At a new university, Syrian Kurds build their own future

Why We Wrote This

Universities educate people, but they also support nations. For the Kurds of northern Syria clinging to their hard-won autonomy, Rojava University is providing the tools to build a community’s future.

Dominique Soguel
Syrian Kurdish students attend a lecture at Rojava University in Qamishli, Syria, March 19.

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After the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011, the nation’s Kurds established a solid degree of self-governance in the northeast. Kurdish nationalists refer to much of that area as Rojava – the western part of a Greater Kurdistan that also encompasses parts of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Rojava University, established in July 2016, has emerged as a beacon for the patriotic dreams of a generation of young Kurds.

Academic opportunities are expanding to meet society’s needs. Some of the faculties already in place reflect strategic vision – such as agricultural and petroleum engineering. Rojava also offers degrees in education, science, fine arts, finance administration, Kurdish literature, and genealogy.

“We paid a lot to establish this university,” says Massoud Mohammed, a computer engineer, lecturer, and administrator at the university. “I am happy teaching here and I want to pay what I must to build this society and make a better future.”

Yasmeen Suleimam is putting her heart and soul into Kurdish literature. “I want to strengthen my knowledge of Kurdish and teach the next generation,” she says. “This was the patriotic thing to do, so I chose it.”

Which university to attend? For Fatmah, a Kurdish college student in northern Syria, it had been an especially difficult choice.

The daughter of a welder and a housewife, she dreamed of studying construction engineering. But the stresses of the Syrian conflict – clashes in her hometown of Hassakeh between Kurdish and regime forces, attacks by Islamic State jihadists, and their entrenchment nearby – took their toll: lower grades and a failed first attempt at university entry exams.

When she passed in 2017, this time to study accounting, she “factored every scenario,” she says, sitting by a stove with family and friends.

Her first option was the government-run Euphrates University, an established institution right in Hassakeh. The other was the newly founded Rojava University, a nation-building institution that tugged at her Kurdish heartstrings, but was in Qamishli, about two hours away, owing to poor road conditions and checkpoints.

Doubtful of the long-term viability of Rojava University, even though one of her brothers was a founding member, she went with the hometown option.

“I thought maybe Rojava University would only last a year or two,” she says. “Now I regret not going there. Maybe I will teach there once I get my degree.”

The academic trenches

After conflict erupted in 2011, Syria’s Kurds established a solid degree of self-governance in northern and eastern Syria as regime forces withdrew to focus their fight on other fronts. Kurdish nationalists refer to much of the territory under their control as Rojava – the western part of a Greater Kurdistan that also encompasses parts of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.

The Kurds, who proved a solid ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic State, will be reluctant to give up their hard-won autonomy if peace should ever return to Syria. And Rojava University, established in July 2016, has emerged as a beacon of Kurdish dreams. It has come to represent the academic trenches of a generation of Kurds eager to contribute to the strengthening of their society, economy, and political life.

The cafeteria on campus – in a sleepy neighborhood in the west of Qamishli, just two kilometers from the government-controlled airport – is abuzz at lunchtime with chatter ranging from the lighthearted to the serious. Dozens of students converge at a lecture hall to hear a visiting American scholar.

Some of the university’s faculties that are already in place reflect strategic vision – such as agricultural engineering and petroleum engineering, important pillars for the economic success of the region.

 

Dominique Soguel
A greenhouse at Rojava University in Qamishli, Syria, March 19, 2019. Agriculture still contributes about a quarter of Syria’s GDP, and agricultural engineering is considered an important pillar for the economic success of the Kurdish northern region.

Despite the war, agriculture still contributes about a quarter of Syria’s gross domestic product, and a study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization found that roughly two-thirds of Syrian households grow food for consumption.

And Syrian Kurds currently control important oil fields. While the roads of these oil-rich areas may be rough, the oil pumps run perfectly smoothly, a much higher priority.

Rojava also offers degrees in education, science, fine arts, finance administration, Kurdish literature, and genealogy.

Answering society’s needs

“Each faculty was opened on the basis of the needs and opportunities of our society,” says Massoud Mohammed, one of four deputies at the university, which like all institutions in the Kurdish-controlled region has a co-presidency to ensure gender parity.

Until now, and to meet the region’s needs, says Mr. Mohammed, the university was running on a fast-track program. That meant, among other things, that an engineering degree could be obtained in two years rather than 3-1/2.

Rojava’s curriculum drew from other universities in the region that have internationally recognized degrees, including in Beirut, Cairo, and Iraqi Kurdistan. The first graduating class numbered 120 students. The goal now is to roll out master’s programs, to ensure that the diplomas issued are recognized beyond Rojava, and that the university stays open come what may.

“Our aim in establishing this university was to build specialists who can work in different fields of Rojava,” adds Mr. Mohammed, who is also a computer engineer and lecturer at the university. “I am happy teaching here and I want to pay what I must to build this society and make a better future,” he says. “We paid a lot to establish this university and schools and other organizations in Rojava. We will not leave them. This university has to be accepted by the government of Damascus if we have a peace process.”

That sentiment is echoed across a faculty of 150 teachers, all but two of whom are natives of the region, and a student body of nearly 1,000. Points of pride include an emphasis on morality as well as academic excellence; regular evaluations rather than the high-stakes annual exams that make or break the future of Syrian students enrolled at government-run institutions; and a culture of dialogue, with students having regular opportunities to interact with their teachers as peers.

The university also took in Kurdish students from Afrin who were displaced after Turkey occupied their town in Aleppo province, providing them with free dorms and a stipend. One of them is Runi Manan.

“I was studying dermatology, but that was not available here so I switched to biology,” he says. “My dream is to become a doctor.”

‘The patriotic thing to do’

For Elend, who comes from a landowning family, the obvious choice was agriculture. “Our region is rich in agriculture and it desperately needs to be developed,” she says on the sidelines of a class held inside a greenhouse.

Others, like Yasmeen Suleimam from Hassakeh, are putting their heart and soul into Kurdish literature. “I want to strengthen my knowledge of Kurdish and teach the next generation,” she says. “This was the patriotic thing to do, so I chose it.”

Syria’s Kurds are acutely aware that for now their patriotic dreams require successful coexistence with other ethnic and linguistic minorities, as well as Arabs who dispute many of their territorial claims.

In a strategy that mirrors the one used by Syrian governments for decades, inclusiveness is built into different institutions, from the military to the educational. A sixth-grade classroom in Qamishli had just one Arabic-speaking female student studying on her own, an opportunity for which she was deeply grateful. Next door, a Kurdish girl was just one of dozens learning English from a university teacher who moved to the city from Latakia.

The power of education was not lost on either girl. Asked separately what they would like to be when they grew up, each answered with a giant shy smile: “A teacher.”

Fatmah, who is now feeling more confident about Kurdish gains despite the uncertainty surrounding their alliance with the United States, also wants to be a teacher after she finishes her degree. Where? At least that choice is clear: at Rojava University.

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