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Monday, 20 May 2019 04:24 am

Keeping Northern Iraq’s ancient Nineveh alive and well in NZ

How does a small, relatively unknown population from ancient Nineveh, Northern Iraq, maintain its culture in New Zealand? JENNIFER GILCHRIST finds out:

ASSYRIAN VOICES: At Access Radio, from left, announcer Maureen Zaya, technician Sam Esho and producer Sarjon Warde.

LIKE Hone Harawira, Father Aprem Pithyou wants his children to marry within their own culture.
But like the controversial Maori politician, the parish priest (right) at Wellington’s biggest Assyrian church, St George, doesn’t get a say in the matter.

“We prefer that Assyrians marry Assyrians to keep our culture, to keep our identity, to keep our language,” he says.  “But if they would like to marry a New Zealander we do not say no.

“I have three children – one son has a Brazilian girlfriend and the other son has a Portuguese girlfriend,” he adds with a wry smile.

Marriage and socialisation within a culture for people who have emigrated to a new country, is an important way to maintain identity. Father Aprem believes Assyrians fit easily into New Zealand society, but the culture in Iraq is different.

There is no boyfriend-girlfriend scenario or civil marriage. A marriage takes place in a church and then the couple presents the government with a marriage certificate.

Organised social events are one way large groups of Assyrians can meet, and this provides opportunities for young, single Assyrians to mix and mingle.

Assyrian Association chairperson Sarjon Warde believes weddings are a good meeting ground. “There could be 700 people at a wedding, with 90% of the guests being Assyrian,” he says.

The most popular venue for weddings of this size is St Patrick’s Hall, Kilbirnie. If the number of guests is between 200 to 300, then a venue such as the Duxton or, Holiday Inn will be chosen.

Mr Warde says the association organises parties in Wellington and invites Assyrian singers from Australia to entertain the crowd. “These singers are as well known in the Assyrian community as Michael Jackson is to New Zealanders.”

The association organises picnics as well as bingo nights, which are held fortnightly.  They also support the Voice of Nineveh, a radio programme broadcast on Saturday nights from Wellington Access Radio.

Mr Warde produces the programme and does a fair amount of the announcing,  supported by announcer Maureen Zaya and technician Sam Esho. The programme consists of world, local  and community news, educational pieces and sports.

“Assyrians are mad keen on soccer, so the British premier league is followed with great interest,” he says.

The weekly programme is broadcast in Assyrian and is available on the internet. “The estimated number of listeners in Wellington is 40 to 50, but the programme has a worldwide audience due to the internet.”


Religion is another common theme that can bind a culture closer together, particularly for Assyrian Christians.

Iraq is often regarded as a Muslim country and the profile of Christians living in Iraq is not well known generally. “In the mid-80s, there were about one million Christians living in Iraq, but the percentages of Christians residing there is declining,” says Mr Warde.

Four hundred Assyrians attend Father Aprem’s Saint George church in Strathmore, the denomination of which is the Holy Apostolic Church of the East.

Assyrian families prefer to send their children to church schools. As more Assyrian families tend to live in Kilbirnie, Newtown and the eastern suburbs of Wellington, Holy Cross in Miramar and St Patrick’s Primary School, Kilbirnie, are popular choices for primary education. St Patrick’s and St Catherine’s, both in Kilbirnie, attract Assyrians families for their secondary education.

Flight from Iraq

A uniting factor for the Assyrians is the untenable situation many of them found themselves living in while still in Iraq.

Each family that has arrived in Wellington has a story to tell. Nashi Yousif  (right) and her husband Yousef fled from Iraq, with their four sons, in June 1991. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq meant that life for Mrs Yousif’s family in Northern Iraq had become primitive.

“There was a lack of teachers everywhere. The teachers were scared to come to our village.  There was no running water and no electricity. We had to carry water from outside the village,” says Mrs Yousif.

The Yousif family escaped into Syria and lived in tents in a refugee camp for over two years.

“We had no passport at that time as Saddam was in power. Many people left their houses and went to Syria” says Mrs Yousif.

During the time spent in the refugee camp the family ran a dairy with some money Mrs Yousif’s in-laws had given them.

Contact with Mrs Yousif’s family was almost non-existent while living in the camp.

Not until the family arrived in New Zealand in November 1993 was Mrs Yousif able to ring her mother and tell her that they were safe and well in New Zealand.

Her two sisters and three of her four brothers all now live in New Zealand.

Patraus Moshi is Mrs Yousif’s younger brother.  Patraus and wife Janet (pictured) left Iraq in 1995 via Jordan and spent five years living in the capital, Amman.

Mr and Mrs Moshi left Iraq as tourists with only their suitcases and some mementos.  Had they declared their true intentions to leave Iraq permanently, they would not have been given visas or passports.

After Mr and Mrs Moshi’s second application to New Zealand had been turned down they appealed and were then granted a visa.  As Mrs Yousif was already residing in New Zealand she was able to sponsor them as a family.

Before Father Aprem, who is now 64, was ordained a priest he was a soldier in the Iraq army from 1980 to 1986. The first three years were compulsory and the rest of the service was spent in the reserves.

The first eight years of the 1980s saw the devastation of the economy of Iraq due to the Iran-Iraq war.  Father Aprem was released from military service in 1986 and was then recalled to the army later that year.

“At this time I was serving on the eastern border of Iraq and the western border of Iran.”

It was this situation that led him to flee from Iraq with his family.  Fifty two people left in total and drove into north western Iran, where they lived in a refugee camp for three years.

Father Aprem and his family arrived in Wellington in October 1989 among a group of 101 people.

Sarjon Warde’s arrival into New Zealand was less dramatic. He left Iraq legally through Jordan, he was supposed to go back to Iraq but decided not to return and arrived with his parents and youngest brother in Wellington in October 2000.

Mr Warde’s English was reasonably good before he arrived

“I was able to read signs and the newspaper but I needed to practise my English. Work helped a lot” says Mr Warde.

Two jobs

Mr Warde has been able to use his skills in gainful employment in New Zealand.  He has two jobs, one as an interpreter at an Assyrian Arabic Interpretation Agency and the other as a shift manager at MacDonald’s.

Some Assyrians are not able to use the qualifications they obtained in Iraq.

Father Aprem knows two or three GPs in his parish who last year were required to pass an examination to regain qualifications, but were unsuccessful.

“One of the doctors is working in a restaurant and the other went to Australia” says Father Aprem.

“Another member of the parish is an architectural engineer but is working as a taxi driver”

Father Aprem doesn’t think language is the barrier as tertiary colleges instruct in English.  The problem could be developing contacts and New Zealand authorities not accepting Iraqi qualifications.

Patraus Moshi had been a physical education teacher in Iraq.

“A retraining course was going to cost me $6000 and there would be no guarantee that I would get a job in Wellington,” says Mr Moshi.

Mr Moshi worked as a butcher in Countdown, Johnsonville for three years and now operates a cleaning business with his wife.

Kathrin Isliawa (right) is a member of that younger generation who straddle the cultures of Assyrians and New Zealanders.

“I have worked in different jobs, KFC, the supermarket, I have worked in a lot of places and have always been accepted once I applied” she says.

At 20, she lives at home with her parents and sisters in Miramar. Miss Isliawa’s family are related to Mrs Moshi and they shared a house in Jordan before coming to New Zealand. Miss Isliawa has always been able to find part time work while studying full time.

While she may not face the same difficulties of older generations who have more established career training, Miss Isliawa epitomises the tenacity and resilience Assyrians have when making a new life for themselves in New Zealand.

She is studying at the Sir George Seymour College for a certificate in Travel, Tourism and Business and would like to work in a travel agency when she completes the course. Miss Isliawa is certainly not afraid of hard work as she works five evenings a week cleaning at Peter Jackson’s studios.

Her busy life also means she is not a regular attender at community events, or at the St George parish. Her experience of being a young Assyrian in New Zealand mirrors what Father Aprem expressed –  while there is no pressure to marry an Assyrian, it would be preferred.

“It is good when a girl marries within her own culture, it is better. There is a pressure to marry within their own culture, her parents don’t say that to her. It is up to her, they don’t really pressure us.”

She appreciates the safety and opportunities available in New Zealand. Miss Isliawa left Iraq with her family as a young child and lived in Jordan for seven years before immigrating to New Zealand.

“New Zealand is peaceful, people are nice and helpful. Back in our country it is all war and you had to hide, especially in Jordan, from the cops as we didn’t have permanent residence there,” she says.

All Assyrians interviewed said the freedom and peace they enjoy in New Zealand is important to them.

With freedom comes the opportunity to achieve what you want to achieve.  For Patraus and Janet Moshi it is the opportunity to buy the house they are living in from Housing New Zealand.

Everyone interviewed had positive things to say about New Zealanders, they felt they were kind, helpful and friendly and life was a lot easier for them. They also appreciated government assistance and the comparative ease taken to complete administrative tasks.

Assyrian Christians have managed to utilise the favourable aspects of New Zealand society, while at the same time retaining their own culture in a land far removed from their own. This proud, noble culture the Assyrians possessed dates back over 2000 years and it is clear that the industrious nature of the ancient Assyrians is alive and well in New Zealand.

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