Josip Yaramis has three children and has been living in Mechelen since 1995. Before coming to Mechelen, he had stops in Istanbul, Italy, and Brussels. Yet, he often thinks about his home. Josip's home is Geznakh, a village in the southeast of Turkey near the Iraqi border.
"It's nice to live in Mechelen. I've seen it change over the years. Initially, there were only three Assyrian families here, but many more came later, some even from Germany. Nowadays, we are a large, recognized community in Mechelen. For me, the Assyrian identity is something you can't ignore. It's the blood that flows through our veins. It's the language, traditions, and customs that make us who we are, the Assyrians. Our language is also one of the oldest in the world; Jesus spoke it. We take pride in it and try to pass it on to the younger generations. In our cultural center, we organize language and Bible lessons. Of course, we also gather here for Easter and Christmas or for funeral services."
In the background, you can see the view from the mountain village of Geznakh, near the Turkish-Iraqi border.
"I get emotional when I see this photo. It brings back so many childhood memories. It reminds me of the simple life we had. We lived off vegetables and fruits that we grew ourselves. Plus, there were no cars; we did all our transportation with donkeys. A completely different life than here. But Mechelen is doing well, although I must admit that I sometimes dream of having our own Assyria. On that very day, I would pack my bags."
to the West
Project with Marcel Top
Yildiz Kurum has three children and works in the closed ward of a nursing home for dementia patients. In her free time, she's primarily involved in interpreting. She wasn't born in the southeast of Turkey or Mechelen but in Brussels. She came to Mechelen with her parents at the age of 9.
"My father emigrated from the village of Hessana to Belgium in 1979. He was one of the first Assyrians here. Despite being born here, the Assyrian identity still strongly resonates with me. As a mother, I try to pass it on to my children. For example, on April 1st, we celebrate Assyrian New Year. But we also observe fasting, Easter, and Christmas. I find that very important. Regarding food at home, I cook a variety of dishes, from spaghetti bolognese to typical Assyrian cuisine. Assyrians are a resilient people with strong bonds among them. Our faith plays a significant role in that.
In the background, you can see the last monastery in the village of Zaz. Once a fully Assyrian village, it's now almost entirely Kurdish.
"It pains me to see how the demographics there are changing and what the future holds for our religious heritage."
"I hope that Assyrians can reunite. That would make me very happy."
Elisabet Okmen was born in Elsene and currently works in the office of Flemish Minister Bart Somers. In addition, she has been a city council member for a few years.
"My father, along with my grandparents, immigrated to Elsene in the late 1980s. On the other hand, my mother ended up in Germany. The Mechelen story for our family began later. Even though I wasn't born here, Mechelen is truly my home. I was three years old when I moved to Mechelen with my parents. That's when my earliest memories began. During summers, I used to play in the Kruidtuin and the Vrijbroekpark as a child. Even now, as I've grown older, there's always something happening here. Assyrians are the third-largest community in Mechelen, and we have a strong sense of community. That has its origins. We're a people greatly marked by injustice, persecution, but at the same time, we hold onto a lot of resilience. We maintain our uniqueness but easily integrate wherever we go in the world. Sometimes, we may seem somewhat invisible to people, partly because we don't have our own country."
In the background, you can see the hills of Tur Abdin from one of the plots of land owned by an Assyrian family in Derqubbe, a village near the Turkish-Syrian border. The court ruled that a Kurdish family must return the land they illegally confiscated to an Assyrian family.
"In my eyes, these are significant victories. You can see it everywhere. We manage to provide hope for young people. Various young Assyrians end up in various roles. Then there's a kind of nostalgia for our homeland. Some want to reclaim it, and that sentiment is present in the community as well. Personally, I have never been to my father's village. But I will undoubtedly go someday. My father went back to his village after 23 years for the first time and burst into tears. Unfortunately, not much is left of those villages now. But those villages are full of nostalgia. Our parents and grandparents can't easily let go of that."
In 1989, Serdar, along with his mother, brothers, and sisters, arrived in Londerzeel. Five years later, he moved to Mechelen. Since 2019, he has been living in Bonheiden, near Mechelen, with his wife and six children.
"When someone asks me what an Assyrian is, I primarily look at our culture, heritage, and religion. We are unique in terms of our long history and our ability to adapt anywhere in the world. But we always return to our Assyrian values and customs. As a child, when we first arrived, it was challenging. I couldn't read at that time, and I knew nothing about my origins. Over time, I started researching and delving deeper into it. The elders also played a significant role in that. My interest in my own heritage actually began in high school. I still remember the teacher saying, 'Serdar, this is about your people.'"
"For me, the Assyrian language is the most important. We must not forget it, so I pass it on to my children. Two of my children even attend Assyrian classes here in Mechelen."
In the background, you can see the Tigris River, once one of the two main rivers of Mesopotamia. The Assyrians are believed to have lived along this river for an extended period and played a fundamental role in important inventions. Now, a portion of this river flows through the southeast of Turkey.
"That photo really makes me think. How did the Assyrians live there? In ancient Assyria? And, of course, you begin to dream at some point whether we will ever have our own land again, but I fear for it."
"At the moment, it's difficult to live in my village, Herbole. There is no electricity, and there are no fellow villagers who live there permanently. Only my uncle, who is over 70, stays there for more than half of the year."
Aylin Eke was born in Hasselt, Limburg, and is the owner of the brasserie "De 3Ri4en" in Rumst. She has four sisters and four brothers.
"My parents have been in Belgium since 1987. We initially lived in Hasselt, but later, we moved to Mechelen along with the Assyrian community. You could say I'm a Mechelen local because I grew up here and went to school here. I've been in the hospitality industry for 17 years now."
"I find it beautiful how our community deals with weddings and funerals. We support each other strongly in those times. Nevertheless, I am also proud to have a Flemish identity. This reminds me of an anecdote from my mother. When she arrived in Belgium, she was served stewed meat. At first, she thought it was cat food. Those first years must have been very challenging for my parents."
In the background, you can see the village of Meer, near the Turkish-Iraqi border. It used to be a bustling village with over 100 families. That number has significantly decreased after the genocide and the diaspora. In recent years, it has been reduced to just one family, the Diril family. Until two years ago, Hurmuz and Simoni Diril were the only ones living there. Unfortunately, fate decided differently. Simoni was found dead in the village, and there is no trace of Hurmuz. The village is at risk of becoming a ghost town.
"I think that in the long term, the same fate may befall Hessana. However, I hope that my fellow villagers can build things up and continue to live there. We shouldn't further 'extinct' because many people think that Assyrians no longer exist. It's a shame if we don't preserve such a rich culture."
In 2020, Alexandro Yaramis, a Flemish Belgian with Assyrian roots, went on the most important trip of his life. For a Canvas documentary, Vranckx & De Nomaden, he travelled towards south-east Turkey, to the former Assyrian kingdom. Like many others, his parents fled that area in the 1980s and, after some stops, finally ended up in Belgium.
“During this trip, I came across a lot of heritage, interesting stories and unique traditions. I have rarely felt as much at home as I did there. Some people never fled the area, others returned to their homeland after more than 30 years. How strong is the love for one's own country? How do Flemish Assyrians reflect back on their youth? Are the youngest Assyrians still involved with their culture?"
Mechelen seemed an obvious place to look for answers among Assyrians. There is a large Assyrian community living there who were keen to tell their migration story for the 'Dreaming of Home' city project. Heritage hub Mechelen helped with the transition from interviews to exhibition and Torens aan de Dijle found a beautiful exhibition location in the Begijnhofkerk.
The exhibition 3865 km to the West shows six unique portraits of Mechelen Assyrians against a backdrop linked to an Assyrian story. The title represents the distance between the Tigris River and Mechelen City Hall and the distance many Mechelen Assyrians covered when they arrived here in the 1980s.
Expositiion: Alexandro Yaramis, Louis Delbarre, Marcel Top
Photography: Louis Delbarre, Marcel Top
Text: Alexandro Yaramis
Curation: Louis Delbarre, Marcel Top, Marijke Wienen, Kim Parys, Joren Reynders
Support: Erfgoedcel Mechelen
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Torens aan de Dijle