away. The emigration persisted after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) took control of the town.

The pace of emigration intensified further when al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of parts of the governorate’s countryside, especially the southern road leading to the town, currently occupied by ISIS and has witnessed frequent military clashes with the YPG.

During the last Eid al-Adha, four Assyrians were kidnapped on that road – linking the city with the ISIS-controlled villages of the Abdel-Aziz mountains – when their car was stopped at a surprise checkpoint. They are still missing.

“The situation in Tel Tamr is worrisome,” Elias, a university teacher, explained. “It is not easy to live next to roads leading to a group that sees you as an infidel and wants to kill you. Despite this, we remained, because the land is ours.”

“Assyrians of Tel Tamr left due to fears of kidnapping and blackmail. They only know peaceful ways. War and its consequences are more powerful than them, so they see emigration as the solution,” he added.

The main road leading to Tel Tamr is currently being protected by YPG units, who took control of the city a year and a half years ago. In and around the city, Assyrian Popular Committees have been set up to assist these units. The committees are made up of more than 100 people in total, most who are young, but some members are over 50 years old.

“The war taught us that only weapons could protect us. We carry them today to defend our families and children from harm and protect our land and property from the threat of takfiris,” Charbel Moussa, a member of one of the committees, told Al-Akhbar. “Life goes on as usual, despite the painful situation.”

“The saliqa season [cooking bulgur on wood at the beginning of autumn] is a fact of life for Assyrians of Tel Tamr. The local grape season will not return to its former glory if peace and security do not return to Syria,” according to Umm Odisho, speaking on customs that had meant a lot to her, but now seem to be disappearing as the war rages on. All that remains for the old woman is to go to church every day and pray for Syria and the return of the town’s families.

“[Tel Tamr] is the city of Assyrians and my eternal love. I cannot live without breathing it’s air. It is life for me,” she said.

Life in the city seems almost normal. Refugees from al-Raqqa and al-Tabaqa have brought some liveliness into the city once again. The residents seem to have welcomed the newcomers, who themselves also are trying to adapt to their new surroundings.

But for resident, Babel Sarkis, a literature student, this land became unfamiliar when her childhood friends left. She stays in contact with them through the internet, but she does not want to leave.

“I am used to the simple life, which is more beautiful than anywhere outside Syria. I only miss my friends. I talk to them every day,” she said.

“No one is happy outside Syria. Most of them want to come back despite the luxury and enticement of the west.”

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