By Peter Ahern
The shocking terrorist strikes in Paris on the evening of November 13 have caught the attention of the world. While political leaders send expressions of condolence and support to President Hollande and his nation, individuals with friends and family in Paris have been clambering to seek assurances of their safety. I am a frequent visitor to Paris where I spent time as a student. Some of my student friends were Assyrians who lived in the neighborhood of Sarcelles, where two thirds of France’s 16000 Assyrians are resident.
(St. Thomas The Apostle Assyrian church in Sarcelles, France).
The Assyrian community in France represents the result of two major waves of immigration. The first influx followed the genocide of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks by the Ottomans during the First World War. This second major wave of arrivals is far more recent, with many fleeing Iraq and Syria over the last decade because of rising persecution by Islamic radical groups. For decades France has been a place of refuge for Assyrians seeking relief from oppression.
Assyrians in Sarcelles have a flourishing community organization, the Union des Assyro Chaldeens de France (UACF). Established in January 1996, the UACF had various locations until a new center was opened in May 2012. The UACF center maintains a well-stocked library, provides classes in modern Assyrian (neo-Aramaic), offers tutorial support to the community’s schoolchildren, assists newly-arriving members of the community who are struggling with French to complete needed forms, and runs its own football club.
The UACF seeks to maintain the unique identity of the local Assyrian population, to provide support in a wide range of ways, and to facilitate warm relations with the French majority community. It has been a happy relationship, with none of the kinds of uncomfortable interactions that has marked the relationship between the native French community and the Muslim minority.
It is by a strange irony that the Assyrian community in Sarcelles finds itself living in proximity to significant Muslim populations in neighboring towns, reflecting the reality of their original homes in the Middle East. The Coordinator of the UACF Center, Mr Max Yabas, said in interview that generally the relationship between local Assyrians and Muslims has been cordial. “We have friends and neighbors with all other communities, including Jews and Muslims”, he said. “There has never been a problem between the Assyrian community in France and any other community.”
However, overall the Assyrians of Paris have felt an erosion of their sense of safety and security in recent years. Mr Yabas explained: “We certainly do not feel as safe today in France as we did in the 1990s. There are now many jihadists in France. We have the impression of being invaded by people who are extremists who at any moment can do something stupid.”
Assyrians are reminded on a daily basis of such feelings of insecurity by the increasingly visible presence of the military in the streets. “We have a very large Assyrian church here that meets for worship three times per day,” explained Mr Yabas. “There are soldiers placed in front of it for protection, as also occurs with the synagogues. For several years now we have not felt secure, because of the rising power of extremists here in France.”
The tragic events of this last weekend have triggered strong feelings among local Assyrians. “The entire Assyrian community is hugely disappointed and angry with the French Government,” declared Mr Yabas. “Government inaction has resulted in the problems in Syria and Iraq coming to France. The French authorities have been entirely reactive, not proactive. They have not anticipated, but waited until the problems were on their doorstep.”
The Assyrians of Paris have themselves been proactive in trying to raise awareness among the French authorities, according to Mr Yabas. “We made public protests last year. We have issued press statements warning of the dangers. But the Government has been inactive.”
The Assyrians of Sarcelles live only a 20 minute train ride away from the 10th and 11th districts of Paris, where some of the attacks occurred. Mr Yabas said with relief “I am involved in the group coordinating the community response to the attacks. Fortunately no Assyrians seem to have been among the victims.”
This is very good news for the Assyrian community. But much more needs to be done for the community to regain the confidence and security that it felt in decades past.