The Kurdish self-administration in northern Syria has ordered the closing of Assyrian schools in Derik (Malikiyyah), Syria. Notices were issued by the governing Democratic Union Party (PYD) on August 7, 2018 to Assyrian schools in Derik, a diverse Syrian city in the Al-Hassakah governorate, ordering the school’s closure for failing to register for a license and rejecting the administration’s new curriculum.
These private schools are administered by the Syriac Orthodox Church Diocese and have been in operation since 1935, serving Assyrian, Arab, and Kurdish communities in the area. These schools follow the Syrian Government’s curriculum, but also offer classes in Syriac as a liturgical language.
The notice issued to one school in Derik reads (translated from Arabic):
“The school violates the provisions of law by teaching curricula that are not approved by the Education Authority; and the school has recently accepted new students from the first grade through third grade. For these reasons, we are issuing this notice ordering the closure of this school within 24 hours under legal obligation.” Read the full notice here.
A similar notice was issued to the Assyrian school in Derbesiye.
Since 2015, the PYD in Syria has attempted to impose a Kurdish nationalist curriculum onto all areas it governs. This curriculum centres all experience in the region in the Kurdish experience through histories and idealized maps of a Greater Kurdistan. It also glorifies the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group founded in Turkey with operations throughout the region, and celebrates its leader Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by several states including the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as international bodies such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The Assyrian schools have consistently rejected the proposed curriculum. In September 2016, Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Gozarto (Al-Hassakah) Maurice Amsih denounced the PYD’s attempts to force changes in their schools.
The Assyrian schools have been allowed to continue teaching their regular curriculum on two conditions: First: that only Christian students would be permitted to register. And second: that all children admitted to the school would need to be screened by the Kurdish authorities in order to identify Arab and Kurdish students before approval was given.
Many families, aware of the new directive, refused to disclose their ethnic background to bypass the local authority’s ordinance. Despite the numerous ethnic groups represented in these Assyrian school, classes are taught in Arabic to prevent any cultural barriers from inhibiting Arabs and Kurds from enrolling.
Kurdish authorities recently learned that Arab and Kurdish students continued to be admitted into these schools and have since ordered their closure on the premise that their curriculum is not in line with the PYD’s vision for education.
The Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), the oldest and most established Assyrian political organization in Syria, condemned the threats to close Assyrian schools in a statement published on August 9, 2018:
“We in the Assyrian Democratic Organization strongly condemn this arbitrary decision by the self-governing authorities, and we believe that it targets the Assyrian/Syriac people and exerts more pressure on them. It is in contrast with the administration’s stated goal for the unity of the country and contradicts the democratic claims that it boasts. The core of a democracy is education. We emphasize that this action reflects a narrowed vision and serves to undermine the rest of the educational process and deprive students of all components from continuing their studies by imposing certain ideologies upon them. Therefore, we demand that the self-governing authority to immediately reverse this decision, and allow the Syriac schools in Derik and Derbesiye to admit students of all components before the start of the school year.”
The Assyrian community in Syria fears that their schools in nearby Qamishli will be targeted next. The Assyrian Policy Institute spoke with an Assyrian resident of Qamishli who said: “These schools are recognized and approved by the Syrian government. The self-administration is taking advantage of the situation. Why should these schools have to accept their ideological teachings? This is far from a democratic process.”
The Assyrian schools continue to operate despite the PYD order which drew backlash from the local community.