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The Assyrian Miracle!

Written by SUSAN ABRAM, Staff Writer   

School preserves ancient culture
LA Daily News

Article Last Updated:

TARZANA - Their alphabet, once carved in stone or found on ancient parchment, comes alive in red and blue marker on a white board in a San Fernando Valley classroom.

They might not know it yet, but the dozen or so teens who write out the letters are making history by learning their history.

It's the only way their culture will survive.

"It's really nice to teach them, though it's challenging," said a patient Amir Dinkha, a teacher at the Assyrian American Christian school, the first and only private campus of its kind in the United States.

"They ask questions I've never heard of before."

The year-old Assyrian school has been a dream of the Rev. George Bet-Rasho, parish priest for St. Mary's Assyrian Church of the East in Tarzana.

He envisioned classrooms where Assyrian children could learn about their ancient and modern culture, their language and faith, as well as more traditional subjects like English literature and U.S. history.

"We feel the only way we can survive is to have a school," Bet-Rasho said. "It's been a dream and the talk of every church in the United States for a long time."

That the school is up and running, with donations and support from the community, is somewhat of a miracle, Bet-Rasho and experts said - especially now.

On the other side of the world, news reports have detailed increased violence against the Assyrians and other Christian minorities who have called the Ninevah plains of northern Iraq their home since ancient times.

"It's a miracle we're even alive actually, considering all the persecution that we've gone through," Bet-Rasho said.

"Assyrians have faced tremendous obstacles in being a countryless nation," said Mehran Kamrava, who specializes in the Middle East as a professor of political science at California State University, Northridge. "They haven't had a piece of territory which they could call their own country. The ravages of history have been unkind. And at least in recent decades, the Assyrians have not mobilized militarily such as the Kurds, which is why we haven't heard of their nationalist struggle."

Guardians of culture

Without a country to display their flags and other symbols of nationalism, or to openly celebrate rituals, Assyrians must rely on passing down their language and culture to children in other ways, Kamrava said.

"For diaspora communities, identity is doubly important," he said. "This school is an important step for the Assyrian community in that it enables the proverbial elders to act as guardians of the Assyrian culture."

Humanitarian organizations have followed the persecution, including the hundreds of thousands of Assyrians killed during the height of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 to the "Arabization" of Assyrians under Saddam Hussein.

Assyrians are not Arabs but have been forced to adopt Arabic names and have been denied the right to speak their language, according to a 2003 report by Human Rights Watch.

"Even now, we're persecuted in the homeland," Bet-Rasho said. "Priests are afraid to walk in uniform in Baghdad."

There have been reports of beheadings and even a modern-day crucifixion of a 14-year-old boy. More than 100,000 Assyrians have fled as insurgents have made threats and bombed their churches, according to published reports.

Though Assyrians nationwide have petitioned governments to help secure the Ninevah plains once democracy is established, there has been little response. It does not surprise Bet-Rasho.

"We don't have the numbers," he said. "We don't have the money, the power, the voting bloc. We don't have oil. The only people who remember us are those who care about humanity."

The Assyrians, indigenous people of Mesopotamia, have a history spanning nearly 7,000 years. Their ancestors can be traced to the world's earliest civilizations. The empire ended in 612 B.C.

An estimated 4.5 million Assyrians live worldwide, with almost a million in the United States. Others are dispersed in Europe, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey.

The school's principal, Richard Jensen, has helped open and establish other private Christian schools in Los Angeles but was surprised with the resilience of Assyrians.

"It's sad that people don't really realize who Assyrians are," he said. "These people have been scattered all over the world. They haven't really had a place of their own."

At home in school

On a recent weekday, the students in teacher Dinkha's class read aloud the Aramaic version of a Bible story. There are good-natured giggles along the way as their American-trained tongues try to grasp words similar to those spoken by Jesus Christ.

While the lessons can be tough, some students say they feel as if the school is their home. It is among each other where they have found their identity.

"It used to make me feel kind of down because I would tell people at school I was Assyrian, and they would say, `What's that? Syrian?"' said Justin Atneyel, 14. "I used to bring a book with me to school to show them."

Shereen Saado, 15, is all too familiar with the Assyrian/Syrian conundrum. She is both.

She said she doesn't have family in the Middle East but is saddened that those her age do not have the same opportunities.

"It upsets me to know that there are kids out there that can't get an education," she said.

Both Bet-Rasho and Jensen said their goal is to expand the school over the next 10 years. Now, there are more than 30 students enrolled in grades five through 11. Their hope is someday to offer all grades and have 350 children.

Bet-Rasho said he also wants the school to become more diverse, with children from other communities willing to learn about the Assyrians and how to speak a modern form of Aramaic.

"We want to plant a seed in every child who will live on after they come to this school," Bet-Rasho said. "We hope others will help us carry a torch. This is our dream and it's because we live in the United States we can do this."

By the end of the school year, the students might be ready to write to those who remain in their ancestral lands, Bet-Rasho said. He does not want the Assyrian American youth to forget where they came from.

"This school is dedicated to every hero who died of persecution in the homeland," Bet-Rasho said. "They died for their name, their language and their faith."

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