The Assyrian Genocide Memorial Wall
by Rosie Malek-Yonan
Shaded by trees, an outdoor courtyard nestled in the center of St. Mary’s Parish in Tarzana, California, embodies a serene setting. A balcony on the side of the Assyrian American Christian School overlooking the courtyard below has witnessed many events both somber and joyous.
Not long ago, the tranquility of the courtyard was disturbed by heavy loads of concrete blocks, bags of cement, tiles, PVC pipes, dirt, sand, and earsplitting construction noises. A Memorial Wall was being built. An idea conceived by Father George Bet-Rasho to commemorate all the Assyrian martyrs. Though for a time, it seemed more like a big pile of mess with absolutely no end in sight.
And then the magic began. Brick by brick. Layer upon layer. Those coarse raw inanimate materials slowly metamorphosed into something that possessed the ability to touch the hearts of a small nation longing to see the resurrection of their beloved Assyria.
But how can a Wall made of mortar and concrete speak of anything that can jar the emotions?
Early Saturday morning on 17 February 2007, cloaked in giant sheets of white satin, the Wall awaited patiently to show off its splendor. Teasingly, it showed a glimpse of itself when a gentle breeze slightly parted the satin curtains it hid behind.
An old inhabitant of the courtyard that lived across from this newly erected Wall was a multi-tiered fountain. Enchanted, it splashed in delight applauding the day’s fête as a bird or two swooped down to catch droplets of water. The courtyard was beaming with anticipation for the arrival of parishioners and guests.
By 10:00 a.m., the air began to thicken with sounds distinctly familiar. Crowds of Assyrians and their friends were milling about the courtyard of St. Mary’s for the unveiling of the Assyrian Genocide Memorial Wall.
The winter sun kept its promise of a warm day as rows of white chairs began to fill. Countering the sun, giant trees above, cast shadows across the yard protecting the Assyrians below. The leaves gently shimmered in the morning breeze approving of the day filled with both gladness and sadness.
Photographers and filmographers stirred about snapping pictures and capturing the moments. Images of young and old were preserved as witnesses to this important day. Father George weaved in and out of the crowd greeting guests and tending to last minute details.
The ceremony began with a Parade. Students from the Assyrian American Catholic School, dressed in traditional Assyrian costumes, carried the Holy Cross, the Assyrian flag, the U.S. flag and the flag representing the Assyrian Church of the East. Taking their places in front of the white satin drapes, the students were joined by Ms. Christina Bet-Rasho, the English speaking emcee and Deacon Isho Callo, the Assyrian speaking emcee. The students recited the Pledge of Allegiance followed by songs presented by the Church Choir.
Father George delivered the Opening Prayer and then signaled for the unveiling. The massive white satin curtains were pulled away, illuminating a most spectacular sight.
A waterfall softly splashing the Assyrian Flag set in glass tile in a double fountain framed by two brass torches and guarded by statues of Lamassu on either side.
A beautiful blue sky with patches of soft white clouds became the perfect backdrop for the colorful balloons and thirty white doves that were released. Swooping above the wall, the doves gracefully took flight until they disappeared from sight.
A quiet gasp from the audience. Tearing eyes hiding behind sunglasses. Young students from the Assyrian American Christian School that sat on the ledge circling a tree just in front of the staging area looked up in wonderment. They were quiet and contemplative. They understood what the day signified. They understood what this Wall represented.
The splendor of the moment was completed when Father George lit the two brass torches. The Eternal Flames will act as a reminder to keep the faith alive.
The engraving on the dedication plaque in black marble read:
THE ASSYRIAN GENOCIDE MEMORIAL WALL
Established 17 February 2007
In remembrance of the ASSYRIANS who valiantly died during the ASSYRIAN GENOCIDE (SEYFO) of 1914-1918 in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, totaling 750,000 martyrs; the 1933 SEMELE MASSACRE in Iraq totaling 3,000; and those massacred during the IRAQ WAR beginning 2003.
WE WILL NEVER FORGET... WE WILL NOT REMAIN SILENT...
“Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” - Matthew 5:10
The soft rippling water that flowed into the pool below the Wall was already speaking for the voices of thousands. It was recounting the stories of the multitude. It was calling the names of those who bravely delivered future generations into the new world to carry on the blessed Assyrian name.
That morning, I spoke of the slow continuous genocide that has gripped our nation. It began long before WWI with the 1895 Massacre of Diyarbekir where an estimated 55 thousand Assyrians were killed. This event paved the way for the Assyrian Genocide of WWI, followed by the Death Marches of 1924 when Assyrians marched from Turkey to Aleppo, Syria. The Semele Massacre of 3,000. Two gulf wars and the countless attacks on Assyrians throughout these periods. Yet, here we are. Remembering our fallen. Honoring our martyrs.
Mr. Yosip Bet-Yosip, presented a poem in Assyrian entitled Assyrian Exodus of 1918 recounting the horrific events of the Assyrian Genocide that took place in Urmi, Iran and the devastating accounts of the Great Exodus from Urmi in 1918.
Mr. Dennis P. Zine, a Los Angeles City Councilman of the third Council District spoke of his promise to support the Assyrian effort now that he was made aware of the issues both past and present.
Representing the Assyrian Universal Alliance, Mr. Ninoos Benjamin presented Father George with a Crystal Cross in gratitude for the building of this Assyrian Memorial. Mr. Edwin Tekmar was also acknowledged with a plaque in appreciation of his work in overseeing the construction of the Wall.
The Assyrian American Christian School Choir performed The Assyrian Wall Song and the event concluded with Father George’s Closing Prayer.
As the courtyard observed the parting guests returning to their daily lives, the quiet of early afternoon descended upon it.
Turning to leave, I saw an Assyrian woman with an apron still on sitting at the back near the kitchen entrance. Her kind face looked tired and overwhelmed. Her hands were clasped in her lap. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall. I walked up to her to thank her for all the help she had given to prepare food for the occasion. She must have heard me coming up to her because she opened her eyes and smiled at me when she saw me. She took my hand in her rough hands and said, “Maybe they won’t forget us now.”
Before leaving, I stood in the middle of the courtyard one last time and closed my eyes for a moment. I could hear a million prayers of gratitude whispering in the flow of air. And I whispered back, “We will never forget...We will not remain silent..."
Dated: 5 March 2007
©2007 Rosie Malek-Yonan. All Rights Reserved.