Translated from German by Laura Altinsoy
Seeing that there is the readiness to help us
Gulistan Sido, University of Rojava
The University of Rojava in Qamişlo published a call for support through the provision of material, exchange of ideas and building bridges of solidarity. We interviewed Gulistan Sido (responsible for external affairs at the University of Rojava), to find out more about the history, future projects and the challenges this university faces.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Gulistan Sido. Originally, I come from Efrîn, but I was born in Aleppo. That is where I studied, later also in France. When events kicked off in Syria in 2011, I was working in Kurdish language institutions. When the Rojava revolution began on 19 July 2012 in Kobanê, it brought with it wide-ranging changes in many areas of life. It was a social revolution, a women’s revolution but also a revolution of language.
In other parts of Syria, the revolution became militarised and led to chaos, as we can still witness today – amongst other things that led to the destruction of the most important infrastructure of the country. During that time, I worked in the canton Efrîn and founded in 2013 the first institute for Kurdish language and literature “Viyan Amara”. Forced by the Turkish invasion, we had to leave the region and I joined the University of Rojava in Qamişlo, where I am responsible for international relations.
Can you tell us about the history of the University of Rojava?
The university was founded in 2016 in Qamişlo. This is the second experience with higher education since the revolution as there has been a university in Efrîn since 2015. We began with few disciplines, which were at the beginning mainly Kurdish language and literature, agriculture and petrochemistry. Little by little we have added more disciplines and expanded the university’s range. For instance, we are opening a department for Arabic language and literature soon. We have regulations in writing and an internal charter that stipulates the core values and norms that underpin the educational system. We believe that the university is the fruit of the revolution and therefore we cannot separate the values that underpin the educational system from the revolution. We try to improve our educational system by communicating with other universities to find out how they operate. However, we do not want to abandon our local culture because it is important to us.
Which challenges did you encounter and what does the current situation look like?
Working conditions were hard, especially because of the war and the corresponding security issues. Nevertheless, we advanced steadily. We also took in students from Efrîn, who were not able to finish their studies due to the Turkish invasion. We take in students from all regions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Since the foundation of the university, more than 1500 students came here to study. The number of registered students changed every year, of course depending on the situation at large. Unfortunately, due to terrorist attacks many students leave the country. It proves difficult for them to continue their studies under the present conditions.
Currently, there are 250 graduates, particularly from the field of Jineolojî, agriculture and Kurdish literature. We are also currently considering introducing advanced courses for Masters degrees and postdoctoral degrees. At the moment we are faced with a lack of specialists that can teach. Many professors and graduates have also left the country.
For this reason, we currently provide higher education with the help of people that studied in Aleppo or Damascus. Moreover, we are trying to recruit more teachers as we are experiencing a massive shortage in that area.
How is the University of Rojava organised?
As in any institution that was founded after the revolution, we work together in different councils and committees. Moreover, we hold a congress every semester and general assemblies in which we discuss the most important goals and our learning methods. We use this moment to evaluate our educational system.
We have an autonomous women’s council that works at the university. We have our separate processes but in one council; we make decisions about the things that affect us and where we can also discuss problems in the absence of men. There is also an autonomous students’ council and we find it necessary to get their input when making decisions. Every department has student representatives that sit with the professors in the councils. Despite still facing many challenges at the academic level and having many deficits, we believe in our project. We believe that it is possible to change the mentality of a generation. Although we have only been in existence for four years, we are faced with a wide range of challenges.
In what way are the different languages spoken in Rojava considered in academic education?
In Rojava three main languages are spoken: Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian. We have stipulated in the social contract that every ethnic group can learn their mother tongue. From primary school onwards we give languages a high priority. Every child learns in their mother tongue. However, there are also courses offered where the children can learn other languages. All this was not possible under the regime’s educational system.
At the moment we teach in two languages at the university, namely Arabic and Kurdish. However, we want to make space for other languages. And of course, the doors are open to our Assyrian friends, if they want to open a department for language and literature. We think of everyone, the doors are open to all. It is important to ensure everyone’s right to learn in the language of their choosing.
Furthermore, we are going to open an institute of folklore, which will be dedicated to collecting texts, stories, oral literature and songs in any language. In terms of culture and language, this is a very rich region and we must create an institute that captures this multiplicity and brings it all in one place.
What do your relations with other Syrian universities look like?
In Syria, we do not have a connection to the universities of Aleppo and Damascus, as the regime does not recognise our administration on a political level. The Baath party holds on to its mentality that is based on the oppression and denial of otherness. For them, there is only one nation, one flag, one language. Our paradigm is totally different, which is why it has proved difficult to establish relations with them. Our model is tailored to the needs of society. The universities of Damascus and Aleppo are recognised, nevertheless commencing relations depends on the political status of Rojava. We are not recognised administratively by the Syrian state, and consequently, we do not maintain relations with other Syrian universities. We do not share the same conception regarding the educational system, as well as multiplicity.
Does this lead to an expansion of the search beyond the territorial borders of Syria?
We try to go beyond limits as an educational institution. To open new doors and find new pathways. We want to build new relationships with universities that share our values, like women’s liberation, democracy, multiculturalism, and secular education. With these core values that we carry over to other projects, we want to knock on the doors of the world’s universities. The Rojava revolution has been renowned for some years, as our region became famous in its resistance against the so-called Islamic State. However, it is also time to represent the political experience of Rojava in all its facets and not only from its militaristic side. The social revolution as well as women’s liberation are essential aspects of our educational system.
Recently you called for support on an international level. Could you say more about that?
On 19 July 2020, the eighth anniversary of the Rojava revolution, we launched our international solidarity campaign. The call was aimed at academics that could help us. Supporting the resistance in Rojava also means supporting its educational system. It has been one month since we started this campaign, and we already received much support. There is a strong sense of international solidarity, everyone wants to help us. Although the global situation is difficult due to COVID-19, what is important to us is to see people’s willingness to help us. This gives us much strength and helps us to persevere. That is why I would like to use this interview to extend my thanks.
What kind of international solidarity did you receive?
We mention multiple ways in our call how best to support us. The first thing that we are working on is a large collection of books and scientific articles, as we need references in our library. The main issue that we are facing in this area is getting all these books here, as we have many donations from all around the world.
Any kind of content is welcome. Many academics have offered to give lectures and seminars. We are also in contact with work groups to get academic consultation and improve our educational system. We are particularly looking for support in the field of social sciences and gender studies, as we would like to open an institute shortly that teaches these disciplines. We are facing great challenges regarding languages. Although our pupils learn foreign languages, we need translators to make some pedagogical content more accessible. The next steps will be introduced by forming working committees on different kinds of solidarity to coordinate the helping mechanisms better. Soon, we will be able to provide more details on how to support us.
This article was originally published in Kurdistan Report no. 215 for May/June 2021