Tight-knit Assyrian Community Mourns Three Who Died At Yosemite
Ceres, California -- To be Assyrian is to go to church.
There is little distinction between religion and culture in a people who define themselves as the earliest Christians.
So when this Central California outpost of a dwindling ethnic minority lost three promising young people to powerful Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park on Tuesday, its residents went to their churches.
On Wednesday, the father of 21-year-old victim Ramina Badal made his way down the aisles of St. George's Church in Ceres, though he could barely stand, leaning on those around him for every step. When his wife Virginia's knees buckled, he caught her.
On Friday night, dozens of Assyrian teens from throughout Stanislaus County went to St. George's, the home church of all three victims, for a youth prayer meeting. Many wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the word "hope" and the names of Badal and the other two victims, Hormiz "Nenos" David, 22, and Ninos Yacoub, 27.
The Rev. Genard Lazar, the pastor, and the others who had been on the outing were among those chanting the liturgy in the ancient Assyrian language.
Lazar was in his robes; one of the young men acted as deacon. After prayers, in the center aisle of the church, people hugged the two men, stroking their faces, kissing their foreheads and cheeks.
On Sunday every pew was packed with families who had stories of fleeing persecution. Assyrians have a history of slaughter and forced expulsions, most recently in Iraq.
"We don't have a home country. We're still being massacred in Iraq. They're bombing our churches," said Joseph Putris, 44, church treasurer. "So when we lose three kids like these kids we don't just lose people we love. We lost guardians of the language, heritage and our Assyrian identity."
On Tuesday afternoon, tourists watched helplessly as the three were swept over 317-foot Vernal Fall, next to Mist Trail, one of the most popular day hikes in Yosemite National Park.
Early eyewitness reports that they crossed barriers, ignored warning signs and went swimming baffled the church family. The three were respectful, not usually the sort to flout rules. All three went to church each Sunday, attended college. They were first-generation Americans, working hard to live up to their immigrant parents' sacrifices.
Not even Lazar is sure what exactly happened.
"All I heard was screaming," he told reporters and investigators.
An Afghan family living in Orange County drove to the church on Thursday to say they had been among the 50 or so people at the top of the falls that day. They said that it was another party who was swimming. They told church workers that Badal and David were standing on a rock in the river posing for a photo. David slipped; Badal tried to grab him and Yacoub came from behind the barrier to jump in to try and save them. Other eyewitnesses say Badal slipped first.
The Orange County family said their children couldn't sleep after seeing the river carry the three over the falls. Badal's sister, Tonya, also watched helplessly.
Badal and David had crossed the barrier to stand in the river.
Putris couldn't understand how they could have taken such a risk until he and a dozen other church members went to Yosemite on Wednesday to search for the victims. None in the party had been to the national park before, though they've lived for years in an area considered a gateway to Yosemite.
"When you are an immigrant, usually you move first to a big city. You are going to school, working two or three jobs. A national park is a luxury you know nothing about," Putris said.
On their climb up Mist Trail, cut into the sheer face of a mountain, one searcher put his hand on the side to steady himself and was surprised to find the wet algae was slicker than soap.
When they got to the top and Putris saw how calm the pools above the fall looked, he was stunned.
"If I was Ramina or David, I would have thought 'It's just water. If you slip, big deal, you get wet,'" he said.
Even in a normal season, the Merced River has a dangerous undercurrent moving powerfully to the fall. This year, a massive Sierra Nevada snowpack, almost twice the average, has turned the water into a jaw-dropping force not seen in decades.
In October, the Assyrians will mark the 100th anniversary of their arriving in the Central Valley.
The earliest, like the Armenians who also settled in the valley, were fleeing the extermination of Christians in what is now Turkey.
But a large number are more recent immigrants who fled Muslim extremists in Iraq and Iran. The Central Valley has about 15,000 Assyrian residents, the second-largest such population in the United States after the Chicago area.
It is an extraordinarily close-knit community, said Raymond George, president of the Assyrian American Club of Turlock.
"Wherever there are Assyrians, they know each other because we are so few," he said. "When it comes to happiness such as marriage and friends, we are together. When it comes to tragedy and sadness such as this, we are together."
At St. George's on Sunday, there was tea and endless cases of bottled water. Families had been coming by and donating them since Tuesday. There were cakes, fragrant with almonds and oranges, that women in the community had baked.
Putris said that every person in the church had a story of hardships overcome.
"That guy walked across Turkey to get on a plane. That family over there, it took them 15 years to reunite. My father was tortured by the Baath Party in Iraq," Putris says.
"That's what makes this so shocking. Everyone here went through so much so their children would be safe," he said. "Ramina, Nenos David, Ninos Yacoub, they were our first generation to grow up safe and happy and even think of adventures like Yosemite. Thanks be to God that they had such opportunity."