Rachel-Rose O’Leary is a reporter at CoinDesk covering how cryptocurrencies are being used in areas of economic, social and political unrest. This article is part of her series from Rojava, Syria.
“It’s a first for Rojava and a first for the Middle East.”
That’s how 22-year-old programming student Mohamed Abdullah describes the Open Academy – a new school in North Syria, a de-facto autonomous region also known as Rojava.
The Open Academy is tackling one of the region’s greatest hurdles: the lack of education for young people as result of the Syrian Civil War.
North Syria achieved partial autonomy from Damascus in 2012. Since then, it has pioneered a form of government known as democratic confederalism and led the offensive against ISIS, the militant jihadist group that once held huge portions of Iraq and Syria.
“I had to pass through ISIS-held areas to get to university,” Abdullah told me, “I saw a lot of terrible things. They say the best part of life is university, but we didn’t live it as that.”
North Syria has been researching how technologies such as blockchain could complement its societal model, which is built on an ethos of decentralization.
Many of the students of the Open Academy are curious about bitcoin and blockchain, believing it offers dependability after years of turmoil.
“I don’t trust the Syrian pound, I don’t trust the American dollar, they are just paper. But bitcoin yes, we can trust it,” Abdullah said.
Before the war, Damascus forbade the Kurds from learning their own language and suppressed tech education. Schools adopted a highly authoritarian style, and corporal punishment was common.
Kurdish students can now study Kurdish, but North Syria’s education system has a lot of catching up to do in the tech field. Before delivering on blockchain projects, students need to master the basics of coding, all while coping with limited resources and the constant threat of conflict.
“This is a long development. It will take years,” says Redur Daristan, an electronics student from Afrin.
In the past six months, North Syria’s government has established learning centers across the territory (home to about 20 million people), each providing free tuition in tech and philosophy.
As well as studying code, students work through a reading list of world history and cultural theory, and the works of Kurdish ideologue Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader who inspired the North Syrian revolution.
According to officials, these texts enable students analyze the origin of prevailing political and economic theories and help situate the Civil War in a larger history of ideas.
“The main purpose of [our efforts] is to solve the problems of society,” said Azad Maxmud, one of the teachers at the Open Academy (everyday problems include war, economic pressure, broken infrastructure, and increasing water shortages). “The reason they study sociology, history and philosophy is to be aware of the problems and cut them from the root.”
Ocalan, who has been incarcerated on the Turkish prison island İmralı for the last 20 years, advanced developed democratic confederalism from his prison cell, which is a model for a stateless society that can exist without government oversight.
The theory helped shape North Syria’s governance structure, which consists of communes where people come together to take decisions at a local level. It’s here, Maxmud says, where blockchain can play a unique role. Using a distributed ledger for public accounting, communes can make their spending transparent and better manage collective resources, he argues.
“The economics of the federation consists of managing the resources between one commune and another. Blockchain can serve a big role in this,” he says.
The role of women
Women will play a key role in this development, Gerdun Sterk, a French woman who leads the media arm of the Open Academy, told me.
By offering women free education in technology and philosophy, North Syria can set an example not just for the Middle East, but all over the world, she argued. She cited gender imbalances across the technology industry – especially in blockchain – as an example of why this is necessary.
Sterk’s argument aligns with the aims of the broader North Syria project.
Women’s liberation has been a defining feature of the North Syrian revolution, with women actively encouraged to participate in the region’s governance. Many have also played a role in the armed struggle against ISIS.
According to Sterk, technology faces a similar struggle to the military when it comes to women’s involvement.
“There’s a similar narrative in tech as in the military, that women aren’t strong enough, they won’t understand it, and so on,” she said. “At the beginning, it was a big effort to inspire women to take their role in the armed struggle. It was difficult culturally.”
Technology can give women a political voice. “It’s an opportunity to shape society according to their own perspectives,” Sterk said. “Women can take part in developing decentralized technologies that are adapted to the needs of society.”
A new kind of education
Many young people in North Syria have been deprived of an education as a result of the war. Now some are too disillusioned to return. As such, the Academy is testing educational methods that are adapted to students who have lived through tyranny and war. In particular, it aims to teach students how to learn by themselves, so they don’t rely on a teacher figure.
It’s also designed to give the young people of North Syria hope in rebuilding their society – something that has been steadily eroded after 8 years of brutal conflict.
Daristan, the electronics student now at the academy, is originally from Afrin, one of North Syria’s most vibrant cities before Turkish forces seized it in 2018. She was walking to university to collect exam papers when the first bombs on Afrin started to fall.
The experience changed her feelings about traditional education. “In university, I can’t focus on study or the appeal of having a degree. It doesn’t mean anything to me now,” she said through a translator.
Daristan was forced out of Afrin following the invasion. She spent 6 months in a refugee camp before leaving to attend university. Now she skips class and spends her days coding in the school’s hack-labs.
She told CoinDesk:
“Technology has a real goal to it. In the Open Academy there is a vision, there is a goal. That is highly motivating and appealing.”
Note: For security reasons, the names of the people quoted in this article have been changed. Images from the author.