When Eyub Mohamad was a boy, security forces beat his father into paralysis. His offense was typing leaflets in Kurdish, banned under Syria’s ruling Baath party.
Mohamad, with his family, fed and bathed his father for years. Wary of the typewriter that landed his father in interrogation rooms, he avoided learning to read his own language.
“I never saw my dad walking,” he said. “Till his last day, he believed he would get up for this cause.”
Mohamad’s father died in 2011, the year Syria’s conflict began. He did not see Kurdish fighters carve out autonomous rule across north and east Syria. He did not see his son, now 34, become a teacher at a Kurdish school in the city of Qamishli on the border with Turkey.
Kurdish leaders now hold about a quarter of Syria, the biggest chunk outside state hands. But their grip on power – in a region rich in oil, farmland and water – remains vulnerable: President Bashar Assad wants all of Syria, Turkey threatens to crush them and U.S. support is wavering.
The changes reshaping swaths of Syria have alarmed neighboring states that fear separatism within their own Kurdish communities. Millions of Kurds, an ethnic minority left stateless when the Ottoman empire collapsed a century ago, live in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
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In Qamishli, these changes were once unimaginable. A law student who was tortured for carrying a Kurdish book now owns a bookstore. A woman who once secretly huddled with friends at night to learn Kurdish is now a de facto education minister.
Kurdish activists who could not protest without risking arrest now have printing presses, festivals and television channels.
The shift is glaring in school hallways where, for eight years, a generation has grown up not only learning Kurdish but also learning to believe that Kurds deserve the rights they were denied for decades and must hold on to them.
“We never imagined this. This was a dream,” said Semira Haj Ali, who co-chairs the education board in the northeast. “Of course, we will not go back to before 2011. We will not turn back.”
Sandbags and trenches
Syrian Kurdish leaders say they do not seek independence but want to cement autonomy that has evolved to include security forces and what amounts to a government.
Yet the sandbags and trenches around some schools or the armed men guarding printing presses show their fate still hangs in the balance. On one side, there is the Turkish army, which has swept across the border twice to roll back the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria.
On another, there is Assad, now holding most of Syria with Russia and Iran’s help. Damascus has pledged to reclaim YPG territory though the two have kept channels open.
Their main ally, the United States, helped Kurdish-led forces seize vast territory from the Islamic State. But it opposes their autonomy plans and has promised nothing. President Donald Trump’s plan last year to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria threw Kurdish officials into crisis.
Washington later changed course and intends to leave some troops, along with forces from European allies, preserving for now the security umbrella that helped Kurdish leaders deepen their autonomy.
In the early days of Syria’s conflict, when Haj Ali and other activists tried introducing a Kurdish class, the government shut down the schools.
“With the parents and the students, we broke down the doors,” she said. Months later, state employees returned.
Today, she heads an education board running thousands of schools and universities, and teaching adults to read Kurdish. It has built a curriculum in Kurdish, Arabic and the Syriac dialect for pupils to learn in their mother tongue, renouncing the Baathist thinking that championed Arab nationalism in the classroom.
It teaches children until the 10th grade, up to age 16. In secondary schools however, inside the same buildings, state teachers still handle the 11th and 12th grade.
“They succumbed to the reality,” said Haj Ali, a member of the Kurdish PYD party, the YPG’s political wing. Next year, her board will start teaching the 11th grade too.
The plans face opposition not just from the government but also from some Arab communities, Kurdish parties opposed to the PYD and parents who fear for their children’s future, several teachers said.
The schools in northeast Syria, like the self-run administration, are not recognized officially by the state or the outside world.
In response to questions from Reuters, Syria’s Education Ministry said it repeatedly tells all schools to keep the government curriculum for the benefit of the students and for degrees to remain valid abroad.
Some feel they have sacrificed too much to turn back now. Preschool director Nujin Kali said her husband, a YPG fighter, had died so she could do her job.
“Honestly, I asked him what if something happens to you?” she recalled. “He said, ‘I’m doing this for your children’s future ... for them to learn their language, for people not to lose their rights.’”
Despite historic enmity, Kurdish fighters and Damascus have seldom clashed during Syria’s war, at times fighting common enemies including Turkey-backed rebels.
This relationship enabled the state to hold on to patches of Qamishli, including an airport that flies planes to Damascus, and of Hasaka city nearby. It has also allowed for Kurdish leaders to make money from oil sold into government territory.
Funds also come from levies on trade, agriculture and border-crossing fees.
Residents register births, marriages and deaths at state centers in Qamishli and Hasaka, while the self-run administration issues driving licenses and other documents.
Senior Kurdish leader Fawza Youssef said such ties enabled people to get on with their daily lives.
Still, attempts to negotiate a political deal with Damascus have gone nowhere, causing fears for Kurdish authorities who want to safeguard their gains.
They hope such a deal would also help shield their region from attack by Turkey, which deems the YPG a branch of the Kurdish PKK movement waging an insurgency on Turkish soil.
In northern Syria, another source of tension is that local critics accuse the PYD of calling the shots and imposing its ideas even in city councils that include Arabs and other ethnicities.
At the institute that sets the curriculum in the town of Amuda, the walls bear pictures of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The northern region’s new governing system is based on his views of federalism, though the PYD says it has only political relations with the PKK.
Teachers say the curriculum does not promote any ideology but presents Ocalan’s ideas along with others in classes such as “culture and ethics” or gender studies.
The questions of how to govern and what to teach have caused friction in mainly Arab cities and towns in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor that came into the Kurdish fold more recently.
Abdallah Shekho’s shop in Qamishli sells books he translated with friends into Kurdish. He said the northeast, whose economy was long stifled, still relies on Damascus in some ways because it lacks equipment and experts.
In the past, people burned Kurdish books out of fear or buried them in their villages to keep them safe, Shekho said.
“[In] this region, God forbid, if there is an attack from the regime or another side, we will have to burn these books or bury them underground again.”