Yousif Kalian is a second-generation Iraqi immigrant and a member of the Syriac Catholic Church. As an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America, he was a young adult researcher on the Christian Communities of the East Cultural Heritage Project, and he has continued to work with the endeavor after graduation. He initially learned about the project while taking a class with Dr. Talia.
"I've always had an interest in the region from a professional point of view, on top of being Iraqi-American," Kalian told CNA. He said that within both Catholic and secular culture in the United States, there is a lack of understanding about Middle Eastern Christians, as well as a culture gap between Middle Eastern parents or grandparents and their children or grandchildren. This, he said, has left a lot of questions about identity and culture among many of his Middle Eastern Christian peers.
Kalian sees this project's blending of oral history and multimedia access as a way for young people to help change that knowledge gap.
"If you know anything about the Middle East, the oral tradition is the most prominent tradition there," he said, pointing to the recitation traditions in Islam, Judaism and several Christian churches. Singing and storytelling are closely tied up with the identity of the people, he explained.
"I think not just preserving dates and numbers and facts, but really preserving the stories is the most important thing to preserve from Middle Eastern Christian culture," Kalian stressed.
"We all grew up with stories. The monastery that my grandfather is named after was destroyed by ISIS in 2015," he said. "And my grandfather's name was Behnam."
Saint Behnam and Saint Sara monastery was established in the 4th Century in the Nineveh plain, about 20 miles from the city of Mosul. In late 2014, ISIS fighters took control of the monastery, expelling the monks under threat of death. On March 19, 2015, the terrorist group released images of the destruction of the tomb of Saint Behnam and the surrounding buildings.
Yet, Kalian keeps the memory of the monastery with him, as a part of who he is. "The story goes that my great grandma couldn't have a son," he told CNA. "Kept having daughters, and in Middle Eastern culture having a son is a point of pride: he carries the name and the wealth and protection. So she went to St. Behnam monastery and was praying, 'Please give me a boy, St. Behnam. I'll name him after you if you give me a boy'."
"Sure enough, she gave birth to a boy, and he survived," Kalian said, "He survived, and she named him Behnam."
"You can find a book on Christianity in Iraq, or you can find a book on this monastery. But stories like this: they'll die with our parents or grandparents."
"That's why I think this project is so important: to get the recipes of the food that they cook and the history behind the food they cook, and the names of our parents and grandparents and where they come from, and these saints and stories and traditions…once we move here, to an extent it stays and is alive, but in another sense it gets lost," he lamented. "That's why I think that this project really is important."
And he is not the only one who is excited about the chance to pass on these stories: his siblings and other friends from his Syriac Catholic community have been interested in having a template to interview their parents and grandparents, and a way to digitize their memories. Kalian himself hopes to interview his family members and priests to collect their oral histories.
"I think every young person, if offered the opportunity, would love to speak with their grandparents or parents, if you gave them a structure to find out more about their own history," he said.
"If you make it an active thing to learn about your culture and not just have it be reading or watching documentaries. Being able to engage – having it be an active thing and have an active culture – will engage them more and therefore persevere our communities, our history, our culture and our language."
Once completed, the Christian Communities of the East Cultural Heritage Project will be accessible at www.ccmideast.org and in the archives of the Institute of Christian Oriental Research at The Catholic University of America. Documentary video will also be distributed in Michigan at a later date.
Photos courtesy of The Catholic University of America.
This article was originally published on CNA June 16, 2017.