Category Archives: Education

Knowledgebase seeks to bridge Assyrian graduate students worldwide

December 2022 

A newly launched database seeks to connect Assyrian graduate students around the world.

The Graduate Student Knowledgebase, created by the Assyrian Studies Association (ASA), provides resource catalogs, in-person and virtual workshops and access to travel grants for academic conferences.

“Part of the reason why we created this knowledgebase is because there was a gap of no single resource or record of where all of the Assyrian graduates are,” ASA Executive Director Alexandra Lazar wrote to the Journal. “We need to get our Assyrian graduate students connected so we can facilitate more research in the field of Assyrian studies.”

Twenty-seven students have so far enrolled in the initiative from as far as Scotland, Sweden, Canada, Australia and the United States.

Besides networking events, students will be invited to social retreats, facilitated reading groups and feedback workshops where they can discuss research, thesis and dissertation projects. 

“It’s important for graduate students to be connected because when working on your doctoral work, at times it can be very isolating,” said Nadia Younan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto who enrolled in the knowledgebase. “One of the best forms of support are other students who are going through the same experience.”

Younan, in the final year of her thesis, is writing about Assyrian pop music and the construction of identity and community building through music. 

Programs like the knowledgebase, she said, help not only to connect students working in similar topics, but also provide mentorship and expand the types of topics covered in Assyrian academia.

“There is a plethora of research to be done on Assyrian studies, particularly in the arts and humanities,” she said. “We have a growing body of history and political science, but we need sociological studies, we need anthropological studies, there hasn’t been, to my knowledge, thorough academic research on Assyrian dances. And what about Assyrian art? Assyrian studies is a largely untapped field and we need to broaden our scope of humanities research.”

ASA was created in 2019 to promote academic study of Assyrian heritage. Students enrolled in the knowledgebase have access to the organization’s growing academic resources, according to Lazar.

To measure the database’s success, ASA plans to conduct follow-up surveys of enrolled students every six months to one year. Lazar said the organization is hoping to enroll at least 50 students by the end of next year.

For now, ASA is growing the program by relying on word of mouth, email and social media blasts. It hopes to attract new students at its next event in January, “Women’s Rituals in the Ancient Assyrian Household.”

Christian schools in northeast Syria ordered to teach self-administration curriculum or face closure

November 2022

A letter from the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria Department of Education, dated Oct. 24 and provided to a Christian school in Hasakah on Nov. 1, instructs the school they must begin teaching the self-administration’s curriculum, not the Syrian curriculum, or they will face closure.

A copy of the letter, dated Oct. 24 and issued to a Christian school in Hasakah, Syria on Nov. 1.

This ruling was issued against 23 Christian-led schools in northeast Syria, a Syriac Orthodox bishop said, totaling around 500 staff and over 20,000 Arab, Kurdish and Syriac (Assyrian) students.

Christians in the area say the self administration’s curriculum is not recognized and accepted by Syrian universities as well as many schools abroad.

Two years ago, a similar move was enacted on the schools by officials from the autonomous region. Some school doors were locked. A Syriac Orthodox bishop, alongside Christian organizations, at the time negotiated with the Department of Education under the condition to teach one course from the new curriculum.

“Everyone who has kids now will think of leaving the country because of this,” an Assyrian from Qamishli told the Journal.

Law scholarship for Assyrian American students names winner

By Joe Snell | October 2022

One of the nation’s sole scholarships reserved for Assyrian American students pursuing a law degree has named its 2022 winner.

Ronnie Kawak, an Assyrian attending the Indiana University School of Law, was selected among applicants from across the country to receive the Kalogerakos Family Law Scholarship, a $2,500 need-based award that can be used toward tuition, books and other expenses.

“Growing up outside of the community and really trying to establish this connection, scholarships like this let me feel like I’m welcomed and I’m not somewhere where I’m not supposed to be,” said Kawak, who was born in Virginia and later grew up in Indianapolis. 

The scholarship, launched last year, is administered by the Assyrian American Bar Association (AABA). The group was founded five years ago and comprises 100 members in a dozen states as well as five countries. 

Adriana Rahana, a law student at the University of Illinois Chicago, was last year’s award recipient. 

There are at least 10 scholarships offered by organizations across the country that are reserved for Assyrian American students, but Tony Kalogerakos, one of the founding members of AABA, felt it was important to create a need-based award dedicated to the law.

“Since we are all immigrants, we don’t always know what route to take,” he said. “It’s advantageous for any community to have more lawyers. And the current national discourse about immigrants in general makes it even more imperative that we create and supply a pipeline for legal training for Assyrians.”

Kalogerakos in the past offered the scholarship through his law firm, Injury Lawyers of Illinois, LLC. But it was important, he said, to provide the scholarship through AABA to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest so he wasn’t alone in selecting the winner. 

To win this year’s award, Kawak had to complete an application form, submit two letters or recommendation and write a 500-word essay on how he plans to use his legal education to address an issue in the Assyrian community. 

Kawak’s winning essay explored the history of Assyrians in establishing law and then compared it to the responsibility of Assyrian Americans in continuing this tradition. 

“One thing I want to do is dedicate my career to benefitting our nation and encouraging others to do that,” Kawak said. “Experiences like this scholarship really helped prove to me that this is a community that will accept me and you.”

Assyrian language course passes crucial hurdle in Chicago-area school district

Niles Township High School District 219 is on the verge of becoming the first public high school system in the US to offer Assyrian as a world language.

By Joe Snell | September 2022

In a major decision over seven years in the making, a committee tasked with reviewing and implementing curriculum changes to a Chicago-area public school district voted this month to recommend an Assyrian language and culture course.

The course, which would mark the first accredited Assyrian language program in the country offered at a public high school, now moves to the district’s Board of Education to hear on October 11 and a vote in November. If approved by the Board, it will become an official course offered in the district’s public high schools. Students could then register for the course beginning January 2023.

“This is a course that is not only something our district will offer, but it’s something that is possible for any school in the state,” said Caroline Benjamin, a school administrator in Chicago’s District 219. “This truly becomes a blueprint for other districts.”

Niles Township High Schools, or District 219, includes Niles North and Niles West. Total enrollment at both high schools is over 4,700 students and composed of about 30% Assyrians, according to estimates by D219 Suraye, an Assyrian parent group in the district. 

Any changes to the district’s course offerings must first receive approval from the Curriculum Standards for School Improvement (CSSI) Committee. The process to receive approval from the body can take years and many meetings.  

In the case of the Assyrian languages curriculum, work began in 2015. The idea was born out of a D219 Suraye parent meeting, co-sponsored at the time by Benjamin. The group was advised by school officials to begin the process by conducting a survey of interest of over 1,000 8-10th grade students.

Despite reported interest, progress on implementing the program together was slow as regular turnover in school administration meant Assyrians frequently started near the beginning to win over new educators. And some school officials were concerned that the course would take students away from other language programs, an educator told the Journal.

A trial of the course was offered in 2017 as a summer elective. Ten students enrolled in the class taught by an Assyrian staff member. The summer option continued for three consecutive years and became a virtual option in 2020 following the spread of COVID. 

But parents wanted more. The course needed to be held during the school year, one parent said, and it had to be offered full-time in the fall and spring. 

So advocacy continued. Benjamin recalls going back to the school’s administration saying summer elective courses weren’t enough. This time, however, things were different. The course had reportedly grown momentum with the addition of Ramina Samuel, a school counselor at Niles North and current co-sponsor of the Suraye parent group.

“Ramina came in and started asking the right questions and started pushing in a way that took people out of their comfort zone,” Benjamin said. “They started realizing, ‘These people aren’t going away, these people aren’t going to stop.’”

A full-time curriculum was presented to CSSI in the fall of 2021. The committee responded favorably, according to notes obtained from the discussion, but admitted their hands were tied — as long as the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) didn’t recognize Assyrian as a world language in their annual school catalog, an accredited course at a public high school couldn’t be offered.

“That was not something at that time that seemed possible,” Benjamin said. “We didn’t have the team that we do have now advocating at that level.”

Assyrian activists and political leaders mobilized. Village of Lincolnwood Trustee Atour Sargon and Assyrian Policy Institute (API) Director Reine Hanna pressed state representatives to nudge the Assyrian curriculum onto ISBE’s radar. 

“The significant progress made in recent weeks is the result of many years of advocacy and persistence by advocates and community members,” Sargon wrote to the Journal. “Had the community not pushed for it in the face of immense obstacles, we simply wouldn’t have reached this stage in the process.”

With the support of State Rep. Jen Gong-Gershowitz, who co-chairs the newly established Illinois Assyrian Caucus, a December 2021 meeting was arranged with ISBE. 

The state board approved thirteen Assyrian courses, which have since been added to the Illinois State Course Catalog that is slated for release this fall.

Despite state approval, the course still needed a CSSI recommendation to be included in the district’s class offerings. A second committee meeting was set for March.

In the weeks leading up to the presentation, the Suraye parent group worked with community activists to drum up support among school officials. During a February meeting with the district’s Board of Education, Assyrians presented over 800 letters of support from community members.   

During the second CSSI meeting, Assyrians presented updates on the ISBE approval along with the letters of support. CSSI had no more questions about the curriculum, according to meeting minutes, but as changes to the district’s course catalog only gets approved once a year in September, the proposal would again have to be put on hold.

As the proposal sat in summer limbo, World language teacher Thomas Neal, together with Samuel and math teacher William Sargool, worked in detail on what the curriculum could look like. The group also worked closely with Assyrian schools in Australia that had already developed a K-12 program and launched a text book series to teach the language. 

After six months, Assyrian parents and educators presented for a third time to CSSI on Sept. 13, but with another hurdle to overcome: the committee had many new faces and nearly tripled in size. Renewed questions were asked, including if this course would lead to an enrollment drop in other world languages. Following the meeting, and despite pushback from some CSSI members that was challenged by Charlene Abraham, a new Assyrian member of the committee, the curriculum was finally recommended to be presented to the Board of Education for approval as a two-year language option that would fulfill the student’s world language requirement. 

The requirements for the appointed teacher of the curriculum are still in discussion. At the state level, the teacher would need a PEL (Professional Education License). Further requirements including endorsements and additional teaching courses will have to be decided by the district.

And as parents and educators wait for the Board of Education’s final vote next month, work is already underway to take this curriculum to the national level. 

One thing is certain: District 219 is poised to become the first public high school district in the US to offer Assyrian as a world language. 

“This didn’t start connecting until the right people were hired in the right positions,” Benjamin said. “That’s why bringing people into spaces like schools where they reflect the community truly matters. It couldn’t happen with just one person advocating.”

An earlier version of this article cited eight Assyrian courses approved by the Illinois State Board. That number was since found to be thirteen.

An earlier version also cited the district’s Board of Education voting on the curriculum Oct. 11, but the vote is in November, the board will be hearing about the curriculum in October.

New scholarships for Duhok seniors honors late Assyrian leader

By Joe Snell | January 2022 | Photos and videos provided

A new scholarship initiative for high school seniors in Iraq’s Duhok Governorate seeks to memorialize late Assyrian leader Ashur Eskrya, who passed away on April 9 due to complications from the coronavirus. 

The project comes amid an education crisis gripping Iraq. Dropout rates in Iraqi schools are on the rise due to armed conflict, displacement, economic hardships and a surge in COVID cases. A World Bank report in October found that schools across the country were closed over 75% of the time and remote learning opportunities were limited.

“Effectively, students in Iraq are facing more than a lost year of learning,” the report said.

The crisis is heightened in Assyrian communities with the added transportation cost of students from outlying villages into larger towns and the translation and printing of textbooks into the Assyrian language.

Organized by the Assyrian Aid Society (AAS), the Ashur Sargon Eskrya Scholarship Fund will help fill some of those gaps so that an Assyrian education continues in the homeland, AAS told the Journal.

“The scholarship not only takes some financial pressure off students and their families, but also instills a greater sense of belonging and encouragement to continue their higher education,” said AAS of America Executive Board Member Natalie Babella.

Through the fund, scholarships will be awarded to 16 high school seniors across five Assyrian high schools in the Duhok Governorate: Nsibin in Nuhadra (Duhok), Zahrira in Deralok, Zakhoota in Zakho, Shameil in Shiyoz and Urhai in Sarsing.

“This scholarship aims to highlight the achievements of those graduates that scored 90% or higher, entering university for disciplines such as dental school and engineering,” said AAS-A Vice President Renya Benjamen. “Their achievements speak to the high standards of our Assyrian schools.”

Born in 1974, Eskrya graduated from Baghdad University and later became a civil engineer. In 2003, he joined the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq (AAS-I). He was named the organization’s president in 2010, guiding the humanitarian nonprofit in the tumultuous years during and after the Islamic State (IS) genocide, including surviving an assassination attempt.

Eskrya was an advocate for the protection of Assyrians in northern Iraq and the formation of an autonomous region for Assyrians in the Nineveh Plains, taking his case as far as New York and Geneva. 

“The Assyrian Aid Society will honor his memory by continuing the work he loved so much of helping those in need and helping the Assyrian nation thrive in our ancestral lands,” Babella said.

AAS-I, a relief organization founded in 1991, organizes home and business reconstruction projects, builds medical facilities and provides refugee relief and specialized coronavirus care to local communities among other projects.

Education is a priority for the organization, Babella told the Journal. Buses transport children from outlying villages to Assyrian schools in larger towns. The schools hire Assyrian teachers and other staff members. And specialty software translates state-approved textbooks into the Assyrian language. In total, 26 AAS-I funded schools provide K-12 schooling in the Assyrian language and serve over 2,600 students. 

In 2016, AAS-I was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

New community center in Alqosh promotes education

By Joe Snell | July 2021 | Photos provided

A new community center in Alqosh aims to support local clubs and activities.

The Mar Mikha Center, a $2,500 initiative, was furnished by the Shlama Foundation with desks, chairs and 15 meters of bookshelves.

“It will be a place that supports the young people and will help culturally and educationally,” said Qasha Salar Hanona of Alqosh.

Located in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq about 30 miles north of Mosul, Alqosh is a town of roughly 4,500 residents. Many Assyrians fled to the area from Mosul and Baghdad after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The project, supported by the Alqosh community of Florida, was chosen because “there were no proper and modern facilities” to support activities that promoted culture and education, Shlama told the Journal.