Nobel Peace Prize nominee fights to help Assyrians in Middle East

Juliana With Refugee Children in Turkey.jpg
Juliana Taimoorazy, second from right, meets with refugee children in Turkey. (Credit: Juliana Taimoorazy)

By Saeed Abdullah
Medill Reports

Activist Juliana Taimoorazy, 48, helped so many Christian Assyrians from the Middle East that this year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Next year the Skokie, Illinois, resident hopes to publish “Daughter of Nineveh” – a memoir about living in Iran before and after the Islamic Revolution, escaping into Switzerland and settling in the United States as a refugee. It also covers the history and genocide of the Assyrians and the rule of Iraq’s former leader Saddam Hussein, al-Qaida and then the Islamic State group. The final chapter calls for world leaders to help Assyrians survive. “We are on the verge of extinction, our language is dying, our ethnicity is dying,” Taimoorazy said. “We don’t want to be a group of people that is going to remain in the museums.”

Taimoorazy comes from a family of refugees. Her parents were born in the Soviet Union because of the mass killing and deportation of Armenians and Assyrians by the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Exiled during Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s ethnic cleansing, Taimoorazy’s Christian mother and father raised her and her two older siblings in Tehran, Iran. “I’m the last child by a very big difference in age,” Taimoorazy said. “My sister is 15 years older, my brother is 12 years older, and I’m a very big accident. I was a big surprise child.”

In 1979, Iran’s Islamic Revolution began —and violence escalated. She still remembers a warm afternoon when she was 6. Her sister left for class at the American University in Tehran. Several hours later, she and her parents heard a car horn outside. It was too early in the day for her sister to be home from school. Their father went outside to investigate and opened the family’s front gate — only to see his daughter’s car roll into the yard, drenched in blood. She fell out of it, asking, “Where’s our brother? Where’s Benjamin?” Her father replied, “He’s upstairs.” Suddenly, she passed out. The family immediately brought her inside and laid her on a couch. When she regained consciousness and saw Benjamin, she began crying. Someone had told her that her brother had been killed in the middle of the protests, then had poured his blood on her car. “I’ll never forget that moment,” Taimoorazy said.

During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, she and her family hid in shelters, sleeping intermittently while hearing the sirens outside. As a student who was baptized a Catholic, she listened to fellow students tell her she would “burn in hell” for her Christian faith and name. Teachers isolated her from the rest of the children to force her to convert to Islam. Once she attended a class with Jewish, Muslim and other Catholic students to learn more about God. The teacher spoke out harshly against her Christianity and the Holy Trinity. The then-13-year-old was unable to respond and defend her belief, which traumatized her. Her parents complained to the Ministry of Education, but nothing changed. They started looking for ways to smuggle her out of Iran.

On Taimoorazy’s 16th birthday, the family sold their possessions and moved in with her uncle to await someone they had hired to get her out of the country. But the smuggler simply took the money they had saved from her father’s job as a surveyor. Her parents found someone else who said he could put her in a livestock truck that would head to Pakistan and then to India. But they refused out of fear of human trafficking. A third attempt failed when another smuggler demanded all documents proving she was Christian be destroyed and said he would falsify papers to show she was Muslim and married to him. Her parents asked, “Would you divorce her because she’s officially your wife?” He replied that she was 16 years old, and if he ended up liking her, he would not. So, her parents said, “No, we won’t lose our daughter.”

After Easter 1989, her great-aunt introduced her parents to a smuggler who forged new passports, visas and a fake invitation to attend a seminar in Switzerland. This ordeal cost them $25,000.

The family arrived there around Christmas 1989. They stayed in a monastery for a week until another smuggler transferred them to Frankfurt, then Essen, Germany, to apply for asylum. A year later they came to the United States as refugees.

Taimoorazy grew up hearing stories from her parents about the persecution of Assyrians due to their Christian faith. Her great-grandfather, a priest of the Church of the East, was killed by Bolshevik soldiers in 1918, because he had forgotten to hide his cross before leaving the house one night to baptize a child in Russia. She earned her master’s degree in instructional design from Northeastern Illinois University and spent 17 years as a host and reporter for “Assyrians Around the World,” a TV program.

Then in 2007, she launched the Iraqi Christian Relief Council to provide necessities to Christians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries.

Taimoorazy is “a pure soul” for serving people in need, said Aileen Ishaq, an Iraqi partner who helps her distribute of necessary items like medications and money to Iraqi and Syrian Christian refugees in Lebanon.

“Now I’m in Lebanon to deliver humanitarian aid and relief to afflicted families and the most vulnerable, no matter what their religion is,” Ishaq said.

“Listening to a witness makes you a witness,” a line from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, is Taimoorazy’s favorite quote. Her favorite book, “Night” (1960), also authored by Wiesel, describes his Holocaust experiences with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps.

Marcie Baker, an ICRC board member, said Taimoorazy improves the lives of thousands of people. “She is laser-focused,” Baker said. “She fights for what she believes in and has the energy to make this world a better place.”

Taimoorazy is determined to help Assyrians gain their rights.

“She is single-minded in the pursuit of both justice for her people and reconciliation between people,” said the Rev. David Fischler, ICRC board chair. Fortunately for the refugees, she is relentless.

Saeed Abdullah is a graduate student at Medill, and he specializes in video and broadcasting. You can follow him on Twitter @SA_Baabdullah.