Assyrian Community Mourns Deaths of 3 Hikers
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 July 19, its residents went to their churches, the Los Angeles Times reported.
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.
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