Chicago's Assyrians embrace new technology to save ancient language
DEVON, Chicago - Markets, bakeries and hair salons echo with memories of Iraq, and names like Baghdad and Sumeria dot the cityscape of one of Chicago's most vibrant neighbourhoods, where amid the South Asian and Orthodox Jewish shops that line the area sits the city's largest Iraqi neighbourhood - Devon. A closer look reveals that the flag hanging in most windows is the vibrant red, white, and blue tricolour of the Assyrians, and inside most shops it is Syriac - a distant relative of Aramaic, the language of Jesus - that is spoken, with Arabic mixed in to fill in the gaps.
Chicago is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of Assyrians, a mostly Christian community that hails from northern Iraq and neighbouring areas in Syria, Turkey and Iran.
Around 80,000 Assyrians are thought to call the city home, while another 100,000 live in nearby Detroit. There are thought to be only around 1.2 million Assyrians worldwide (though some estimate the number as high as 3-4 million), meaning that the American Midwest is home to one of the most important concentrations."
Yet the community’s vibrancy masks the fact that the Syriac language is slowly dying out. Assyrians in the United States are increasingly switching to English, trying their hardest to get ahead while adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward their homelands.
While the community’s dispersion has created challenges, it has also opened up opportunities. A Chicago-based group named Rinyo - Syriac for “thought” or "idea" - is hoping to spark a global revolution in the way the language is learned, and they have already managed to bring major changes into this conservative community’s approach to preserving their language.
‘We broadcast our song just miles away from IS’
Rinyo was founded in 2011, when physician Robby Edo was visiting his family in Qamishli, a town in Syria near the Iraqi border with a large Assyrian population. He noticed that despite the long history of Syriac literature, few books or materials were published in the language anymore. Similar to neighbouring Iraq, the Syrian government has long emphasised Arabic as a national language at the expense of minority languages like Syriac and Kurdish.
Robby spoke to his brother Hedro, a software designer, about the need for more written materials in Syriac to help the younger generation learn, and they began working on a short cartoon.
“We found people who were thinking like us and wanted to produce materials to help the language live,” Hedro told Middle East Eye. “And now we have Rinyo: a multi-dialect and multicultural global entity.”
Rinyo has since developed interactive storybooks and alphabet lessons that have reached all corners of the Syriac universe. The group conducted numerous tours visiting Syriac-speaking communities in Iraq and Syria, as well as in the diaspora in Sweden, Germany and many US states.
Rinyo even set up a technology lab in Qamishli, employing 10 people on behind-the-scenes technical aspects of the applications. Not only has Rinyo revived interest in Syriac, it is also creating jobs in a war-torn country where the economic situation and political uncertainty have driven many Syrians, especially from the Assyrian minority, to emigrate.
Marganita Samuel, a native of the northern Iraqi city of Duhok, is active in Rinyo along with her sister. While they have both volunteered for years teaching Syriac in Sunday School, Samuel complained that language teachers are stuck using out-dated and uninspiring materials.
“As teachers, we only spend two hours a week teaching them. But the Rinyo applications are completely interactive, and with the memory games they get more exposure and retain more.”
Her sister Ramina Samuel, Rinyo’s secretary, agreed: “When we ask people why they don’t speak Syriac with their kids, a lot of them say it’s because they don’t have any Syriac resources from which to teach them. Rinyo is helping us catch up with other communities by creating these resources.”
Spurred on by the group’s success, Assyrians have reached out around the world. Samuel told MEE that some people send lullabies their grandparents used to sing, asking for them to be made into applications so they can be preserved. Not only is Rinyo helping parents pass on the language, it is also helping them revive oral traditions that are in danger of dying out.
“Our ‘Silent Night’ song in Syriac was even broadcast at Christmas in al-Qosh, an Assyrian town in northern Iraq just a few miles away from the ISIS frontlines,” Ramina told MEE. “It’s so exciting!”
Assyrians recall 1915 killings
Although there have been Assyrians in the US since the mid-1800s, their numbers have increased rapidly in Chicago as a result of the instability that began with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and worsened when the Islamic State group invaded northern Iraq in 2014.
The recent wars are hardly the Assyrians’ first brush with violence. Their homeland sits in a region with multiple religions, ethnicities and cultures existing together in a rich mosaic of the kind that has long characterised the Middle East. The area’s diversity, however, was torn asunder beginning in 1915, when - as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse - authorities carried out a series of mass killings and deportations that culminated in the genocide of around 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks.
While the Armenian Genocide is widely remembered, the killing of 300,000 Assyrians in what the community calls the Seyfo, or sword, is little known. The genocide has cast a shadow ever since, as the majority of Assyrians fled their homeland as refugees and joined communities in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Others were offered refuge further afield in Arab countries such as Palestine or Lebanon.
Part of the difficulty in making reliable estimates of Assyrian population figures today is due to an ongoing dispute over what to call them. Assyrians are split between three churches: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Chaldean Catholic Church. The groups often eschew their single ethnic identity and instead call themselves Assyrian, Syriac, and Chaldean in reference to their churches.
All three groups speak the Syriac language which they call Sureth in Syriac or Sirianni in Arabic; it is only in English that they are divided over their name.
Constructing a single Syriac
For Rinyo, the language challenge is complex. Syriac has two main dialects - Eastern and Western - and most applications are in both. But each dialect has numerous sub-dialects, not all of which are totally mutually comprehensible, and all of these dialects are only spoken. There is a shared classical written version, but it is never spoken except in formal settings.
As a result, Rinyo members are constantly debating what word to use in the apps. In the process they are developing a standardised spoken variant of the language where none previously existed.
But this complexity is nothing new for them. Ramina and Marganita, for example, grew up speaking two very different Eastern sub-dialects, one from Turkey and the other Iran.
“We struggled,” Ramina told MEE, adding that it took years for them to be able to figure out how to navigate both.
“If we get stuck on a word where half the population uses one word but the other half uses another, we try to use both. But sometimes we find out that within each dialect there are five different ways to say it, in which case we have to go back to the classical version to find a word,” Robby explained.
“Our vision for the future is that we will be able to explore the sub-dialects further and look at the rich traditions that our communities have created… We think that cultural diversity is beautiful,” Robby added.
A brighter future?
In a few short years, Rinyo has managed to revitalise community passion for language preservation, but some fear it may be too little, too late.
Father Gewargis Suleiman is the priest at Chicago’s Assyrian St George’s Cathedral. He previously served the church in Syria and Iraq, where he was born, but has lived in Chicago since 2012.
“Back in Iraq, we studied the language at church and spoke Syriac at home,” Suleiman told MEE. “But kids here, even the ones who speak the language, are switching to English because it’s easier.”
Suleiman stressed that the wider problem is the lack of strong community institutions in the US given the perpetual focus on hardships back home.
“Our people in Iraq and Syria have gone through a lot of difficulties since 1980. During all these years, we focused on how we could financially help the people there. So any money that people had, they sent back. They never focused on keeping ourselves together here,” he said.
“We need to differentiate between our struggles and their struggles, and take care of ourselves first so we can be strong for them too,” he added.
It’s unclear whether Rinyo’s success will be enough to ensure the survival of this ancient language. But the commitment to challenging the status quo is a ray of hope for a community that has lived too long in the shadow of its own extinction.
“With everything going on back home, we feel so helpless. But Rinyo is something I can do for my community, my culture, and my language,” Ramina told MEE.
“Our community is fatigued from giving because there’s always a crisis going on,” she continued. “But Rinyo is free, and our goal is to spread it as far and wide as possible.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.