Elafskolan is the first Assyrian school to be opened in the area. Whether a refugee overcoming trauma or a child of a successfully integrated first-generation family, many young students are suffering from an identity crisis—are they Assyrian or are they Swedish? It’s for this reason that Rhawi describes the “need” for such a school in the area. “For me it’s the most beautiful thing if you go to another country and keep your identity,” he says. “There are Swedish schools in England and other places, where it’s important to keep the Swedish identity. And it’s the same for those coming to Sweden—they should keep their identity as well. We should work together, hand in hand, and be proud to cooperate and build this country, any country.”
Born in Södertälje, Rhawi says he aims to pass down these values to younger generations and shares the story of his own family. “As a Christian minority in Turkey, we were forced to change our name and for 60 years we used a Turkish name instead.” He was 10 years old when his family, after migrating to Sweden and Germany, was able to change its name back to the original. “Now I’m older, I can see how hard it must have been.”
A young boy who recently enrolled at Elafskolan is struggling with the same transformation. Raised in Iraq, his father gave him the name Mohammed to avoid persecution, however since moving to Södertälje the father has requested that the school and its pupils use “Julian” instead. As the boy adapts to a new country, culture, and a new name, it’s easy to see how quickly identity issues may arise. And it’s the many stories like these that give an extra poignancy to Elafskolan’s bilingual program.
Elafskolan uses new technology in its classrooms to encourage its pupils to take on the complexities of the Assyrian language, which was previously taught via the church, at home, or not at all. Learning tools include an app version of the classic Assyrian folktale, The Grandma & The Fox, YouTube videos, and the Assyrian Federation of Sweden’s own publishing house, whose recent titles include an Assyrian translation of Pippi Longstocking.
It’s hard to escape a feeling at Elafskolan, despite the hardships, that these children are the lucky ones. Others don’t have access to the same care or curriculum.
Since November, Sweden has continued to tighten its borders. And Assyrian refugees who do find a new home here are often painfully aware that it’s unlikely they will return to the Middle East. Elafskolan’s curriculum—and its message of integration—is a symptom of the freedom that the Assyrian community has found in Södertälje over the past 40 years, and seeks to continue.
The school is still in a nascent stage, but if Elafskolan proves to be successful in its aims it will provide a working model for future Assyrian schools to follow suit. Last month, the Assyrian Federation submitted an application to open three new schools in Sweden—in Gothenburg, Norrköping, and Botkyrka, where there are also sizable Assyrian communities. Other European countries currently experimenting in bilingual programs, such as Germany and the Netherlands, may see Elafskolan as a way forward to prolong the future of threatened languages and cultures while providing a sense of belonging for its students—where integration, not segregation, will prevail.
As he sits at his desk at Elafskolan, the headmaster Rhawi says he’s unsure of the future for Assyrians in Syria and Iraq, but for those in Södertälje, the path is clear: “The most important thing is that the kids grow up to become fully active members of society—because this is where they will be.”