Persecuted language finds a home in Hamilton — alongside others fighting to stay alive

Assyrians have inhabited parts of Iraq for thousands of years, but for years, they couldn't teach their language there. They teach it in Hamilton, just as many others work to keep part of where they come from alive in churches, classrooms and community centres.

For many in Hamilton, identity is also about 'keeping where you came from'

Ashor Sworesho shows an Assyrian greeting and response wishing the person peace. The Assyrian language is written from right to left. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

In Assyrian, there are at least three words for goat. One word describes a young adult goat, then a goat around age three, then a goat in its later years.

Assyrians are traditionally agricultural people. They need that many words for goat.

There's a word to describe a ritual where family and friends shower a man about to be married, says Ashor Sworesho, a Hamilton resident of Assyrian origin. Another is a response to a ritual Assyrian greeting wishing a person peace, and to Assyrians, it's as natural as hello.

Once the language is lost, then slowly the culture will be lost too, and then everything is gone.- Ashor Sworesho

For years, someone could be executed in Iraq for speaking Assyrian, and it seemed these words would be lost.

Now Assyrian is one of many mother tongues being taught in Hamilton, a city with a long history of newcomers  working together to keep their language and culture alive.

Early immigrants from Europe have long-established organizations and festivals. As the city's diversity of immigrants increases, new organizations are forming and new efforts being made to preserve those cultures and traditions. 

Sworesho, 29, is an instructor in weekly Assyrian classes offered through the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. There are also classes in Kurdish, and Albanian, and Tigrinya, among dozens of other languages.

Hamilton is a mosaic, not a melting pot, and that makes residents like Sworesho proud. Of Ontario's 9,515 residents who speak Assyrian at home, 2016 census data shows, 1,425 of them are in Hamilton.

Mike Agro, float director of the Comitato Festa di Maria SS. Del Monte, prepares the Madonna statue for a parade through downtown Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Sworesho left Iraq when he was three. A member of his brother-in-law's family was executed in Iraq for being Assyrian, and establishing a magazine in the language, he said.

Lose language, then culture, then 'everything is gone'

"People can say, 'Who cares if you don't have the name for a four-year-old goat versus a five-year-old goat?" he said. But "once the language is lost, then slowly the culture will be lost too, and then everything is gone."

Assyrians, in general, have faced persecution in present day Iraq. Their ancestral homeland is Mesopotamia, and their lineage dates back thousands of years. Some Assyrian words date back to Akkadian, a language that was spoken for 2,500 years, and has been dead for 2,000.

Assyrians are mainly Christian, making them a religious minority in Iraq, said Sworesho, who is also learning French and Arabic. Over the years, they've been executed, tortured, displaced and targeted by Islamic groups. The language was spoken quietly, in churches or not at all.

These days, there are "pockets" of Assyrian speakers, Sworesho said. 

It's part of keeping where you came from.- Yohana Otite

For Sworesho, who is also an army reservist who owns Hamilton Chiropractic Clinic on Fennell Avenue East, it's heartening to teach it in Hamilton too. Language is intrinsically linked to culture. Teaching Assyrian every weekend, he said, is "my pride and joy."

For many cultures in Hamilton, language is kept alive at church. That's the case at Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church on Aberdeen Avenue, where members offer Amharic classes. 

'More than just a means of communication'

The effort to preserve language, culture and traditions also includes trying to pass them on to the generations born here. Amharic is the mother tongue of Yohana Otite, program manager at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI). Her kids are in the church's Amharic classes.

It's harder for second generations to be fluent, Otite said. They're engrossed in English Canadian culture, experiencing video games and afterschool activities. But culture is intrinsically linked to language.

"Language is more than just a means of communication," Otite said. "It's part of keeping where you came from."

The ability to keep a piece of "where you came from" has helped shaped modern Hamilton. 

The Germania club, for example, started in 1864.

Festitalia is in its 42nd year. Hamilton is so closely linked to Racalmuto, Sicily that some 24,000 Hamiltonians are either from Racalmuto or related to someone who is. Each year, Our Lady of All Souls Church holds a three-day festival of Maria SS. Del Monte. That includes a procession down James Street North and fireworks at Bayfront Park.

In 2016, Arabic passed Italian as the second language most often spoken in non-English-speaking Hamilton homes. Combined together, Chinese dialects were most common.

Each year, Hamilton's black community holds the John Holland awards to recognize achievements and successes. In this 2017, picture Sarah Jama (right) is seen with community leader Evelyn Myrie (left). Jama was awarded the Evelyn Myrie Political Action Award. (Alex Johnstone/Twitter)

Seventy Hamiltonians had Indigenous languages as their mother tongue compared to 22,765 in Ontario, with the most common being Ojibway (20 of 9,505 in Ontario) and Mohawk (10 of 590 in Ontario). 

Cultural associations exist for those of Afghan, Punjabi, Croation, Serbian, Barbadian, Hellenic and Sikh heritage, among dozens of others. 

Diwali celebration this weekend

The Diwali celebration at Hamilton city hall this weekend is one of the newer events. Preserving traditions is part of the purpose, but explaining the culture and traditions to the broader community is also a goal.

The Hindu Samaj Women's Outreach Group will hold the Diwali Festival of Lights on Oct. 7 from 1 to 4 p.m. It will include a display of Indo-Canadian settlement in Hamilton from the 1960s onward.

Kiran Gupta came to Hamilton as a Hindi speaker in 1981, and helps organize the festival now. Her kids don't speak Hindi. She was more concerned, she said, about them fitting in to Canada.

But knowing our roots is important, she said. Her vision of Hamilton is one where people with various cultural backgrounds get to know one another.

"We want to become one and blend with other diverse groups," she said. "The only way you can do that is for them to know you and you to know them."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca