Breakthrough in Syriac school crisis in Zalin (Qamishli) in North and East Syria, Olaf Taw Association explains to SuroyoTV

ZALIN, Syria — SuroyoTV recently interviewed Jalinos Eissa, an official of the Olaf Taw Association for the Syriac Language, and Kino Gabriel, former Syrian Democratic Forces spokesperson and a Beth Nahrin National Council official responsible for education policy, on the recent renewed tensions over the implementation of the 2018 agreement concluded between Olaf Taw and school council’s of the Syriac Orthodox Church. In 2018, the Olaf Taw Association and the schools of the Syriac Orthodox Church concluded an agreement in which the private schools of the Syriac Orthodox Church would adopt the Syriac curriculum developed by the Olaf Taw Association for the 2021/2022 school year. The Syriac Orthodox Church and the school board in Zalin (Qamishli) in North and East Syria has since refused to implement the curriculum.

On Wednesday evening, a solution was found which provides for the implementation of the 2018 signed agreement and introduction of the new Syriac curriculum for the first two school grades.

Below is a transcript of the interview, summarized and adjusted for readability.

Jacob Mirza: Why did you see the need to establish an educational institution for the Syriac language like Olaf Taw?

Jalinos Eissa: First of all, I would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to shed light on our organization’s mission and work. Olaf Taw was founded in 2014 to strengthen and enrich the Syriac language through a new curriculum and to train teachers in the Syriac language.

Since our establishment, our goal was to put together a complete curriculum in the Syriac language that can be taught in schools in North and East Syria. By complete I do not only mean education in the Syriac language for mainly liturgical purposes but education in the broadest sense of the word. Nor do I mean the distorted representation as used in the official curriculum [of the Syrian state] in which our history and our people do not appear as indigenous. We were taught [an Arabic] history which was not ours but was presented to us as ours. This was the reason why we saw the need to develop our own Syriac curriculum.

Syriac children of the sixth grade, for example, cannot compose a grammatically complete sentence or paragraph in the Syriac language. Arabic has primacy and stands in the way of the development of Syriac. Arabic certainly has a place in the new curriculum. It is a main subject, but with us Syriac comes first.

The current times and conditions in the region now offer us the opportunity to protect and develop the Syriac language. It gives us life; it gives us existence. Our homeland is Beth Nahrin (Mesopotamia) and Syria – the country which is in the name of the Syriac people. We stand for obtaining linguistic rights for our people, so that we become like all other free peoples.

JM: Where does Olaf Taw get its official status from and how is this official status visible? What status and rights does the Syriac language have in Gozarto? For example, can you teach Syriac during all school hours?

Kino Gabriel: This is a very fundamental question. Through the work of our umbrella organization, the Beth Nahrin National Council and the work of our movement as co-founders of the Autonomous Administration (AA), we have been able to establish the rights of the Syriac people in the constitution of the AA. This is expressed firstly in the official recognition of us as (indigenous) people in Syria and as a nation, and secondly, in the official recognition of our language in  Gozarto and in the AA as a whole. In addition, we have all cultural and religious rights like any other people in the AA, and the individual and collective right of free association.

This has enabled us to develop our [secular] institutions for our people here within the country.

JM: Can you please elaborate on the curriculum and school subjects, except of course for the language which is a basis subject in every curriculum?

JE: The curriculum that we have been working on since 2014 and which is ready for all 12 lower grades includes all subjects, such as mathematics and physics, just like any other curriculum. And they are all in Syriac now.

The most important thing for us in this phase, however, are the social subjects. What do our children learn about our people, what do they learn that specifically concerns us? For example, in our history books, we teach the history of our people and how the Assyrian, Aramean, Chaldean, Sumerian civilizations have traveled through history and how this heritage and civilization has been given to the whole world. The same goes for music lessons, where we use our eight standard Syriac musical scales as a basis.

JM: I want to touch on the textbooks of social subjects. I myself was educated at Turkish schools and there we were taught about Turkish historical figures, Turkish customs, Turkish religious denominations. Everything was Turkish. What is taught in the Syriac textbooks?

KG: This is very true, and not just for Turkey. In all the countries where we live, we have been educated on every subject in the way that those states want us to be educated. In Arab states, we are taught we are Arabs. In the Kurdish Region in Iraq, we are taught we are Kurds. Each state wants to color [our] history, religion, and society according to its own. They strongly deny the multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity of their societies.

The textbooks in our curriculum are officially recognized by the Autonomous Administration. The textbooks tell something about all the peoples in the AA, and they tell the history of our people truthfully. We now explain ourselves. We no longer allow our history to be imposed by another people or individual. In the AA, the Arabs, Kurds, and Armenians do this for themselves in the same way.

In the first three grades, pupils mostly learn their native language, history, and identity through the new curriculum. In higher grades, the students learn more and more about the other peoples we live alongside. This is very important because we live in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. The same teaching method is applied in the curriculum of the other peoples of the AA: all pupils learn about the other peoples, their customs, history, language, about the geography and country we live in.

JM: Who ultimately decides what history is taught in the textbooks?

JE: There is one point I would like to address upfront and in particular. It is said [by opponents of the Syriac curriculum] that other peoples [Kurds] influence the content and images of our Syriac curriculum textbooks. I want to make it very clear here that we do not allow anyone to include any teaching in our textbooks in a way that we do not want to. So, to answer your question, it is we who compose our own textbooks.

Regarding this, we have tried in every way possible to align and coordinate with other teachers and organizations. And we improve our textbooks where necessary in updated editions.

RelatedThe Olaf Taw Association and the Question of the Revival of Syriac Culture and Language in Gozarto

JM: In which grades and in which cities is the Syriac curriculum now taught?

KG: In Hasakah, Zalin (Qamishli), Qabre Hewore (Al-Qahtaniyah), and Dayrik (Al-Malikiyah).

On the one hand, we teach there in the private schools belonging to the different churches of our people. There, only the Syriac language, grammar, and music is taught in the first two grades. In the 2018 agreement that we concluded with the Church schools, Syriac language, grammar, and music would also be expanded this school year for the third and fourth grades. On the other hand, there are the schools which belong to the AA. Unfortunately, there are no Syriac pupils who are fully educated in the new Syriac curriculum in those schools. If there are Syriac pupils in these schools, they have the right to be fully educated in Syriac according to the Syriac curriculum in all grades.

In general, in the AA, the Syriac language is taught to the other peoples we live with, e.g., Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Circassians, as a language only. The law requires the teaching of Syriac because it is an official language. Later, pupils can opt also for English and French. In September 2021, the AA Education Authority decided that every student in official schools must learn the two other official languages of the AA in addition to their native language. This was an important step to learn each other’s language and culture and important for social understanding and coexistence.

In summary, all Syriac students have the right to be educated in their native language and the Syriac curriculum of the AA schools. Little or no use is made of this so far [most Syriacs are enrolled in the Syriac private schools]. And Syriac is taught as a subject to non-Syriac students.

In the Syriac private schools belonging to the Church, the Syrian state curriculum is still taught. We have not enforced the imposition of the complete Syriac curriculum on these schools because we do not see it in the immediate interest of our students to interrupt their ongoing studies and thus cut off their options for graduation and further study at home or abroad. We have never forced schools to completely replace the state curriculum. We originally started teaching Syriac language and music alongside the state curriculum. We do aim to increase and teach the other subjects in future based on the Olaf Taw curriculum at the Syriac private schools.

Mathematics lower grade textbook

JM: Is the Syriac curriculum taught in the schools in Hasakah, Zalin, Qabre Hewore, and Deyrik? We understand that this is not the case in Zalin?

JE: In Hasakah, Qabre Hewore, and Dayrik, Syriac language and music is taught in the first two grades by Olaf Taw teachers. Besides that, the other grades are taught regular Syriac from the textbook of Qarabashi. In Zalin, we have sent the textbooks to the private schools but no Olaf Taw teachers [are allowed by the schools].

JM: We learned that Wednesday evening there was a meeting. Who attended the meeting and what was its outcome?

KG: The meeting was between the Syriac Union Party (SUP), as mediator, the Syriac Orthodox Church schoolboard in Zalin, and the Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Gozarto. The SUP mediated to take away tensions of recent weeks and solve the dispute around the teaching of the Syriac language and music according to the Olaf Taw curriculum in the Syriac private schools in Zalin. The tensions arose with the non-implementation of the 2018 agreement. The agreement foresaw in the introduction this [school] year of the Syriac language, grammar, music, the use of Olaf Taw textbooks, and appointment of Olaf Taw teachers for the first two grades and the phased expansion by two grades every following year.

The meeting ended positive. Discussed were the detaining and questioning by the Sutoro for some hours of a member of the Syriac Orthodox schoolboard after official complaints of obstruction of the signed agreement. All sides also agreed not to let external powers interfere or use Syriac organizations as instruments of division within the Syriac community, and both sides reflected on their mistakes in the process. The meeting ended in mutual agreement — which was positive — to adhere to the signed 2018 agreement and go ahead with the introduction of the new curriculum for the first two grades in the Syriac private schools.

This phased introduction has also been applied to other comparable private Church schools, namely of the Assyrian Church of the East in Zalin. And the same process is followed with the school belonging to the Evangelical Church in Zalin.

JM: That is positive news for the Syriac people in the AA. What will be the next steps of the Olaf Taw Association in the process?

JE: One item on our list is to further develop our textbooks and teaching methods according to international standards. The long-term goal is to have the Syriac curriculum fully rolled out to all primary and secondary schools, so that our children learn their language, culture, and history in Syriac at least until university. We also want to create an international language organization which brings together all Syriac teachers in the world and which should result in a language institute which sets standards for our language.