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School preserves ancient culture

BY SUSAN ABRAM, Staff Writer
January 22, 2007

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."





How to help the Christians of Iraq

Who are the Christians of Iraq?

Kanoon II = January

School preserves ancient culture January 24, 07

Turkey keeps nervous eye on Kirkuk January 23, 07

Tens of Thousands Mourn Turkish-Armenian Editor January 23, 07

What Iraq's Christians Need January 23, 07

Hrant Dink Killing as if Continuation of Armenian Genocide January 22, 07

Christians, Muslims flee Baghdad for Kurdistan January 22, 07

Remember The Church In Iraq January 21, 07

Iraq's Christians Call for Political Autonomy January 21, 07

Interview with Yonadam Kanna, Assyrian member of Iraqi Parliament.
January 20, 07

Congress, White House Flooded With Calls for 'Operation Assyrian Province'
January 20, 07

American Jewish Committee Speaks Up for Iraqi Religious Minorities

January 19, 07

Suffering Binds Iraq and Darfur January 19, 07

Iraqi Christians Lose All Hope with Violence, Anarchy January 19, 07

Iraqi, Afghani War Refugees Need Our Help January 18, 07

Iraq's Kurds Face Mounting Anger From All Sides January 18, 07

Iraq moving towards division, says bishop of Kirkuk January 16, 07

Genocide Discussions and Freedom of Expression in Turkey January 16, 07

An Assyrian Archaeologist's Journey January 15, 07

US Jewish lobby warns : it may not be able to block the Armenian genocide bill
January 15, 07

T.V. Report about the plight of the Assyrians in Iraq January 14, 07

Mehrdad Izady & the History of Kurdish Christianity; Falsification of Facts
January 13, 07

Murders, Abductions, Threats, Everyday Occurrences for Mosul Christians
January 12, 07

A Biography of Helena Guergis, Canada's Secretary of State January 12, 07

Turkey Shouldnt fear the Assyrian genocide January 11, 07

A Christian Neighborhood in Baghdad January 11, 07

Christians Shut Out Of National Conference In Baghdad January 11, 07

A Christian Exodus From the Arab World January 11, 07

World War One Genocide in Turkey January 10, 07

The Ken Joseph Report “I sat in stunned silence…” January 10, 07

Paris approves Armenian genocide bill January 8, 07

Assyrian Woman Appointed As Secretary of State in Canada January 8, 07

Few Stories of Hope for Iraq's Christians January 7, 07

US must recognize Iraq's humanitarian crisis January 7, 07

Good News For The Christians of Iraq ! January 5, 07

Theological university and seminary moved January 5, 07

If Iraq fragments, what's Plan B? January 4, 07

IRAQ: Minorities tormented under sectarian violence January 4, 07

Christian Assyrians in Iraq January 4, 07

Why Are Iraqi Kurds Furious With the US? January 3, 07

Kholo Malke on the way to Germany January 3, 07

Expansion of The Assyrian Radio program "Qolo" January 3, 07

Assyrians Iraq's Forgotten Minority January 3, 07

Georgia Releases Assyrian General on Bail January 2, 07

Ancient Assyrian Fortress in Iraq to Be Preserved January 2, 07

Kanoon I = December

Exiles joyful, concerned December 31, 06

Killing goes on as Saddam Hussein is executed and churches pray December 30, 06

Iraqi Americans react to death of Saddam Hussein
December 30, 06

Turkey Should not Deny the Turth if it Wants to be Believed December 30, 06

Forgive Saddam Hussein ? December 30, 06

Ancient Assyrians in northwest Iran near Urmia December 26, 06

Assyrian Genocide Claims 'Bogus,' Says Turkish Historian December 26, 06

A Tireless Campaigner for the Assyrian Christians of Iraq December 26, 06

Iraq, Christians Come Out to Worship December 26, 06

Christians Celebrate Christmas in Iran December 26, 06

Iraqi Christians Debate Self-Autonomy to Halt Exodus December 26, 06

Iraq's embattled religious minorities December 26, 06

We Must Not Forget the Plight of Middle Eastern Christians December 23, 06

Avoiding the Final Betrayal: Protecting Iraqi Christians December 23, 06

Nina Shea Testifies Before Congress on Behalf of Iraq's Assyrians
and Other Minorities
December 23, 06

Conference in Sweden Calls for Assyrian Safe-haven in Iraq December 21, 06

Christians thrown to the lions in Iraq December 21, 06

Iraqi refugees - a tragedy stretching beyond Syria December 19, 06

Iraqi Christians under fire December 19, 06

Fleeing Nineveh: Assyrians of Iraq and Self Governance December 18, 06

No Christmas Celebrations in Iraq, Says Chaldean Patriarch December 18, 06

Groups call for relief for Iraqi Christians December 18, 06

Methodists Highlight the Plight of Indigenous Iraqi Christians December 17, 06

Pontiff Appeals for Aid for Iraqi Refugees in Syria December 17, 06

Christmas in Mosul Under Threat of Sharia December 15, 06

Kurds and the Assyrian Homeland December 15, 06

Assyrian National Party rejects Baker-Hamilton's plans December 15, 06

U.S. Iraqi Christian Community Debates How to Help Relatives December 15, 06

Deviousness of the Kurdish officials December 14, 06

Iraq Insurgents Threaten Attacks Against Christian Women December 14, 06

Gifts for the Children of Nineveh December 13, 06

Help Our Assyrian Children December 13, 06

Iraq : Another Pries Feared Kidnapped December 10, 06

Iraq shapes the Assyrian cadet's background, future December 10, 06

Jordan, Syria May Close Borders to Iraqi Refugees December 9, 06

Visitors from Iraq December 8, 06

Assyrian Delegation in the European Parliament December 8, 06

Private Saudis Said to Fund Iraq Insurgents December 7, 06

Terrorists Bomb Church in Iraq December 7, 06

Iraq Is the Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis in the World December 5, 06

Iraqi Christians plead for help, tell of 'ethnic cleansing' December 5, 06

Assyrian Christians 'Most Vulnerable Population' in Iraq December 5, 06

One Priest Killed in Iraq, another abucted December 5, 06

Comparing the Muslim and Christian Conceptions of God December 4, 06

Assyrian Delegation from Georgia Visits North Iraq December 4, 06

Another clergy murdered in Mosul December 4, 06

Dutch EP Member Inquiry Into Assassination of Assyrian Leader December 3, 06

Assyrians: Iraq's Overlooked Victims December 2, 06

Christians for Assyrians of Iraq Plan Demonstration December 2, 06

Iraq's Vatican Ambassador Seeks More Help December 2, 06

Assyrian Delegation At the European Parliament December 1, 06

Relief Agency Sheltering Iraqi Chaldean Refugees in Turkey December 1, 06

The Turkmen: Eerie Silence in Northern Iraq December 1, 06



October, November 06

August, September 06

June, July 06
March April May 06
February 06
December05 Januray 06