Kurdish forces now hold about a quarter of Syria, ruling across the north and east of the country.
Kurdish activists who previously could not protest without risking arrest now have printing presses, festivals and even television stations. The area even has what amounts to its own government.
These changes have led neighboring states to fear separatism within their own Kurdish communities. Millions of Kurds live in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
The Turkish army has come across the border twice to push back the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. And the Syrian government has also pledged to take back YPG territory.
Syrian Kurdish leaders say they do not seek independence but instead want to keep some amount of autonomy.
Semira Haj Ali is a member of the political wing of the YPG. She leads education efforts in Kurdish – controlled areas of northeast Syria.
In the early days of Syria’s conflict, Haj Ali and other activists tried introducing a Kurdish class. The Syrian government shut down the schools.
Today, she heads an education group running thousands of schools. It has built a curriculum in Kurdish, Arabic and the Syriac dialect for students to learn their native language.
“We never imagined this. This was a dream,” said Haj Ali, speaking about young students who have grown up learning Kurdish.
“With the parents and the students, we broke down the doors,” she said. Months later, state employees returned. “Of course, we will not go back to before 2011. We will not turn back,” said Haj Ali.
The Syrian government does not recognize the schools in the northeast, nor does it recognize the Kurdish administration.
Relationship with Damascus and the PKK
During the war in Syria, Kurdish fighters and Syrian government forces have rarely clashed. At times, they fought common enemies including Turkey-backed rebels.
This relationship let the Syrian government hold onto part of Qamishli, including an airport that flies planes to the capital city of Damascus.
It has allowed Kurdish leaders to make money from oil sold in government territory. And the self-run administration also issues documents to its own people.
Still, attempts to negotiate a political deal with the Syrian government in Damascus have gone nowhere.
The lack of a deal has caused concern among Kurdish leaders. They want to keep the gains they have made. They hope such a deal would help protect their region from attack by Turkey, which says the YPG is a branch of the Kurdish PKK movement.
Critics also accuse the YPG of imposing its ideas in city councils that include Arabs and other ethnicities. At an education institute in the town of Amuda, the walls even have pictures of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
The PKK, labeled a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey, is fighting against the Turkish government.
Some Kurdish people believe they have sacrificed too much to turn back now. Nujin Kali is a pre-school director. She said her husband, a YPG fighter, died so she could do her job.
She added that he said, “I’m doing this for your children’s future… for them to learn their language, for people not to lose their rights.”
Abdallah Shekho owns a bookstore in Qamishli. He noted the uncertainty of the situation in the area: “… 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.”
I'm John Russell.
Ellen Francis reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
festival – n. a special time or event when people gather to celebrate something
autonomy – n. the state of existing or acting separately from others
activist – n. a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) to help make changes in politics or society
curriculum – n. the courses that are taught by a school, college, etc.
regime – n. a particular government
underground – adv. located or occurring below the surface of the earth
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