New charter school preserves Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac culture

Keys Grace Academy will begin school year at former Edison building Sept. 8

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published August 12, 2015

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MADISON HEIGHTS — One of the oldest civilizations in the world is at risk of being lost forever. The Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac people are experiencing a genocide in their homeland. Many have left the Middle East to seek refuge in other countries, but with assimilation there is a risk that they’ll lose their language and cultural identity.

A new charter school in Madison Heights is trying to address the situation by offering studies in Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac language, culture and history. Keys Grace Academy will soon open to students in preschool through 12th grade, with school starting Sept. 8. Keys is leasing the former Edison Elementary building, 27321 Hampden St., from Madison District Public Schools.

The first school of its kind reportedly in the U.S., students will learn the core curriculum they can expect at any school, but they’ll also be proficient in at least three languages by the time they graduate: English, Aramaic, and either Spanish or French. Aramaic dates back to biblical times and is commonly referred to as the language that Jesus spoke.

More than 300 students have already enrolled, with 200 more expected in the coming weeks. The school will serve 800 boys and girls. The school is open to people of all ethnicities, although the student population will be primarily Chaldean. Each student will receive, at no cost, two uniforms, shoes, computers, daily breakfast and lunch, and door-to-door transportation to and from school.

Nathan Yousif Kalasho is the president of KEYS, or Kalasho Empowerment of Young Scholars — the charter school management company behind Keys Grace Academy. He says Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac culture is something precious that should be celebrated and preserved, especially in southeast Michigan with its concentration of those cultures.

“With only 3.5 million Chaldeans and Assyrians left worldwide, as they move away, the first thing they lose is the language. We’re looking at possible extinction in the homelands in a couple years, and when that happens and the language is lost, we’re looking at complete assimilation into other cultures,” Kalasho said. “The first wheel, the first written language, the first code of law are all derived from our ancestors, so it’s a priority to incorporate these studies within our community, because it’s easy to lose track of where you came from, and it’s something you should be proud of.”

Kalasho himself is Chaldean, but he was born and raised in the United States. His parents came to the U.S. from Iraq because of political instability in the homeland. These days, the aftermath of multiple wars and the rise of ISIL has put minority groups on precarious footing.

“In the Middle East, when you’re a small minority like we were, there’s always a target on your chest. You never feel comfortable there for extended periods of time,” Kalasho said. “That’s why we saw a huge wave of our community emigrate to the United States.”

Randy Speck, superintendent of Madison District Public Schools, said he thinks the charter school will help meet the needs of these refugees and first-generation Americans.

“Madison Heights has been designated by the state as one of the places where these refugees are going to come, and we’ve been working for a couple years now to ensure families in the area have easy integration into the U.S. when they come here. For students, the biggest integration is schooling,” Speck said. “That’s why we’re happy to partner with Keys Grace Academy. They have an opportunity to really service these families as they come to the states, as well as work hard to preserve the Chaldean culture that is being persecuted in the Middle East. Rather than approaching this partnership as competition (for students in the district), we’re approaching this as an opportunity to collaborate and better serve families.”

Speck said he learns so much from the students in his own district.

“They are teaching me lessons all the time — lessons about hard work, about perseverance, about how when I’m having a bad day, my bad day doesn’t compare to bombs hitting the side of your house or not being able to go to school for fear of my life,” Speck said. “These kids teach me lessons, and I appreciate the hard work and desire to be in this country and education system, and the desire to be here in Madison Heights.”

While serving the needs of Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs is important, Kalasho said he hopes people of other cultures will take interest as well. He believes Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac culture should be of equal importance in the education system, alongside familiar European staples such as Spanish, French and German.

“We want to make it a staple of education in the United States, especially here in Michigan,” Kalasho said. “This is a study that should be offered and that you want to learn. This is the oldest civilization in the world. This is what they gave us, and it’s important to preserve our past.”

Keys Grace Academy is located at 27321 Hampden St. in Madison Heights. For more information, visit www.keysacademies.com or call (248) 629-7700.

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