I was born and raised in the early 1960s in the sleepy delta town of Cuttack in Odisha (formerly Orissa) between a confluence of three rivers. Not many had heard of our town, let alone the rivers Mahanadi, Kuakhai or Kathojori. I remember returning from boarding school on the train and being asked, “Where is Orissa?”
The world might not have known who we were, but we knew the world! The world and its wars were an integral part of our Indian household because of my grandmother, who was European and had lost her family to genocide.
The Sayfo or Seyfo, also known as the Assyrian Genocide, began in 1914. It was the mass slaughter and deportation of Syriac Christians in Persia’s Azerbaijan province, committed by the Ottomans and the Kurds. Born in Urmia, in the West Azerbaijan Province of what is now Iran, my grandmother was nine or ten years old when the genocide started.
Fleeing to safety, they found themselves in Tbilisi, Russia. A family already fragmented, they suffered yet more losses when their mother died giving birth to their brother. The baby also died. The family, persisted, now with just the father, two daughters, and a son. My grandmother, Susember “Susan” Rasho, was the middle child.
Tbilisi is where they might have stayed on if not for the 1917 Russian Revolution. With no further protection from the Soviet Soldiers, who were now embroiled in their own revolution, my grandmother and her family were once again targets of persecution. World War I had also begun in 1914, and the world was raging with turmoil in every direction. Once again, with no homeland and no place to call their own, my grandmother, and what was left of her family, began their trek out of Russia.
The British were at the front and center of the war. Red Cross Camps had been set up in and around Baghdad. The British were gathering up people who were left without homes and persecuted because of their religion, and helping them make their way to the camps and to safety. The Rashos, along with thousands of other Assyrians, started preparing for their journey.
I still remember my grandmother’s stories, her lips quivering as she spoke of the snow, heat, horses, hunger, thirst and deaths along this mountainous route. A hundred-and-five years ago, there were no roads — no easy way to travel. She never knew how long it took them to reach the camps outside Baghdad. “It could have been months,” she used to say.
While they still lived in Tbilisi, her older sister, Rapka, who was fourteen and of marriageable age, was sent to Donetsk in Ukraine. Friends there were tasked with finding a groom for her.
The decision to leave Tbilisi for safer grounds was sudden, and the family had no time to wait for Rapka to come back from Donetsk. That was the last time the two sisters saw each other until 1980.
Father, daughter, and son began their arduous trek out of Russia to Baghdad. Tragedy struck once again when their father was shot from behind and killed. My teenaged grandmother was now the sole guardian of her eleven-year-old brother Nicholas.
On the other side of the world, a young Indian soldier of the British army, Edward Benjamin Samuel (my grandfather), was also heading to Baghdad to fight for the British.
My grandmother and her brother found refuge in a camp which housed Assyrian and Armenian refugees. A year into their stay at the camp, Nicolas disappeared.
As part of the YMCA, my grandfather was assigned to to conduct prayer meeting at the camps. There, he met my grandmother. At the time she spoke only Aramaic and perhaps some broken English. My grandfather spoke Oriya, Bengali, Hindi and English. The two fell in love over sign language and married at the Red Cross Camp in 1922. She headed to India with her new husband a few months later, not knowing once again where she was going, not knowing the language, just going, because she had no options. As a romantic, I hope it was because she loved my grandfather!
Eventually, my grandmother would learn to speak Oriya, Bengali, Hindi and English. Sadly, though, as she gained skill in these languages, she started to forget Aramaic. We think that this could be in response to her multiple traumas; in order to survive, she had learned to disassociate from everything Assyrian.
In 1978-’79, an aunt who lived in Germany (my grandparents had seven kids together), with the help of the Red Cross, tracked down both of my grandmother’s surviving siblings.
Rapka was still living in Donetsk, Ukraine, and now had thirteen kids, and Nicholas was married and settled in Baghdad, Iraq.
I was raised by my grandparents, and I will never forget my grandmother’s emotion when she found out that her siblings were alive, and that she was headed to Donetsk to meet Rapka. In 1980, my grandmother, along with one of her daughters, flew to Moscow, and then on to Donetsk to meet Rapka. It had been sixty-three years!
Her first time on a plane, in her late seventies, my grandmother was headed to a region she had called home for the first decade or so of her life. She was going home to people who looked like her, dressed like her and talked like her. I will never forget her face when she boarded that flight. Sadly, Aramaic was lost to my grandmother, and she was forced, once again, to communicate with a loved one via sign language.
Earlier, in 1977, Nicholas and his wife Azadoui flew to India and had an emotional reunion with my grandmother. Azo knew a smattering of English, and she was able to help the siblings communicate.
I have always wondered why this European woman chose to stay and make a life in a tiny river town in India. My answer came to me when I was writing and researching for this article. Assyria, her homeland, was once an ancient empire, commonly referred to as the Mesopotamian Empire—from the Greek word “Mesopotamos,” meaning in the midst of rivers. The three rivers, The Tigris, The Euphrates and the Great Zab! The three rivers in Cuttack must have soothed her, embraced her and I am sure reminded her of the home she was forced to leave behind.
A hundred years have passed since my grandmother and her family were fleeing from war, from destruction, trying to find peace, trying to survive. A hundred years later, it seems like nothing has changed.
Shabnam Samuel, the award-winning author of the memoir, A Fractured Life, heads the Washington, DC based Social Lite House, LLC, which works with the underprivileged. She is also the founder of the Panchgani Writers’ Retreat, an international writing retreat based out of Panchgani, India. Shabnam teaches writing via Creative Corporate Workshops. She also hosts a local TV show called Dew Drops and Words that broadcasts to 6.1 million viewers on the WJAL LATV network in the Washington, DC area. To find out more about Shabnam, click here.
This article was edited by Contributing Editor Rasana Atreya.