For decades, Kurds in Syria were systematically marginalized. Many weren’t allowed to receive Syrian nationality, and openly speaking Kurdish language or practicing Kurdish culture were both illegal. As recent as 2004, Kurdish demonstrators in Syria were brutally suppressed in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.
This all changed in 2012, when government troops– stretched thin by the Syrian civil war– began to withdraw from Kurdish-majority areas in northeastern Syria. Since these retreats, the Kurds have been able to openly practice Kurdish culture and speak Kurdish language without the fear of systematic repression.
Kurdish Culture Everywhere
Today, life in Qamishli–which the Kurds are calling Rojava, “Western Kurdistan” in Kurdish– is vastly different. Drive down the streets in Qamishli and you’ll see Kurdish symbols everywhere. Road signs are written in Kurdish, and posters of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan adorn the roadways throughout the region.
Almost all the Kurds in the region can speak Kurdish, but few can read or write. Although Kurdish language centers were open before the Syrian government left in 2012, popularity of these courses has exploded since the government left.
Language centers in Rojava offer courses in Kurmanji, also known as Northern Kurdish, which is widely spoken in Turkey, Syria and parts of Iraq and Iran. There is no age requirement for students, and many students are adults. Forty-five-year-old Mazhar Sheiko is Kurdish and is proud of his newfound studies.
I am proud to learn my mother tongue at an academic level. [I am] realizing my childhood dream.
Rojava: A Fledgling Democracy
Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, is rapidly becoming known as a model of Kurdish democracy and Kurdish culture. Known for its religious, ethnic and gender requirements for political positions, Rojava is quickly establishing itself as a legitimate governing body in northeastern Syria.
To win support from the Kurds of Rojava, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently granted citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds. For their part, the Kurds in Rojava have remained relatively neutral in relation to the Syrian government, choosing to spend most of their energy fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which is infringing on the western borders of the region.
With the help of Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq, Kurdish PKK forces from Turkey, and a U.S.-led coalition, Kurds from Rojava liberated Kobani from an ISIS siege in December 2014. In recent months, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, has pushed ISIS from the border between Kobani, connecting the two main “cantons” of Rojava.[Read more at the Daily Star]