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UD historian preserves Iraqi minority cultural heritage under $1M USAID grant

By Dave Larsen

A University of Dayton historian is working to preserve the cultural heritage of minority communities in Iraq under a $1 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development.

Alda Benjamen, assistant professor in the UD Department of History, is research director for the project — a partnership among the Antiquities Coalition and four Iraq-based organizations to digitize cultural records and build the capacity of local teams to preserve, protect and uphold Christian and Yezidi heritage in Iraq.

The goal is to make books, photos, songs, prayers, cultural legends, and other items accessible for scholars and the minority community members, many of whom are indigenous to Iraq and were displaced by conflicts such as the Iraq civil war that began in 1961, subsequent land-grabs by more powerful tribes, and more recent violence and extremism after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein’s and the rise of the Islamic State group.

“Because of the mass displacement and humanitarian crisis, people were leaving and becoming refugees,” Benjamen said. “What do you take with you? You take your clothes; you take your money. You’re not going to take documents that your grandparents left for you. You take necessities for life. So, a preservation project gives these people a voice in documenting their history.”

The two-year grant, which continues through May 2025, is an extension of a previous $1 million USAID award for the project. It supports the development of educational programming for the minority communities, and also includes funding for UD student interns to participate in the ongoing digitization efforts.

“We have two organizations, the Assyrian Aid Society and the Sinjar Academy, that are creating curricula for their children about their history, language, identity and religion from their own perspectives,” Benjamen said. “We hope public schools include more of these diverse voices and integrate some of these curricula.”

Benjamen, who joined the UD faculty in 2023, teaches courses about the modern Middle East. She became interested in preserving cultural history as a doctoral student while doing field work for her book, Assyrians in Modern Iraq: Negotiating Political and Cultural Space, published in 2022 by Cambridge University Press, which focuses on minoritization and pluralism in Iraq.

As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Smithsonian Institution, Benjamen worked on a National Science Foundation-funded project to document the Islamic State group’s destruction of cultural artifacts and sites from 2016 to 2018 in Northern Iraq.

“That got me engaged in the world of cultural heritage,” she said.

Benjamen then brought archives from California’s Assyrian immigrant community into the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was a fellow in the Department of History and Center for Middle East Studies.

Benjamen, research grant, 2024

That project coincided with her first USAID grant with the Antiquities Coalition.

Under the current grant extension, Benjamen and a dozen UD students are working with preservationists in Iraq to document, digitize and catalog manuscripts that date back to the 4th century, along with 1,000 photos from the 1800s and 1900s, and other intangible and oral heritage.

The students are enrolled in a three-credit virtual internship course, Preservation and Digitization of Iraqi Cultural Heritage. They are exploring the historical context and challenges faced by Iraq’s minority communities, while gaining insights into the principles of cultural heritage preservation and digitization.

Ted Vignocchi, a sophomore history major from Lake Forest, Illinois, is working with history major Katherine Shryock to catalog photos and create a digital exhibit about modernity in the Mosul region for the Catholic Diocese of Mosul’s Centre Numerique des Manuscrits Orientaux. The center’s photos are considered the oldest preserved collection documenting Iraq’s modern history and showcasing Mosul’s diversity.

“It’s really an eye-opening experience to see the transformation of the region and the culture right before my eyes — a photo taken in 1890 in a monastery versus that taken in 1965 with cars in the road and a Coca-Cola shop, for example,” Vignocchi said.

Charlotte Capuano, a junior history and women’s and gender studies major from Detroit, is working with history and French major Erin Pinto to create a digital exhibit for the Syriac Heritage Museum about four notable 20th century women: Lady Surma Khamin, Lily Taimoorazy, Maryam Nerma and Maria Theresa Asmar.

Capuano enjoys engaging virtually with people in Iraq and learning about the multi-generational impacts of their diaspora. She also is developing skills in the growing field of digital humanities, which could help her pursue a career as a museum archivist or curator.

“I took a history careers class last semester and we talked about digital humanities a lot, because it is a new field and people are really excited about it,” Capuano said. “Being able to do something with it, especially as an undergrad, is amazing.”

Benjamen and her students gave a presentation about their work April 17 at UD’s annual Bro. Joseph W. Stander Symposium, showcasing student research.

“This is the only internship class that we have focusing on the Middle East,” Benjamen said. “They are virtually engaging with all of these organizations to help them with their work, using the skills they’ve learned as American students at the University of Dayton, but also learning from these local organizations in Iraq about the important work they do related to human and minority rights.”

For more information, visit the UD Department of History website.

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