QAMISHLI — In the town of al-Jawadiya, in the countryside of Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, Amira al-Rafadi, 45, spends her days trying to soothe her longing for “my little ones,” as she calls them, through video calls over WhatsApp.
Ten months ago, al-Rafadi’s 16-year-old son Ahmad embarked on a difficult smuggling journey to the Netherlands. His mother was initially opposed to the idea, preferring he stay by her side in Syria, but changed her mind “because, as a mother, I have to think about his future more than anything else,” she said.
Concerns for his education played a large role in her decision. Before leaving Syria, Ahmad attended a school run by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which “adopts an unrecognized curriculum, so the fate of my youngest son had to be like that of his older brother, who reached Germany years ago,” al-Rafadi told Syria Direct. “Europe is the solution to ensure a successful future.”
Since 2017, irregular migration from Syria through smuggling has increased owing to the fallout of the ongoing war in the country. According to European Union statistics, minors made up 25 percent of all first-time asylum applicants in 2022, with Syrians forming the largest group within that number, at 20 percent. Of 222,100 total minor asylum seekers in 2022, 19 percent were unaccompanied.
Al-Rafadi has four sons and two daughters. Until 2016, they lived in the eastern Homs city of Palmyra, her husband’s hometown. But when the Islamic State (IS) attacked the area where they lived seven years ago, the family fled to her native al-Jawadiya.
By the time they fled, al-Rafadi had already said goodbye to her eldest son. In 2015, he left for Germany when he was 19 years old. “He lost his university studies in Syria and was detained by the security services during the first months of the revolution,” his mother said.
A struggle over education
Since the Syrian revolution broke out in the spring of 2011 and developed into a war, Syrians have found themselves living in a country split into different areas, each ruled by its own de facto authorities. Each of these authorities adopts its own system of administration and services, as well as its own educational system, with its own certificates and curriculum.
In northeastern Syria, education is the site of a struggle over curricula and recognition between the AANES and the Syrian regime. Since most schools came under AANES administration in 2014, the de facto authorities have prohibited teaching a curriculum other than its own. The Damascus government, meanwhile, does not recognize diplomas issued by the AANES.
The AANES Education Board holds that Syrian Kurds and other minorities in northeastern Syria have the right to be educated in their mother tongue. Damascus limits education to the Arabic language and the curriculum used by the central state. Caught in the middle, the futures and literacy of thousands of children are at stake.
Damascus’ Ministry of Education only recognizes the schools it runs, located within the regime’s two security squares in Hasakah city and Qamishli, as well as private schools that use its curriculum. But most schools in the area are affiliated with the AANES, and private schools are expensive, only accessible to children of the upper class. Tuition for one semester can reach around SYP 1 million (around $113 according to the current black market exchange rate of SYP 8,875 to the dollar). Meanwhile, the average income in the area ranges from SYP 300,000-700,000 ($34-79).
Damascus’ Director of Education in Hasakah, Ilham Surkhan, told local news site Athr Press in October 2022 that there were 134,891 students in the province being accommodated in 146 schools and five government buildings being used as schools to meet the need in regime-controlled areas. She said there were 2,285 school buildings across the province, but “some of them were vandalized and destroyed,” alleging “the largest portion were converted into weapons depots and military headquarters for the SDF.”
Property finances migration
Facing this education crisis in northeastern Syria, Eyad al-Ahmad, 35, also took the risk of sending a child abroad: his 10-year-old son, Wissam. “At least there he’ll learn to read and write,” the father told Syria Direct from his home in Qamishli city.
Al-Ahmad saw no alternative, save for “education in a private school, for no less than SYP 2 million a year in school fees, not to mention the rest of the costs, such as stationery,” he said.
Like al-Rafadi, al-Ahmad, who has four children, was initially hesitant about his son migrating, “especially because the route is extremely dangerous, and Wissam is still a child,” he said. But his son insisted, and the family hoped that he “could do family reunification for his siblings, to bring them out of the unknown in this country,” al-Ahmad said. “He left a year ago, with a family we knew.”
To cover the costs of their children’s migration, both al-Ahmad and al-Rafadi had to sell pieces of their property.
Al-Rafadi, whose house in Palmyra was damaged by a rocket during the 2016 battles between IS and the regime, sold a share of her inheritance—a commercial store—to fund Ahmad’s trip, which cost $20,000. Al-Ahmad sold his car and a piece of land for $25,000 to pay for “my son Wissam’s migration costs, $22,000,” he said.
A future worth the risk?
In the Netherlands, Ahmad Bahauddin, al-Rafadi’s son, reflected on his journey out of Syria last year. “Fleeing Syria for Europe was much more difficult than fleeing IS when we were in Palmyra, when I was eight years old,” he told Syria Direct.
Bahauddin’s journey began on May 17, 2022, from the city of Ras al-Ain, which is controlled by Ankara-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) factions. From there, he passed through Turkey, onwards to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and then to Austria. Finally, he reached the Dutch city of Sneek, where he currently lives.
Over the course of his travels, Bahauddin and the group he was with became lost in European forests, and had to drink contaminated pond and swamp water. He grew ill, contracting an infection he is still receiving treatment for today. In Bulgaria, he was detained in a closed camp for 15 days, during which time he was subjected to sexual and psychological violence, he said.
Those migrating to Europe generally travel in groups, and Bahauddin said he made the journey with more than 20 children between the ages of 10 and 16. “Together, we shared the hunger and fear of the unknown,” he added. “What fault do we have, as children, to pay the price for circumstances we have nothing to do with?”
In 2022, the Austrian government reported that around 4,500 unaccompanied minors who applied for asylum in that country the previous year subsequently went missing. In 2021, around 5,770 total unaccompanied children arrived in the country, of whom 1,345 were Syrian. Most of those who disappeared likely went to join relatives in other European countries, as in Bahauddin’s case.
Increasing numbers of unaccompanied children have been migrating to Europe since around 2017, according to Taha al-Ghazi, a Turkey-based activist in refugee issues. “Before that, migration processes were for groups of youth that included adults,” he told Syria Direct.
Al-Ghazi thought it unlikely for education to be the primary motivation behind children’s migration, noting that there are other reasons, including family reunification. “From sending a son, every family aims to get family reunification, especially since European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and others simplified the procedures,” he said.
Regardless of the main motive driving children’s migration, there are an estimated 800,000 students across northeastern Syria studying the unrecognizedAANES curriculum, according to a source in the AANES Education Board. And for families Syria Direct spoke to, education concerns were, alongside family reunification hopes, one factor pushing them to send their children on irregular migration routes despite the risks.
Al-Ahmad’s son, Wissam al-Ahmad, is now in the Netherlands “after a three-month journey, during which I was very afraid of the forests and the military on the borders,” he told Syria Direct. The hardest part was “in the Bulgarian forests, when we were cut off from food and water for three days,” he added.
Wissam’s aspirations are to become a famous soccer player, and for a better future for himself and his brothers. He hopes they will reunite in Europe, the dream of “us learning together, me and them, in safety,” kept him going on his journey, he added.
Ahmad believes his own journey was worth the risk. “The Netherlands was the only way out for me to become a structural engineer and a soccer player,” he said.
This report was produced as part of Syria Direct’s MIRAS Training Program for early-career journalists in northeastern Syria. It was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.