Sep 06, 2017

Assyria: School In Western Sydney Preserves The Assyrian Culture And Religion

Photo courtesy of Siobhan Hegarty


The Assyrian primary school St Hurmizd offers classes to more than 700 students with an Assyrian background, many of which from refugee families. The diverse curriculum is set out to help maintain the Assyrian faith and heritage, while also learning the English language. The school’s aim is to help students academically, as well as emotionally, giving them hope for a brighter future. Many students have gone years without attending any kind of school and are traumatised by the violence of war. Their families had to flee religious persecution back in their home countries and have come to find refuge in Australia.

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In the 15 years since St Hurmizd was founded, the Assyrian primary school in Western Sydney has grown from a cohort of 85 students, to more than 700.

All of the students come from non-English speaking, Assyrian backgrounds, and nearly 200 are new refugee arrivals. Many were welcomed to Australia as part of the Government's intake of 12,000 Iraqis and Syrians earlier this year.

As the only school in the Western world offering Assyrian faith and language classes, it's perhaps no wonder St Hurmizd's has expanded at such a fast pace. According to the 2016 Census data, there are 13,863 Assyrian Apostolics currently living in Australia — that's a 69 per cent increase from a decade earlier. Conflict in the Middle East is a key factor underpinning this sharp population incline.

As followers of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, a branch of Christianity, Assyrians are a religious minority in their homeland of Iraq and Syria, and often the target of violent attacks. As St Hurmizd's Christian studies coordinator, Rowena Daniel — an Assyrian herself — knows all too well about the plight of her people. "Assyrians have been persecuted most of their lives," she says.

A staff member since 2002, Ms Daniel has seen the teaching cohort grow from five to 50 members. She's also been a guiding force in ensuring the school adequately meets the needs of its students, particularly those who've been traumatised by war, or missed out on schooling because they lived in a refugee camp. "There are a lot of students who need one-on-one [attention], and not to be forgotten," she says. "It's really important we look at their emotions before we actually want to teach them something.” "Some of [the students] have lost education for four or five years, and this is their first contact with schooling."

Brian Kennelly, head principal of St Hurmizd and its sister-high school St Narsai, also believes in a multi-pronged approach to supporting students. "In the last two years, we've been flooded with new refugees," he says.” "We've welcomed them with open arms and we're teaching them English and the cultural aspects of Australia, as well as maintaining their heritage and their faith, and that is really important to this community."

Mr Kennelly, a Catholic, was tasked with the responsibility of improving and expanding St Hurmizd by its patron, the Assyrian Archbishop of Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon, Mar Meelis Zaia. "I felt a real connection with him, and when I came into both schools I felt a real connection there," he explains.

Mr Kennelly says his time working in the Middle East helped prepare him for this position. "I've lived in the Middle East for three years as a deputy principal in a leading school in Jordan," he says. "So I understand a little bit about the culture, and I understand some of the plights the students and families have faced in being dislocated from their homelands."

For Mar Benyamin Elya, a former school chaplain at St Hurmizd and now Australia's youngest Assyrian Bishop, that plight is a lived one. "I was born in Baghdad. I arrived in Sydney when I was nine years old," he recalls. "Because [of that] I can see what the students go through. "I try to push them and say: 'Just because you're new, just because you don't know the language, it doesn't mean that you won't be successful. Work hard and you'll be able to achieve great results'." His words have proven true year upon year, as the students from St Hurmizd and St Narsai have gone on to achieve strong academic results.

Asked about success stories, Mr Kennelly was quick to point to a current Year 12 student who spent five years in a refugee camp in Lebanon, without schooling, before moving to Australia. "She came to us in the beginning of Year 11, [and has] been with us 18 months," he says. "She is our top student this year. She will get into medicine. "It is an amazing story of determination, and this is what the community's built on — determination, faith, and a common bond."