Syria’s Kurdish Schools Told To Abandon Arabic

Northeastern Syria’s autonomous Kurdish leadership has informed schools in the area that they must teach core subjects in Kurdish. While proud to embrace their ethnic heritage, some worry that the change could create new conflicts.

A classroom in Damascus, Syria
A classroom in Damascus, Syria
Omar Abdallah

HASSAKEH â€" For nearly three months, schools in the autonomous Kurdish district of Hassakeh in northeastern Syria have been conducting classes in Kurdish instead of Arabic.

A decree issued in August by the newly created autonomous government declared Kurdish would be the language used in all educational settings. Although the decree permits Arabs, Yazidis and Syriac Christians to use their native tongues for religion classes and other subjects, it says that all social studies and history classes must be taught in Kurdish.

Many in Syria's predominantly Kurdish corner are proud to embrace their ethnic heritage and learn in their mother tongue, but some families worry about whether the change in language is sustainable amid such a chaotic political environment.

In preparation for the school year, the region's board of education printed more than 40,000 Kurdish-language textbooks. Activists close to the Kurdish command say that over the past six months, they have trained almost 2,600 teachers.

Syrian government forces withdrew from the northeastern tip of Syria about a year after the country's uprising began. As violence steadily grew, the two major Syrian Kurdish political parties joined together to establish the Kurdish Supreme Committee, creating People's Protection Units (YPG) to defend the mostly Kurdish-inhabited corner of Syria. Syrian Kurdistan, or Western Kurdistan, officially declared its autonomy in November 2013 and has been gaining territory in Syria's northeast ever since.

Education over heritage

But while many of the area's residents are happy to live in a Kurdish state, not all are in favor of the new decree, and many have reportedly transferred their children to private schools, despite high tuition costs.

"I am not against using Kurdish as a language of instruction, but we have to remember that all other educational levels, including universities, use Arabic as the language of instruction," says Roxan, a 27-year-old Syrian Kurdish elementary school teacher.

"Those who learn core subjects in Kurdish are at a disadvantage to be accepted and excel at the university level. It would have been much better if they would have included Kurdish as a second language. Many families are hesitant because they cannot ensure that this Kurdish educational system will continue to higher levels beyond elementary schools."

Now confusion reigns

Two weeks after the Kurdish decree was issued, the Syrian government also issued an order that all schools using the new Kurdish curriculum be closed. It also instructed schools to lay off all teachers who were teaching Kurdish, many of whom were employees of the government's Ministry of Education. The government's order affected 30 elementary schools in the province of Qamishli and many others in Hassakeh.

Salah, an elementary school teacher in his 50s, has spent the better part of his life teaching in elementary schools throughout Qamishli. Although he speaks Kurdish â€" he picked up the language through family and friends â€" he doesn't read or write it. And with contradicting orders from Damascus and the Kurdish leadership in Hassakeh, he's at a loss for what do.

"The government's Arabic curriculum and the Kurdish curriculum are both still available in our warehouse, and now we don't know which one to use," he says.

Salah says the Syriac Church hasn't followed the Kurdish decree. Its schools are still using the old Syrian government textbooks, and Arab students are still studying the Arabic curriculum.

Girl holding a flag of Kurdistan in the street of Qamishli, Syria â€" Photo: Beshr Abdulhadi

"Only the schools that are located in the Kurdish neighborhoods and villages have been affected by the order from the Syrian government," Salah says.

Shelan, like many other mothers, has refused to send her children to school since the curriculum switch was instituted earlier this year. "I had to send my third grader to private school this year," she says. "For the first two years, his classroom language was Arabic and English, and now he has to suddenly switch to Kurdish? It doesn't make sense."

Her two younger children will have to make do with the Kurdish curriculum for the time being. Private tuition rates are just too high to cover all three of her children, she says. "I'm not too concerned, though," she says. "I doubt the Kurdish curriculum will continue. And I'll make sure to teach them Arabic and English at home."

An important victory

Many parents, on the other hand, believe that by introducing the Kurdish language into public education, the autonomous region's authorities have taken a much-needed step toward preserving their heritage and achieving their own self-determination. "It is our right to learn in Kurdish. We've been prevented from using our own language since the establishment of the Syrian state," says Shiar, a 31-year-old teacher who recently completed the training required to teach the new Kurdish curriculum. "We have struggled for many years to finally gain this right, and we will not let go of it."

Speaking anonymously, a leader from Yekiti, a Kurdish political party in Syria, says that "learning the Kurdish language in public schools has been a dream for every Kurd." He adds that while the initial move is positive, the curriculum still needs a lot of work.

"The curriculum should be developed and taught by specialists, but unfortunately, the exact opposite has happened," he says. "The textbooks follow the ideology of a particular political party, and the teachers are all supporters of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), who received their positions after they took a few months of language classes."

The decision, he says, wasn't "well studied” and will only "add more pressure on people in the area to leave."

Munir, a 33-year-old veterinarian and father of two, worries about where the change in curriculum could lead. A Syrian Arab from the mixed city of Qamishli along Syria's border with Turkey, he says that while it's important to remember "the discrimination which Kurds in the region have suffered from for decades, they the Kurds should not use the same discriminating policies against others."

“We understand that they have not prevented us from learning in Arabic, but many people are afraid that the next step will be separating Kurdish schools from Arab schools, which would only widen the gap between Arabs and Kurds," he says.

Like others, he wonders what will happen to these kids in middle and high school. "Will they continue to study in Kurdish? Or will they switch back to Arabic? When the authorities can answer these questions, people might support such a decision."

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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