Addressing endangered cultures in a migration context

Detail from a painting by Narin Ezidi (credit: Narin Ezidi)

Naures Atto and her research partners have addressed the endangerment, vulnerability and fragility of Assyrian and Yazidi communities and cultures by means of innovative digital resources, museum partnerships and documentaries, and by influencing policy.

Assyrians and Yazidis, two minority groups in the Middle East, face unprecedented challenges in preserving their cultural identity both in their homelands and in there diaspora communities. The rise of ISIS and other extremist groups has made the task of their cultural preservation and curation all the more urgent.

Atto’s research with these groups has impacted directly on the ways in which they view, discuss and preserve their cultural identities. Her projects have shown how the group-specific experiences of the Assyrians and Yazidis have been largely overlooked both by scholars and the wider public, and has demonstrated how research – and the participation of community organisations and individuals in its conduct, interpretation, and use – can significantly impact the survival of these two minority groups and their cultures in both the Middle East and in Western countries.

These projects include Aramaic-Online, which sought to preserve Surayt (the endangered vernacular language of Syriac Christians) through the development of an online course, textbook and learner apps. The online course is available in languages carefully selected to reach as many potential learners as possible in the diaspora: English, German, Swedish, Dutch, Arabic, French and Turkish. For instance, 1,000 French copies have been published on the initiative of the Patriarchal Vicar of Belgium, France and Luxembourg, and distributed freely among the speaker community living in Belgium and France.

A significant outcome of these resources is that the diaspora speaker communities have come to value Surayt more highly as a language and it is being revitalised in its use in everyday life.

Through her work on the Gilgamesh project, Atto created a space for the stories of vulnerable refugees to be heard by a broad audience through a curated art exhibition. The project led to a comprehensive study of migration governance in 11 countries in the wake of the so-called ‘2015 Refugee Crisis’. Atto is looking into the migration experiences of Assyrian and Yazidi refugees who have settled in the UK, Germany and Sweden.