Assyrians in the UK have another opportunity to manage a library. Why don’t we try this time?
Amid budget cuts, Ealing Council is appealing to community organisations to take on several libraries in the borough.
Ealing Council is struggling to maintain its support for several libraries in the borough and have invited Ealing residents to take on and manage these facilities. The total population of Ealing is over 300k — more than the entire country of Iceland — and as such this is not a small opportunity, but one which can finally entrench Assyrians within the community they have called home for nearly a century.
The Assyrian community in Ealing represents an old but small diaspora. Many Assyrians here trace their past to the British military base of Habbaniya, given the participation of Assyrians early on in the Iraqi Levies (which would later be almost exclusively Assyrian in composition). These levies were commissioned by Britain when Iraq was still under the British mandate. Many here in London have close family members who participated in these units, and many came here because of the ties Britain fostered, and ruthlessly cut, with Assyrians after the independence of Iraq in 1932.
Assyrians have a single community centre in South Ealing which hasn’t changed much if at all over the decades it has been in our possession. This centre initially served as the first Church of the East in London before a separate property was purchased to take on that purpose. After this acquisition, the centre was converted to serve the community in a social capacity as people now recognise it ( — the “club”, as it is now affectionately called).
Despite the early glory days which saw high attendances at parties and picnics, as well as a successful football team, membership has consistently fallen in recent years. The provision for space was acutely felt in February 2019 when the administrators had no plan in place to accommodate large numbers of people who travelled in from abroad for the British Museum event celebrating Ashurbanipal and Assyrian imperial history. In years long since past, these numbers would be relatively normal, but now they are a surprise.
One way to reinvigourate the community in London is to familiarise London with our community and transform our position from an inward-facing, insular community group in decline to one that is established within the state apparatus — creating a give-and-take relationship with the wider community. I believe this was the idea the late Dr Victoria Sarmas had in mind when she dedicated a sizeable portion of her will and testament in 2012 to the foundation of a library serving not only the Assyrian community, but the general public.
The Dr Victoria Sarmas Library
Some background: in 2012, the late Dr Victoria Sarmas generously left the majority of her estate to the Assyrian Society of the United Kingdom and the Assyrian Church of the East. These assets — including property and cash — totalled in the millions of pounds. A committee was formed by members of the Assyrian Society in order to deliberate what to do with this money, as well as a board of trustees to sign off any agreed upon proposals by the committee and membership. I was on that committee.
According to Dr Sarmas’ will, the funds left for this library project amounted to £190,000. Of this amount, I was told approximately £130,000 was available. After investigating why this figure was much lower, I discovered that taxes and fees were paid on this amount. I don’t know if this was avoidable or if it was a decision by trustees and others to use this fund to pay any legal fees and other taxes incurred during the handover since the will clearly states “free of all death duties” (inheritance tax).
Several proposals were made including one I had written with the assumption that a large portion of the money left to the Society would go towards a radical renovation of the current premises. According to my own idea at the time, this renovation would include another space to house a library which could be opened to the public and manned by volunteers from our community. I envisioned this to bring our community closer to the wider public, and bring the public closer to us. Unfortunately, these plans — which I still have on file — were not accepted, and the “library” which was inevitably “built” entailed the hanging of a plaque over a locked door in the club’s premises.
Nobody I have discussed this matter with knows what is exactly behind that door. I have also noticed that even this plaque has been removed. The website URL listed on the plaque, www.assyrianlibrary.co.uk, is “expired”. From my perspective, this is all shameful and appalling.
Libraries on Auction.
Fortunately, we have another chance amid the crisis of underfunding by the current UK government. The current situation has opened up the possibility of essentially taking over and running any one of 7/13 libraries in the Ealing Borough. The locations include Greenford, Hanwell, Northfields, Perivale, Pitshanger, West Ealing and Wood End. Three of those libraries already have existing leases (Hanwell, Northfields and West Ealing), while the others would be negotiated and agreed together with the council.
I’m not pretending to know all of the details — I’m only bringing this to the attention of Assyrian community in Ealing which should still have most if not all of the £130k at its disposal for the creation and maintenance of a library as per the wishes of Dr Sarmas.
In any event, there is also the Assyrian Universal Alliance Fondation (AUAF) in the U.S. — an organisation with over $30m in its accounts — which could help with supplementary funding for this very purpose, given this activity is perfectly in line with their mission.
What is crucially needed is a team of experts within the community to lead the consultation and overall project, provided the Society is open to committing to this both from a leadership perspective and a financial one. The Assyrian community could benefit hugely, not only in creating a bridge between us and the wider community in Ealing from which many doors could be opened in the future, but it also gives our youth in Ealing opportunities to be trained in and work in a library environment and contribute positively to their own community.
This would all leave an overdue, positive impression on the UK public and create a space for Assyrians to promote ourselves and our culture through specific book acquisitions, readings, talks and other associated events. We are still living in a fort after 50 years, but its crumbling. Its time to understand and explore events like this as opportunities, and not shrug and turn away.
Non-binding expressions of interests are needed by Ealing Council by 31st May 2019.