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Higher Education amidst War and Revolution: University and Radical Pedagogy in Northeast Syria

RoundTable I-5, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
The proposed round table reflects on the experience of building a university that is based on radical pedagogies in Rojava or the autonomous region of North and East Syria. The round table brings together a group of committed scholars of Kurdish Studies who are assisting the University of Rojava in planning and proposing its educational programs at different levels. We will discuss their work with the University of Rojava, and the many challenges this university is facing on a daily basis in its educational strategies and everyday operations. The University of Rojava was founded on July 4, 2016, in Qamishli in Rojava or North and East of Syria under the exceptional circumstances of the ongoing war and conflict in this country. This university was established based on principles of democratic confederalism and re-establishment and re-development of educational institutions after the beginning of the Rojava revolution in 2012. The university’s mandate has been to adopt advanced global experiences in higher education while promoting academic freedom, equity and justice in its programs in line with the core objective of the Rojava Revolution, which is to build an egalitarian, non-hierarchical, democratic-autonomous, and ecological society in Rojava/North and East of Syria. The University of Rojava aims to achieve emancipatory knowledge production and adopt radical pedagogies that negate hierarchies and discriminations based on race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, and religion. It supports education and knowledge production in multiple-languages and ensures the accessibility of its programs. The participants of this roundtable will share their experiences on different aspects of establishing an institution for higher education amidst the ongoing war in the region and based on revolutionary and radical principles. We will also discuss the new opportunities that online tools and platforms have provided to the University of Rojava to expand its teaching capacity and develop networks of academic collaborations with scholars around the world. 
  • Mr. Sardar Saadi -- Organizer, Chair
  • Gulay Kilicaslan -- Presenter
  • Anna Rebrii -- Presenter
  • Ms. Atefeh Ramsari -- Presenter
  • Ms. Atefeh Ramsari
    Research in a War Zone: Training Young Researchers at the University of Rojava My contribution to this roundtable aims to explore the theoretical and methodological challenges of conducting research in social sciences and training graduate student-researchers in Rojava during the exceptional time of war and revolution. While the mainstream sociological view might focus on inequality in access to education, non-academic interventions, etc., this study gives an insight to expansive methodological challenges in conducting academic research in the time of relentless conflicts in the Middle Eastern context where the plurality and hostility of ethnic-religious identities among individuals fuels social differentiation and divisions. My contribution is based on my experiences in working with a group of young graduate students at the University of Rojava, training them in methodology, and preparing them to conduct their own independent research in the future in Rojava during the ongoing conflicts that have besieged the region. I discuss the complex articulations of (re)making boundaries and the ability of this process to obstructing research procedure in the environment of war in Rojava or north and east of Syria. By focusing on the various steps of data collection, this work will show that disparate belongings put a distance between the researcher and the subjects of the research, and this is a major challenge that young scholars at the University of Rojava have to cope with. I will talk about different challenges that researchers might be facing in such an environment, for instance in the very initial phase of sampling, how to get access to potential participants, to convince them to voluntarily participate in the research, and to create a trustworthy relationship is profoundly affected by the positions and boundaries. In war circumstances, ‘positionality’ emerges as an immense challenging issue. By the same token, boundaries by bringing bias into sampling could call the ‘representativity’ into question. The personal background, language, and political position of researcher and gatekeepers as well lead to recruiting a homogenized group of interlocutors, and for student-researchers in Rojava, this could affectively change their original research objectives. I consider political and social boundaries as determining factors to shape not only the characteristic of the target group but also the responses and reactions. Hence ‘reliability’ could be listed as another issue. According to empirical data, the individual’s position determines the mode of engagement in the research and the info they share Keywords: Boundaries, Fieldwork, Methodology, Rojava, War
  • Anna Rebrii
    English Teaching as a Practice of Academic Solidarity and Radical Pedagogy My contribution will address several issues that I have encountered while teaching English at and recruiting international volunteers for the University of Rojava, which was founded in the autonomous North East Syria as part of what many consider to be an ongoing revolutionary transformation in the region. I will raise the questions of international academic solidarity, exigencies of global academia, radicalizing and decolonizing pedagogy, and challenges of teaching under war conditions. The normalization of remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for the supporters of the Rojava revolution from all over the world to contribute to the development of Rojava’s educational system fully online. Yet, as the experience at the newly established University of Rojava has shown, the globalized academia comes with its pitfalls: the knowledge of English—"the dominating academic language"—is a prerequisite for a productive academic exchange and collaboration, while the lack of it confines one to the bottom of the global hierarchy of knowledge production. In our effort to support the University of Rojava, we are thus compelled to address the role of English language in building a self-sufficient and self-sustaining institution of higher learning that can insert itself into and be recognized by the global academic community. Further, those of us who contribute to Rojava's educational system by teaching English are faced with the question as to how teaching a language can be approached not merely as a means to an end but as a practice of radical pedagogy in itself. What approaches can we develop to decolonize the methods and content of the conventional English education systems that have been recognized as carriers of linguistic and cultural imperialism? How do we balance our commitment to radical education and anti-systemic values of the revolution and the need to meet the standards and demands of global academia, especially given the lack of political recognition of the de facto autonomous region and the consequent non-recognition of its educational system? Finally, this contribution will touch on the challenges of teaching under the conditions of an ongoing war. What kind of sensibility does teaching in a region under occupation and a constant threat of further invasion call for? What compromises does war impose on the commitment to radical pedagogy, and what kind of solidarity is needed to ensure the survival of Rojava's fledgling educational system?
  • Gulay Kilicaslan
    ​​Academic Solidarity in the Times of War and Violence My contribution to the roundtable discussion will revolve around exploring the practices and challenges of establishing a network of solidarity among the activist-academics who are committed to radical pedagogies. Challenging the hegemonic power structures embedded in the academic spaces and knowledge production in the Middle East and beyond, I aim to discuss possible ways of providing support to a university that works toward building up alternative educational spaces and methodologies. My intervention comes from my experiences with mobilizing a group of volunteers teaching English through online tools to the students living under war conditions in Rojava or North East and Syria, as well as a group of activist-academics striving to realize an alternative administrative structure of knowledge production that goes beyond the hierarchical understanding of an academic institution. The University of Rojava was established in an environment of hostility from all nation-states surrounding the Rojava region. And this has created many security concerns for the academics in the region, especially in Turkey, about how they can show their solidarity with the university. Navigating through these obstacles and concerns has greatly affected collegial collaborations from the Middle East so much that many activist-academics, particularly from Turkey and Iran, have to reconsider their potential support for the University of Rojava due to their fear of retaliation by their governments against them. Reflecting upon these dynamics in the context of available resources for radical pedagogies under war conditions, I will firstly discuss what forms of academic collaborations and solidarity can be developed to challenge state-centric approaches to higher education institutions, and secondly, what kind of methods can be used to expand emotional and material resources of alternative academic spaces that were formed following a revolution.