"It is called the house of God," Florin Gorgis says, explaining the name of her ancestral village Bediyal, the last remaining Assyrian-Christian village in the Kurdistan Region's Barzan area. "That is the meaning behind the old name, Bet El, in our mother language Sureth."
Florin sits at her unassuming desk as General Director of Diwan for the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) High Council for Women's Affairs. An avowed anti-smoker, there are no ashtrays in sight. Instead, a bowl of Medjool dates is served, and she asks for tea and coffee as we start our interview. Her memories stir as she begins a retrospect of her life-story.
"I was born into war, in the middle of the Algiers Agreement in 1975, the bloody Iran-Iraq War that raged for almost a decade, from 1980 to 1988, and the Anfal campaign in 1983 to 1989," she says.
Florin's parents were displaced several times. Like their Barzani neighbors, her parents had repeatedly faced two choices: either abandon their home in the Barzan region or face the apocalyptic annihilation being wrought there by Iraqi regimes.
"You were having tea one minute and fleeing the next. You left with nothing except your life." First, her family fled in 1945 when they immigrated to Iran. In 1946, they returned to Diyana, a very small village by then that's nestled in the heart of Soran province, around 120 kilometers north of Erbil. And, once again, in 1947, they returned to Bediyal.
"During the 1960s, my mother was not a Peshmerga in the mountains, but she was an invisible volunteer Peshmerga assisting the Peshmerga brigades of Franso Hariri," she says, referring to the prominent Assyrian leader from a nearby town, who later went on to be a governor of Erbil before he was assassinated in 2001. A football stadium in Erbil that is named after him is just a few minutes drive from Florin's office.
"My mother would go to the mountains to take weapons, clothes, and food to the Peshmerga," Florin recounts, "She wrapped up all the things she was smuggling into her loose clothes. She is still keeping, until today, the cloth that she was wrapping the stuff with it. Once, she and her two friends came across a landmine in Diyana Valley which was installed there in the way of Peshmerga. They placed a fuse on it and destroyed it from afar."
Their local folklore abounds with stories from that time, which to some extent blur the line between fiction and reality. "Our parents often talk about some miraculous events that occurred during the regimes' waves of cultural cleansing. Once, they say, Saddam's forces tried several times to place explosives on our ancient church in Bediyal, but they failed to detonate. Finally, though, the church could not withstand their untiring attempts and was eventually destroyed."
In 1974, her family fled again to Diyana. Florin was born in Diyana in 1978 as one of four children, all sisters. "Diyana was one of the nearest Assyrian villages to Iran. During the war, we could hear pounding sounds of canons and airstrikes that were continuously fired from the Iranian side. Iran bombed Diyana many times.
"A lot of our relatives fled to Syria, Iran, and onward to the US, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and so on. Technically, anyone with a boy who should join the Iraqi forces chose instead to flee. Conscriptions were obligatory. And the Iraqi Army often took many sons from the Christians.
"My grandmother Basse was a powerful woman. She knew religious dates by heart, according to the Orthodox calendar. When Diyana, including the church, was all burned in 1975, she prepared a room at her home there that was like a chapel for some of my relatives to be baptized.
"Amid all that chaos, my parents decided to start a living in Diyana, and my sisters and I were sent to school. Our father made a living from the traditional professions that were handed down by the previous generations. He mostly worked as a carpenter, and sometimes, nevertheless, he would take construction jobs when necessary.
"I still remember the Anfal days. When Saddam Hussein's forces came, anyone would be taken who was caught wearing the red jamadana headscarf that was a typical headwear for the Barzani Kurds. Our people commonly wore the same outfit, despite the fact that we were Assyrians. I remember how my grandfather wore it. When Saddam's forces marched toward our hometown, they warned us, 'Throw this jamadana away, and we will not take you as Anfal, because you are Christians.' Two of my villagers disobeyed the order and, as a result, they were taken into trucks along with other dissidents to meet their tragic fate.
"I still remember in Diyana, when we were waking up and would see something like 40 or 50 Barzani men all sleeping in our house. Hiding in Christian houses was sometimes considered as helpful in avoiding the army men, who roamed the village in search of protesters."
Like the Kurds, the Assyrian countries have been fragmented. There are substantial ancient Assyrian communities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon -- as well as diaspora communities around the world. The way Kurds are primarily united by their language, Assyrians similarly are by their mother language, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic (Sureth) which is one of the modern dialects of the Old Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ.
Another dimension to Assyrian identity is the church. Christianity emerged at a time when the geography and heritage of the Assyrian Empire were still immediately felt even though it had collapsed politically almost seven centuries earlier. Geographic names, personal names, major settlements, regional Assyrian identity, and other cultural attributes besides language had persisted through centuries of subsequent Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, and Parthian control and continued when Christianity and the Roman Empire entered Mesopotamia. Ancient Assyria's cultural impact was significant enough that the region was still referred to as the province of Assyria when Romans seized control in Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia underwent numerous transformational stages throughout thousands of years, and so did the Assyrian community. In the 16th century, the growth of the Catholic presence in Mesopotamia culminated in the formalization and modernization of the Assyrian Church of the East, and the pledging of the Chaldean Catholic Church to full communion with Rome. These churches continue to coexist along with the Syriac Orthodox Church.
The Anfal was the Iraqi government's deliberate response to the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, yet it also affected Assyrians in the region. Countless communities, monasteries, and churches were destroyed in the death sweeps of the Saddam Hussein regime. These events were not unprecedented. The 1915 Assyrian-Armenian genocide and the 1933 Semile massacre, one of the two largest premeditated attempts to exterminate indigenous people, led to the mass slaughter of over 1.5 million civilians, an exodus of a tremendously larger scale, and the exiling of the Assyrian Patriarch (comparable to the Catholic Papacy) to Europe and then United States after countless centuries in the Near East.
"I remember my dad hired a truck in 1991 to migrate to Iran, but we chose to stay," Florin recollects. "I still feel sorry when I think about that time. We burned so many family photos. If the Iraqi forces came to your house and saw a lot of photos, they would capture you."
Out of these circumstances -- a simple household, illuminated only by sunlight during the day and gaslight at night, Florin and her siblings found that unforeseeable futures were being made possible. "Today, one of my sisters is a teacher, the younger is a bank employee, and the third one was a lecturer at Soran University but is now working on her master's degree. Two of my sisters are married. When you see their children running around the house, you are overwhelmed with various emotions of gratitude and happiness. Our identity is strong and alive.
"As for myself, the points that I earned at the last year of high school qualified me to get a seat at the engineering department, but I pursue the field that I always loved: English. Because I loved it, that was how I graduated among the top 10.
"After my graduation in 1999, I began working with the UN. This opened another horizon for me. I first started as an interpreter and then moved to operations. Later, I moved from UNICEF to another affiliated agency, UNWFP.
"I soon realized that I wanted to be an activist. A significant part of my job at UNICEF was interpreting. Together with my teammates, we would visit health centers in remote villages, where we would encounter people suffering from various health conditions. These visits left a huge impact on me. Providing help for these vulnerable groups brought me a sense of fulfillment. I dreamt that someday I could offer more to these vulnerable groups. These moments were so inspiring.
"I still remember the downfall of the Saddam regime. The day Saddam was captured was the day I arrived in Amman. There was no airport in Erbil, it was just a field, and the only flights that still operated periodically were UN flights, which transported logistics and personnel. I was once traveling from Erbil with UNHAS in a group of about 20 of us going for trainings. It was my first time ever taking a flight, and I did not even have a passport, just a travel document. When we reached Amman, we saw on the television that Saddam had just been captured. We were so happy. Someone who cannot breathe in their country can understand our feelings at that moment. That day was important for all of us because we thought that the tyranny had ended. We did not know, however, that there would be others after him, clad in the same garb, relatively. The end of the Iran war was one thing, and the end of the regime was another.
"When the Oil-for-Food Programme concluded, my work with the UN came to an end. A lot of my colleagues went abroad or entered the public sector. In the UN, we had been offered technical support, training, and capacity building. I chose the private sector in order to improve my leadership and management skills.
"After I left the UN, I joined the private sector in Eagle Group companies, now known as Salahaddin Holdings. Later, in 2005, I joined Ishtar TV, a private Assyrian satellite broadcasting channel to support Assyrian art, Assyrian music, Assyrian literature, and the Assyrian language. I joined when it was starting from scratch.
"It was one of the most interesting jobs that I ever had in my life. I will not forget the days I spent serving in Ishtar TV, because I consider it a duty, I did to my nation fellow Assyrians, who have suffered so much. Mr. George Mansour, who was the founder of the channel, mentored me on my journey of becoming a stronger professional through perseverance to achieve goals and hard work.
"I had no intention to join the public sector because salaries were below average, but I changed my mind when I had the opportunity to work in civil society. In 2006, George Mansour joined the Kurdistan government as Minister for Civil Society. Gradually, I became convinced that I could be influential in this arena. I was promoted to become Executive Director in the Ministry. During the four years of mutual efforts with NGOs and CSOs, we managed with the help of organizations to change a lot."
Florin sips her drink and is quick to answer when I ask her what it means to be a woman and an Assyrian woman in a Kurdish and Arab region. She replies with total confidence that she has been unbridled, yet also recognizes that her ascendance required careful navigation.
"There were challenges. But we were working as a team at the Ministry; it was a very good and a very selective team. And we made human rights' issues a priority.
"In the 5th Cabinet of the Government, for the first time in the history of the region, there were two issues that PM Nechirvan Barzani spoke about loudly: firstly, that corruption exists in the administration and finance, and must be tackled; and secondly, that there is violence against women and it must be addressed and treated accordingly. This was the first time our society ever spoke publicly that violence against women exists.
"Previously, gender-based violence had been superficially handled through systems that were not qualified for that mission. Then, in 2007, the Ministry of Interior opened a General Directorate that specialized in following up cases of violence against women. And for the first time, we started to observe reforms such as the inclusion of women in police forces.
"The prospects were still far from agreeable, and I was constantly looking forward to changes in women's rights, especially in a conservative society -- not just our region, but the entire Middle East.
"Around the same time, I met an amazing woman who was also laboring for women's equality and rights at the parliament. Pakhshan Zangana is now Secretary-General of the Council and my supervisor. Together, in the course of previous years, we succeeded in changing several laws, and introducing new ones that maintained a balance in the social system, precisely the systems that dealt with gender."
Florin names some of the most notable accomplishments of the Ministry during her term. For instance, the minimum age for MPs was reduced from 30 years to 25 years. The minimum quota for female MPs was increased from 25 percent to not less than 33 percent. A law was passed for CSOs to be registered under the Directorate for NGOs affairs, as opposed to being registered by the Ministry of Interior, an ill-suited process from an administrative and security perspective. In an initiative to motivate NGOs, a Civic Award was presented for those that were the most active in the Region.
Also, there was the Personal Status Law in Iraq. The Iraqi Constitution demands that laws cannot interfere with Sharia law. However, few laws actually have much to do with Sharia -- except for the Personal Status Law, established in 1959. The law is generally based on Sharia law as it governs personal and family life for Muslims. There are separate equivalents to the Personal Status Law for non-Muslims such as Christians, Ezidis, and Mandaeans.
"In 2008, we amended the Personal Status Law with 25 articles to take effect in the Kurdistan Region. This was a major leap of progress for women's rights and family rights in Kurdistan," Florin says.
"With the 6th cabinet, in 2010, the High Council of Women's Affairs was established, and in the next year, I joined the High Council as General Director. When I joined the High Council of Women Affairs, it was not just a feeling; it was an interest that I can contribute in many aspects. I perceived that I was finally in a position where I can help vulnerable groups and concentrate on youth -- women, and men, in general."
Politically, the High Council is a unique construct. According to Florin, when the High Council was established, it was because women's issues were not gathered in one entity or institution. The government viewed women's issues as pertinent to all sectors and ministries. All ministries were required to implement policies for women's issues. For these reasons, the High Council is higher than the level of a ministry and is headed directly by the prime minister. There are also up to six ministers who are members of the council according to the Bi-Law of the council.
After she explains a complex political structure with unparalleled brevity, I pause a moment to reflect on the many lives of Florin Gorgis. Across decades, she was born in one side of history and survived in another. Her life was changed in 2003, with the toppling of the Saddam regime. It changed also with the establishment of the KRG in which she works today. She saw the decimation of countless Assyrian communities, including most recently by the so-called Islamic State. Positively, she also lived through epochal advancements in development, opportunities, and women's rights. There are countless ways to interpret and reinterpret the many lives she has lived.
Joining the High Council also brought in an era of high visibility for her. Starting in 2012, she has participated in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women sessions every year except for 2018. In 2014, she spoke at the European Parliament on the topic of women's rights and the KRG policies and strategies for women. In 2015, she participated in the discussion of the CEDAW report of Iraq, that was held in Geneva.
"The Kurdistan Region is definitely unlike its neighbors when we look at much of the progress it has made. We are leaders now, along with Jordan and Lebanon. For us and for Arab countries, the issue of violence against women is the same, and so are the steps for dealing with it."
The team at the High Council is strikingly small to produce such a large effect. In fact, the KRG has placed a significant portion of its international reputation on having a more egalitarian society than in other areas of the Middle East. The High Council has 23 staff, including Florin herself.
"When the economic crisis struck in 2014, we had petty cash to run the office, and this was shortly cut to fourth. There were significant reductions in salaries; therefore, some of our staff were obliged to join companies within the private sector. I placed those who found other jobs for themselves on unpaid leave, hoping they can return someday.
"This is the fourth Cabinet that the High Council has experienced, and there have been some changes but not drastically. We are looking forward to the new government's vision, including the new parliament which is presided by a woman herself. One optimistic point is that the vision of the new government -- according to the Cabinet Agenda program that the prime minister recently declared -- has strong support for women's rights, women's institutions, and women in decision-making positions. The new prime minister is from the same political party that has always believed in and supported women's rights.
"However, it is not clear yet what the Council will have next. We want support for the High Council to be more powerful, to have its own budget and delegations and to be legislated into law. We are currently established by a bi-law from the Council of Ministers, not a Law from Parliament.
"The Region is exceptional in that it has special laws outside of the Personal Status Law that govern important family and gender issues. The laws we have implemented in order for the women to become leaders and show to other regions in Iraq a good example. For instance, Iraq can learn from the laws that provide shelters for women. There are almost no such shelters in Iraq, outside the Kurdistan Region. At shelters in Amman, you can find women from Basra because Iraq is very ill-equipped."
Shelters can offer immediate safety. Laws can be passed, but they remain unenforced. The levels of progress are essentially delicate, a statement Florin replied to with a flat yes. "We are focused on finding solutions at the governmental level."
Before we had even met, I recognized Florin from her work for women in business. And in our interview, she mentions several times that business environments must become hospitable toward women. She keeps lists of women-led and women-supporting businesses.
Whenever a new business comes to her attention, she frets over every detail to ensure they are sustainable and provide good quality. This is the scrutiny that women prepare themselves for because each woman entering an industry is judged like she is an ambassador for her entire gender.
"We have so much we can do. I was in Lebanon recently and saw they appointed a minister specialized in economic empowerment for women and youth. This is important because it is about progress beyond a context of violence."
Florin's life has wound through the changing epochs of Iraqi politics across the last four decades, and she has blazed the narrow path to her present-day career in women's rights.
I ask her if she could have envisioned this future when she was a young girl living in a scattered, broken nation under the Saddam regime. Could she have foreseen her career, let alone a life that would someday fill with good memories and supportive friends?
"Simply put, this is who I am," Florin says with her characteristic intellectualism, a sort of technocratic ideal. "Part of a bigger change."
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany.