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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 — 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 — he picked up the language through family and friends — 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.

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Girl holding a flag of Kurdistan in the street of Qamishli, Syria — 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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