Stephanie Yousif was born and raised in the northwestern Chicago suburbs and comes from an Assyrian background. She describes how the Assyrian culture is one without a land but indigenous to Iraq, has a Neo-Aramaic language, and is comprised of mostly Middle Eastern Christians. She reflects on how her culture is often mistaken for being Syrian, and personally distinguishes her cultural identity as not Arab but rather a separate entity. She encourages the importance of having sensitivity and being willing to seek information, especially towards identity and belonging in these modern times.
This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps. This story was produced by Hannah Barg from StoryCorps Chicago.
“So a lot of times I will literally spell out that I am a A-s-s-y-r-i-a-n, Assyrian, as opposed to a Syrian which is what a lot of times people get from that and so Syrians come from Syria and Assyrians don’t have a country. Assyrians are an ancient civilization and are indigenous to Iraq and the community today is rather small, I think worldwide the population is just under a million. We do often get thrown into a pool of the minority of Middle Eastern Christians but I do always like to make that distinction because Assyrians speak their own language, we speak Neo-Aramaic.
We have a lot of cultural differences and we look different and admittedly so we are very similar to the Hebrew culture, very similar to the Arab culture but we are absolutely different. Also, the identity of Assyrians is controversial. I feel like if I was born in Iraq, but was an Assyrian I still would identify as an Iraqi. For example my Father does, I ask him all the time and he says he’s an Iraqi Assyrian. And he’s also American. He’s not going to deny the fact that Iraq raised him. Whereas my Mother might say something like she’s strictly Assyrian, she doesn’t identify as much with the Iraqi culture. She’s an Assyrian before she is anything else.
When I last visited Iraq I experienced some hardships within my family because they would resort to the Arabic language, which I’m not very strong in. And I would have to ask for them to transition back to Assyrian so I can understand. And I noticed that that’s happened even here in the US. Where first generation Assyrians like myself speak English and we don’t even realize that we’re doing it and we do so by nature it’s just second nature to go ahead and speak English at home with our parents or with our Assyrian peers and then before you know it we’re blanking on words and I think that is dangerous. I think our language is vital to maintaining our community and our culture.
I will be attending the University of Iowa again as a graduate student in the fall and I will be studying religious studies, Islamic Law. Naturally I’ve had a passion for the Middle East and Middle Eastern culture. I started to, kind of, develop this passion for Islam post 9/11 with the Middle East just taking center stage at an unprecedented level. Another thing, I was exposed to it. You know, with my parents having been raised in a Muslim country.
We were raised in a household that played Arabic music at every, you know, social function or whatever party we hosted. Very seldom would we listen to Assyrian music. And growing up I didn’t really know what they meant, not until I went to Iowa and studied Arabic in undergrad. I hope to go into teaching. I hope to one day help kids understand how important it is to learn and have a concrete knowledge of world cultures and that it will help them immensely will this ever growing diverse country of America.”