As ISIS continues to target Christians in the Middle East, ancient Christian communities have fled the region; as a result, these cultures are in danger of being lost. Ryann Craig works to digitally preserve the cultural expressions of these communities. She recently spoke with byFaith about her work with Christian Communities of the Middle East: A Cultural Heritage Project.

How did this project come about?

I worked with Catholic University faculty members, graduate students, and a librarian to form an exploratory committee in December 2014 to determine what we, as scholars and digital humanities experts, could do to support the Christian communities now being uprooted by ISIS. Because of our research backgrounds in the Eastern church and the Syriac language, we decided to concentrate on preserving the cultural heritage, memories, and language of these communities by capturing oral histories. Supporting Christians now being displaced from the Middle East was a way to put my scholarship and training to practical use.

How do you collect your information?

Our team began collecting oral histories by partnering with the Chaldean community in Detroit. We identified community volunteers to train in audio and video capture and interview protocol because we felt that interviews would be richer if they were conducted by members themselves, and we saw benefit in having younger community members involved. Our focus is on capturing as much of the history of cultural and village life as possible, while also preserving spoken dialects of Syriac for community members and scholars. To that end, we’ve tailored questions around community life: weddings, holidays, social events, etc. We ask participants to describe favorite meals, family stories, childhood nursery rhymes — all in Syriac as much as possible.

Why is it important to gather the stories of displaced Christians from the Middle East?

It’s important to understand what the lives of these Christians have been like during their presence in the Middle East. We are capturing stories of the elderly before it’s too late, as well as those of recent arrivals who’ve experienced significant trauma. It’s likely these communities will never be re-established. This project is a way to preserve their cultural identity — for them and for the world. The loss of one culture’s heritage is a loss to us all; the same goes for the church.

What does the Christian world stand to lose if we fail to preserve these stories?

We’ll lose the historical continuity with the early church. More importantly, these are our brothers and sisters. We can’t understand the full expression of the church without them. One of the most emotional things we hear, often through tears, is, “Thank you. Thank you for caring about us.”

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