SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers have formed the Illinois Assyrian Caucus in an effort to help them understand and learn about challenges facing the Assyrian community and how to address them.
Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, announced the formation of the caucus at a news conference in early March. The caucus has 18 founding members from the Senate and House, including 17 Democrats and one Republican. Villivalam will serve as co-chair alongside Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, D-Glenview.
“I look at our role as a caucus as working with the community to ensure that their voice is heard and that they have a seat at the table when we have policy discussions,” Villivalam said.
Assyrians are a transnational ethnic group and are indigenous to parts of Iraq, Turkey and Syria. The United States is home to more than 600,000 Assyrian Americans with about 100,000 living in the Chicagoland area according to the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation.
According to the AUAF, the first Assyrians to settle in Illinois immigrated from modern-day Iran in 1889.
Atour Sargon, vice chair of the Assyrian Policy Institute, said the formation of the new caucus speaks to the growing influence of the community. It is a welcomed development, she said, in uplifting the voices of Assyrians and helping legislators understand the needs and priorities of the Assyrian community
The Assyrian Policy Institute is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of Assyrians and other minorities throughout the Middle East.
In an interview with Capitol News Illinois, Sargon said the top priorities the API would like to see addressed are senior, immigrant and refugee services, the opioid crisis, and access to mental health resources.
Sargon said the API would like to see improved access to immigrant and refugee support services such as trauma response services for those who have survived traumatic experiences in countries Assyrians have fled. The group is also advocating for immigrant rights protections and improved access to citizenship.
To address the opioid crisis among young adults in the community, Sargon wants to establish programs to help prevent substance abuse and to expand access to support services for families.
“It’s a really taboo issue in our community,” Sargon said. “Providing improved access to resources can really help a great deal.”
She also said the API would like to have group social programs readily available for seniors who spend time alone at home while family members are working.
Another challenge that was noted during the news conference was Assyrians assimilating into the local community and learning English while trying to keep the language, culture and traditions of their home country.
“I think the hardest challenge that any immigrant faces when they are in this country is the balance of assimilating and learning the language, culture and traditions here,” Villivalam said.
Sargon said in interview that the API would like to see the Assyrian language offered as an accredited option at public high schools.
Sargon said the institute wants to see within the coming year the passing of Senate Joint Resolution 21, which would formally recognize the Assyrian Genocide of 1915 and the Simele Massacre of 1933 as a genocide. It would also declare Aug. 7 as Assyrian Remembrance Day.
“Assyrians have had a long history of being marginalized and denied representation, suffering executions and enduring political oppression,” Sargon said.
The Assyrian Genocide began in late 1914 and continued for more than a decade with the peak of the violence occurring between 1915 and 1918.
The Ottoman Turks and allied Kurdish tribes subjected hundreds of thousands of Assyrians to massacre, torture and cultural and ethnic destruction along with the destruction of villages and cultural heritage sites, and the assassination of Assyrian intellectual and religious leaders.
The massacres took place in various locations across modern-day Turkey, Iran and Iraq. An estimated 250,000 Assyrians were murdered during the genocide with a large number forced into permanent exile.
The Simele Massacre was committed by armed Iraqi forces and took place across more than 100 Assyrian villages, leading to the death of about 6,000 Assyrians. Inhabitants of 65 Assyrian villages were massacred, including 3,000 in Simele.
Illinois would be the fourth state to formally recognize the Assyrian Genocide.