On February 24, 2015, militants of the so-called Islamic State raided several villages in the Hassakeh province in Syria, capturing large groups of Christian Assyrians, an ethnic minority indigenous to the region.
One of the villages, Tal Shamiram, located about 50 miles southwest of the Hassakeh capital, was home to several family members of 37-year-old Mike Youkhanna, a native Chicagoan maintenance worker. Of those captured were members of Youkhanna’s uncle’s family, including a six-year-old girl.
Youkhanna sat in a red armchair at his local Assyrian American Cultural Center in Lincolnwood running the gamut of emotions as he told the story of his relatives’ capture. At times he held back tears, speaking slowly; other times he furrowed his brow and chose his words carefully so as not to say anything that would put his captured family members in jeopardy.
The areas attacked by ISIS are small villages of several hundred inhabitants, most of who live off of their land. But despite their small geographic size, news of this devastation traveled thousands of miles almost immediately.
“Word gets out from people that are around those areas, those who were hostages and then released,” Youkhanna said.
Approximately a week later, ISIS released an unknown number of Assyrian hostages, an act that is baffling to some given the militant group’s hostile track record.
“Everyone they capture, they kill. So the question that runs through my mind is releasing some people—is a good question of why would you do that?” Youkhanna said.
Many in the region lack the resources required to fight off future attacks. Joseph Tamraz, the chairman of the Universal Assyrian Alliance in Chicago says while all types of aid are needed, monetary assistance is what will provide the biggest return.
“They need money, and they need more help to get out of that situation. We have a lot of hostages that have been taken, and we have a lot of people that have been killed, our churches have been burned, so they need a different kind of help,” Tamraz said.
“They don’t want food they’re telling us, they don’t want clothing, you know,” Youkhanna said. “In a situation like this, I would rather be in some shorts, and no shoes, but have military weapons, to move forward and take action towards a people like this who are trying to destroy a people.”