Al-Hasaka governorate has always been of a special character due to its demographic diversity; Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Yazidis, Christians, Muslims, and other ethnic and religious groups that have long lived there creating a unique fabric where cultural heritage overlaps in a beautiful way.
Today the governorate is in a different situation where every group fears for itself, the Syrian north is divided like never before. Kurdish administration has laid its shadows on ethnic groups, particularly Arabs, and even on Kurds themselves. Immigration is on the rise among most groups, especially Assyrians, the original inhabitants of that land.
According to a report issued by Danish Immigration Service in 2015 and our contact in Al-Hasakah governorate, the Syrian government’s civil administration in the three PYD controlled areas, Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin, is still functioning as the government still pays salaries to hospital and school staff, and the national ID documents are still being issued to people residing in these areas. The enforcement of some of the national laws may differ from one area to another, as for example enforcement of the law on property rights in connection with settling land disputes. Changes also extended to reach education sector causing a crisis that has already started to reflect on reality of the north.
Education Under Syrian State
School Education in Syria is free, and obligatory until the age of 15. Higher education in state universities is also free. Many Syrian governorates celebrated 0% of illiteracy years before war, percentage of women’s education was among the highest in the middle east and the world. Education in the eastern and northern part of Syria has always been a big challenge for the Syrian government, due to lack of staff to run the process there and to deal with that challenge the government had established over 2400 schools, 2 state universities (Aleppo and Euphrates) with branches in all main cities of that area, and opened the doors for the establishment of private sector universities. Teachers were sent there from all across Syria in order to meet the needs of those educational establishments. Big majority of youth of the Syrian north and east used to move freely between their home towns and Damascus or Latakia universities for instance, teachers could teach there during weekdays and go back for the weekends to their hometowns too. First threats to education there was with the arrival of ISIS, and later the problem escalated.
Currently there is only one university operating in al-Hasaka, a private university, which not everyone can afford to attend, and numbers of schools operating are declining for administrative and logistic obstacles.
Education Under ISIS
With the advance of ISIS to that part of Syria (eastern Aleppo, Al-Hasaka, Ar-Raqqa, Dier-Ezzor) schools and universities there were closed because they teach ideas that go against Sharia Law, like philosophy and sciences. Literature, science, and humanities were replaced with Sharia classes, many schools and universities were destroyed by DAESH, others were taken as strongholds for them and other Islamist groups or anti-government groups. In some areas students managed to flee and join universities in other governorates, while others were not lucky as DAESH prohibited them from leavening and forced them to join DAESH Sharia schools. The category that was mostly influenced is younger generation, children who are now 8-10 for they have been deprived from education for 4 years at least.
Education Under Kurdish Administration
As the Kurdish forces joined the fight against DAESH, most of the Syrian north became under Kurdish control, in what came to be known as the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. Administrative and social changes are only small part of the problem, while education remains the biggest and worst problem on the short and long term. First challenge is the lack of teaching staff in the light of the increasing migration, and due to the fact that the area was partly dependent on teachers who came from other governorates. The second problem is that numbers of children dropping out are on the rise. Out of 2400 schools in Hasaka governorate, around 600 only are under Syrian government control and not of them are operating, the rest are under Kurdish control, and all schools in rural areas are closed.
In 75% of al-Hasaka schools, Syrian government curricula were banned there and replaced with Kurdish curricula. The new curricula are unaccredited by neither Syrian government nor any other government, meaning degrees obtained from these school programmes would not enable students to join universities later; this is an dilemma for both non-Kurdish and Kurdish students. People who designed those curricula are not specialists and not familiar with essentials and basics and methodologies of education, according to our contact in Hasaka, even teachers are finding it difficult to teach those books. So far, they have curricula till the 6th grade, next year they will have others ready for all elementary school and the year after for secondary school. As for grades that still do not have ‘Kurdish’ curricula, they kept the ones issued by the Syrian state but removed from them lessons and courses that do not go with Kurdish ideology.
Another big obstacle is language; Kurdish language is the language of the Kurdish minority only (less than 30% of population in Hasaka) and it was never taught in schools or institutions, so the majority of Kurds use it as a spoken language only, not for writing or reading, therefore neither children nor parents are capable of dealing with school books and programmes in Kurdish. Many Kurdish parents found that it was easier for them to let their children dropout school due to the futility of study under such circumstances. Arabic speakers study those curricula in Arabic, however, quality of those curricula still makes them unreachable for teachers, parents and students.
Some families have decided to resort to private tutoring, but with the increasing rise of life expenses this is a solution that not everyone can afford. Other families resorted to home-schooling, which is not popular in Syria, and found it so challenging as both parents are mostly obliged to work to secure family life. Some local communities, Syrian Arab Red Crescent, United Nations office in Hasaka, Assyrian Churches, and other civil groups are doing their best to secure a suitable environment for children to pursue their basic education and protect them from falling the abyss of ignorance by providing them with school books and giving them classes for free outside school. But unfortunately, very limited numbers of children have access to this education and the problem gets more serious every day.
This change in school programmes comes in the light of the attempt of the Kurdish administration to impose Kurdish language and culture after decades of being prohibited from teaching or studying Kurdish at schools, universities, or any other Syrian educational institutions due to the historical conflict between Kurds and the Syrian state. On the other hand, other minority groups like Assyrians and Armenians have had their schools and cultural organizations where they freely preserved their language and heritage without any restrictions from the Syrian government or people, and they have integrated with other ethnics and religious groups without any problems, and they are still offering their services for anyone who needs them in an attempt to overcome this crisis. The gap between all those diverse ethnic and religious groups is growing bigger as the Kurdish administration continues its authoritarian system of control which is by no means different from what it has long accused the Syrian state of.
It has been already 6 years of war, tens of thousands of children are deprived from their basic right to education, which leaves them in danger of child labour, illiteracy and threatens their future as they will be isolated from their society. Regardless of all political arguments or loyalties, everyone must be aware of the danger of education crisis in the Syrian north, a crisis which is not far from making the simple act of reading a bedtime story for kids there almost a dream..