On November 1, 2022, huge strides were made for the Assyrian community in Chicago. On November 1, 2022––for the first time in U.S. history–––Assyrian is officially recognized as a world language.
Assyrians are an ethnic group originating in the Middle East. At its peak, the Assyrian Empire spanned over present-day Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea––lasting from 2371 B.C. to 609 B.C. It was considered to be one of the most prominent empires of the Middle East, and in spite of its fall, the Assyrian people have managed to keep their culture alive through three things: language, religion, and culture.
The Battle for Recognition
Seven years prior to this ruling, the Assyrian parents in Chicago’s Niles Township School District (District 219) formed a parent group called D219 Suraye (“District 219 Assyrians”) for the Assyrian parents in this school district. It was in a Suraye meeting, back in 2015, where the idea for an Assyrian language class was first conceived. Once it was born, there was no stopping this group.
After months of meeting after meeting with the Curriculum Standards for School Improvement (CSSI) Committee, a summer course was offered in 2017 and continued through 2020––until parents of Suraye demanded more.
With an estimated 30% of the Niles Township School District students being Assyrian, it is not unreasonable to incorporate an Assyrian language class in these schools during the fall and spring semesters as well.
Nevertheless, there was pushback from the CSSI on implementing a full-year curriculum because they feared students would be drawn away from other language programs already offered at schools as a result of offering a full-time Assyrian language course. However, offering this course would benefit students immensely by broadening their horizons and knowledge of other ancient world cultures as opposed to confining them to the popular Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Hebrew languages/cultures available in the District 219 schools.
That being said, Suraye’s proposed one-year curriculum for the Assyrian language and culture class gained approval from the CSSI in 2021. Now, the group would have to win one last battle in order to secure victory: Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) would have to officially recognize Assyrian as an official world language.
The Assyrian community rallied together in response. Political leaders and activists utilized their skills and support to obtain the state’s approval. And, after meeting with the CSSI to update them on the program’s latest development, thirteen Assyrian courses were added to the Illinois State Course Catalog which was officially announced in November.
What Does this Mean for Assyrians?
November 1st will forever be a pivotal moment for the Assyrian people. With roughly 4.5 million Assyrians scattered around the globe––without a physical place to call home––it seems their place in history starts to diminish. After being forced to leave their homeland in the Middle East because of the Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek Genocide in 1914, after ISIS’s systematic killing of Assyrians in the 2010’s––Assyrians continue their fight to preserve their ancient culture. And November 1, 2022 is just the first step.