Edessaskolan: The first and only Syriac school in Europe

Special report

Hallunda-Norsborg is a grey and low-income suburb in the metropolitan area of Stockholm. The skyline of Norsborg is made up of four- to eight-story flats, centered around a central shopping center. Some 17 thousand residents live here, 80% have a non-Swedish background. In the Botkyrka municipality to which Norsborg belongs, this is more than 56%.

After the arrival in the 1970s of the first Syriacs in Norsborg, Syriacs were able to find a home here and built-up communal life centered around the Syriac Orthodox churches of St. Peter & St. Paul and St. George and several cultural associations. Norsborg has a significant Syriac presence and the Syriac community has shaped Norsborg negatively and positively for the past 20 years.

In the 2000s, there were irregularities with the exploitation of the shopping center owned by Syriac associations. After the new majority owner of the shopping center cleaned up the mess, CEO Samir Rhawi prepared the shopping center for sale. The shopping center will be renovated and the area around it redeveloped.

CEO Samir Rhawi is a successful businessman and patriotic Syriac. Rhawi was the driving force behind the opening in 2008 of the first and only Syriac school in Europe, the Edessaskolan (Edessa school, Syriac: Madrashto d-Urhoy) in Norsborg. The Edessa primary school started with 35 students in two dilapidated classrooms. Today Edessaskolan is a lively and growing school with 165 students and 25 teaching and supporting staff. Rhawi has since then embarked on a similar project and opened a kindergarten called “Lilla Edessa” (Little Edessa), also in Norsborg.

Image: Edessaskolan

In a special TV report by Suroyo TV about the only Syriac school in Europe, initiator of the school Samir Rhawi explains;

“I saw it as a major shortcoming that we Syriacs, as a people, did not have our own school in Sweden while others did. Financially and in terms of population, we have everything needed to open our own schools. We are with more than 100 thousand Suryoye [Syriacs] in Sweden. So, I asked myself “why don’t we have our own school? Why should our ancient language remain weak compared to other languages?”

“I decided [in 2005] to bring together my like-minded and knowledgeable friends Syriac teacher Dr. Assad Sauma Assad, lawyer Gabriel Marawgeh, and teacher Robert Abraham. We promised each other to do everything in our power to open a school and started a working group. And in 2008 we opened the Edessa primary school.”

Samir Rhawi heads the supervisory board of the Edessa school. Dr. Assad Sauma Assad, Gabriel Marawgeh, and Edessa school Principal Robert Abraham are board members.

Samir Rhawi (fourth) receives the Suroyo TV Syriac Language Price from Suroyo TV Managing Director Jacob Mirza (left). Principal Robert Abraham is on the far right.

Opening the school was not without a struggle.

“We struggled to get funding. Moreover, we had no large organizations backing us… But in the end we succeeded.”

The Syriac school in Norsborg is a success and has 165 students. Yearly applications exceed the school’s capacity, says Rhawi. On the question about the primary goals of the school,

“Our primary goal is to teach our children the Syriac language. We have almost no people and history left in our homeland. What we have left is our language. If we do not protect and teach our language ourselves, who will!? Our second goal is to be an example for others to also open Syriac schools, in Sweden, in Europe, and all over the world where there are Suryoye. We see it as everybody’s responsibility to preserve our precious language. Nothing is able to save our Syriac people and culture if our language disappears.”

“From the experience we have, we are ready to help anyone who takes on this task. We can help with the curriculum, financially or legally. We only ask to respect the name and history of the Syriac-Aramaic language.”

Syriac language teacher at Edessaskolan Issa Malki fully endorses the importance of teaching the Syriac language in the diaspora;

“Here in Europe, in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Sweden etc. Syriac children leave kindergarten and primary school with only knowledge of the language of the country of residence. Our hope is that, because we are scattered, Syriac schools will be opened in all cities where Syriacs live. It is the responsibility of all our associations, churches, media, and the parents to teach our children the Syriac language. Only in this way can we preserve our identity and heritage in our current state of living scattered over different cities and countries.”

Edessaskolan is a Swedish Friskola which means that the school is not run directly by the education ministry, but e.g. by a foundation or other non-profit organization. The independent Friskola is not paid from public funds but receives municipal subsidies per child supplemented with parental contributions. Since 2011, the Friskola is required to fully teach the regular state curriculum. Teaching the Swedish language is primary but a Friskola uses the free educational time to teach according to its own school profile.

Edessaskolan specializes in teaching the Syriac language and music. It describes itself as “a free school with a linguistic focus, where the Swedish language has the highest priority. Other comprehensive language teaching comprises the Syriac / Aramaic language.”

The Edessa school is open to all students as long as they adhere to the special profile of the school, says Principal Robert Abraham. Every student who wants to learn the Syriac language and Syriac music is welcome. Currently, all 165 pupils, age 6 to 12, are of Syriac descent.

“In the past, we have had students from Poland, Serbia, and several African countries. They followed our Syriac language and music classes. We were very happy to have them and hope more apply to our school,” says Abraham.

“Every student whose mother tongue is Syriac receives 2 lessons in Syriac language and 2 lessons in Syriac music per week. The students whose mother tongue is e.g. Arabic, we are legally obliged to provide 1 of the language lessons in Arabic. The other is for Syriac and the 2 lessons Syriac music.”

Syriac music teacher Malek Kourie and the Edessaskolan choir

The importance of having own Syriac schools, like the Edessaskolan, in the diaspora, and in the home countries in the Middle East for that matter, should not be underestimated. They are vital to the survival of the Syriac nation.

The Syriac people are a nation without a state in which the Syriac language is the primary and official language of that state. In the 20th century, repressive regimes in the homelands of the Middle East have subjected the Syriacs to policies of “Arabization” and “Turkification”. Even in Lebanon where Syriacs are numerous and part of the government, Arabic is the principal language, French is recognized, and Syriac has been lost in history. Attempts to introduce a full Syriac curriculum for all grades on Syriac private schools in the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria failed.

Globalization, capitalism, and geopolitics are processes without much regard to culture, people or language. They are ignorant of age, historical importance, precedence, or the contribution of Syriacs to world civilization. These devouring processes are especially threatening for old and vulnerable people like the Syriacs – Syriacs would not be the first nation to disappear in the deep dark holes of history. And diaspora host countries, in the end, aim to fully assimilate the peoples within their dominant culture and societies. In the European political shift to the “right” of the last two decades, the lessons in Hemspråk and Muttersprache may well have seen their last days.

As the Syriac people have become more and more a trans-national diaspora nation, assimilation and extinction loom. Opening own Syriac schools in the diaspora can slow or stop this process of assimilation. Where Syriacs have established themselves all over the world through their churches, cultural associations, sport clubs and media, it is now the time to take the next step and institutionalize the Syriac language in own schools. We conclude with Edessaskolan founder Samir Rhawi’s words: “Financially and in terms of population, we have everything needed to open our own schools. We are with more than 100 thousand Suryoye [Syriacs] in Sweden. So, I asked myself “why don’t we have our own school? Why should our ancient language remain weak compared to other languages?”