Revisiting the Erasure of Kurdish Identity in Syria

Growing up as a Kurd in the country was a scarring experience for children that included the denial of one’s own name

Revisiting the Erasure of Kurdish Identity in Syria
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine.

For years growing up, I was always disturbed when someone asked me why I have two names. Not because I do not like my two names, but because being asked about them awakens a deep sense of anguish, pain and inferiority in me, and reminds me of others’ antipathy toward my identity.

When I was born, my parents named me Ronahi, which means “the illumination” or “daylight” in Kurdish. I was born in Syria in the 1970s, when the Baathist government of Hafez al-Assad ruled the country. The Baath Party was the ruling political party in a system characterized by one-party rule and authoritarian control. It is still the ruling party, now under the control of President Bashar al-Assad.

When my father registered my birth, the employee responsible for registering names rejected my Kurdish name and substituted it with “Lonai,” which is not a recognized Arabic name and has no meaning. Like me, thousands of Kurds in Syria have two names: one for official registration in Arabic and the other for our family and friends.

In primary school, we had to introduce ourselves in class to our predominantly Arab teachers. I vividly recall an incident from my second year in school when one of my classmates, a Kurdish girl named Newroz, was asked to stand and answer a question. She hesitated, unable to respond — the majority of us did not speak or understand Arabic, having been brought up speaking Kurdish — and when the teacher inquired about her name, she timidly replied, “Newroz,” a name signifying the Kurdish New Year.

In a shocking display of brutality, the Arab teacher violently pulled Newroz’s hair and repeatedly slammed her head into the desk. Her nose began to bleed, and we watched in petrified silence, paralyzed by terror. The teacher’s aggression continued as Newroz lost control of her bladder, and we noticed a small puddle at her feet.

The teacher’s rage showed no mercy as she continued to strike Newroz’s trembling body. Finally, the teacher dismissed her, instructing her to go home, leaving all of us to grapple with the grim memories of that day.

Given these realities of my childhood, I was so happy that my Arabic name generally hid my Kurdish identity. Like any child, I wanted to be safe and unharmed. But because my name was unique and unheard-of in the Middle East, some curious teachers would inquire about its origin. Then I would have to admit that I, too, was a Kurd.

I often wish I could have just one name, a simple one that would spare me the confusion that has haunted my life. Yet life has its own course, and now I carry two names. Lonai, a twisted name devoid of meaning, has somehow become a part of me, whether I like it or not.

For me and many others from my background, having a name is more than a label. In our culture, a name carries deep significance. A name has to be powerful, beautiful and something that will shape the child’s life forever. Parents go to great lengths, sometimes taking months, to find the perfect name that embodies our religion, culture, identity and positivity. It’s a competition among parents to bestow the most meaningful names upon their children, because a name is a guiding force that helps them discover who they are, who they want to become and how they want their family to flourish. Without a meaningful name, a person’s life can feel doomed to humiliation and disrespect.

Ronahi defines me in ways that are deeply personal. The name signifies positivity, inspiration and strength, because it originates from the word “sun” and the light of a new day. It’s more than just a name; it’s my ethnic identity, one that I cherish and wish to share with the world. This identity has often been a target for discrimination, and even genocide. My attachment to my identity is rooted in the sense of belonging and safety I feel when I meet others with Kurdish names. It’s a sense of being wanted and not an outsider.

Stories about names can be a form of dark humor in Kurdish society, stemming from the shared experiences of many Kurds. One such story was recounted by a friend about her time in secondary school. My friend’s uncle, who lived in a village, decided to enroll his daughter, my friend’s cousin, in the same school my friend attended in the city of Qamishli. One day, the head teacher entered my friend’s classroom and called out her cousin’s full name. My friend objected and attempted to “correct” it. To her astonishment, her cousin explained that her father, my friend’s uncle, had two names — one on his official ID and another that they were familiar with. Even though he was a close family member, my friend did not know this about her uncle. This marked my friend’s first introduction to the concept that some Kurds carry dual names.

Another such story is this: My husband’s friend was a director of the Syrian Scientific Society for Informatics in the Hasakeh Governorate, located in the country’s northeast corner, also called Rojava in Kurdish. When he was born, his family named him “Barzan” after Mela Mustafa al-Barzani, then considered Kurdistan’s national leader and the source of hope for the Kurdish struggle. But, like me, his name was forcibly changed, registered as Khayzran, which means “bamboo” in Arabic, an utterly different meaning and one that invokes the colloquial reference to a stick, any stick, especially one used to beat someone up. Because of this, children made fun of him and he got bullied at school. These memories of despair scar him to this day.

Children born in Hasakeh Governorate couldn’t be registered in civil records, as children were in other areas, without an official investigation by security authorities, mainly the Political Security Directorate (an intelligence arm of the Syrian government). Kurds often name their children after Kurdish cities and leaders, and security services used the children’s names to identify which Kurdish families were unapologetically proud of their identities as Kurds, or were linked to Kurdish political parties, and to then pressure those families to choose Arabic names for their children. The government spared Kurdish families in regions like Damascus and Aleppo, but focused on altering the names of Kurds in Hasakeh Governorate because these regions were pivotal for Syria’s Kurdish population. The government heavily imposed Arabization, forcing linguistic, cultural, social and political changes, starting with the names of children.

The Kurdish people, estimated at 45 million by the Kurdish Institute of Paris, have never recognized what they consider the artificial boundaries that divide them across four nation-states — Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey — and have struggled to form an independent state of their own since the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.

Under this agreement, western Kurdistan was definitively separated from northern Kurdistan and became part of the newly formed state of Syria. These changes made Kurds in Syria the largest non-Arab ethnicity. The Kurds hoped for a degree of freedom and coexistence in modern Syria. What came instead was the opposite: Successive Syrian governments, under the direction of the Baath Party, have continued their cruel treatment of the Kurds.

Kurds have a distinct culture, language (Kurdish) with many dialects, and history. We have a rich cultural heritage, with unique traditions in music, dance, clothing and cuisine. While the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, there are also Kurdish communities that practice Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, Yazidism, Alevism and Judaism.

Kurdish society places a high value on hospitality, honor and tribal ties, and extended families often live in close-knit communities. The Kurds have a complex history marked by periods of autonomy and resistance against various ruling powers.

The Kurdish problem stands as one of the most intractable and enduring conflicts in the Middle East, perhaps even in the world. Kurds remain politically, culturally and economically ghettoized within the boundaries of Turkey, Iran, Syria and, until recently, Iraq. While the Kurds in Iraq have achieved far-reaching self-rule in the Kurdistan Region, whose autonomy was written into Iraq’s constitution in the post-Saddam Hussein era, even Kurds in Iraq still face an uncertain future, as issues like the future status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories remain unresolved.

“Li ser xeta” and “le bin xeta” are two Kurdish phrases rooted in our minds. Kurds in Syria call the Kurdish regions in Turkey “li ser xeta,” which means above the line; that is, north of the Syria-Turkey border. By the same token, we call the Kurdish areas in Syria “le bin xeta,” meaning below the line. We grew up using these two phrases to protect our sense of belonging and to reject what we consider the artificial lines that divide our land.

As a child, I persisted in the use of my Kurdish name, despite the authorities’ attempts to erase it, and I continue to use it — all of which I consider a declaration of resilience. The same is true with these phrases that resonate deeply within the hearts of Kurds in Syria and Turkey, demonstrating the importance of Kurdish persistence in the face of divided homelands. The phrases, like Kurdish names, serve as a poignant testament to the enduring bonds that unite Kurdish communities across these regions. The widespread presence of cross-border families and close relatives underscores a powerful truth: These lands were once part of a united geography, and the indomitable Kurdish spirit continues to bridge the divides.

In 1962, the Syrian authorities conducted a census in only the predominantly Kurdish parts of Syria. Following the census, between 120,000 and 150,000 Syrian Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship, leaving them (and subsequently their children) without citizenship in any country or basic civil rights, and condemning them to discrimination and near-certain poverty, according to Human Rights Watch.

The census was one component of a comprehensive plan to Arabize the resource-rich northeast of Syria, the area of the country most densely populated by Kurds. The government justified these measures at the time by arguing that these Kurds were from Turkey and had crossed into Syria illegally, which in almost all cases was untrue.

The arbitrary nature of the census meant that, in some cases, one man would remain a Syrian citizen, but his brother would be classed as a “foreigner,” or “ajnabi” in Arabic. Someone who is classified as a “foreigner” does not have the right to vote, own property or land, or start or own a business. They cannot obtain a Syrian passport, legally marry or work for the government. They have limited or irregular access to education, healthcare and employment. They do not have the right to travel inside or outside the country. Just as changing a child’s name from Ronahi to Lonai can radically change that child’s life, so changing the word labeling someone’s legal status from “citizen” to “foreigner” also (to a more extreme extent) radically changes theirs.

Another category of stateless Syrian-born Kurds is “unregistered,” or “maktoum” in Arabic. People are classified as “unregistered” if they are the offspring of a “foreigner” father and citizen mother. (In the reverse situation, if the father is a citizen and the mother a foreigner, the children are automatically citizens, but Syrian law does not yet grant women the right to pass on their citizenship.) “Unregistered” people are in an even more tenuous position than those categorized as “foreigners.” The existence of these people is not recorded at all in the official civil status records. According to the records, they do not exist.

I grew up in Qamishli, a predominantly Kurdish city in northeastern Syria. Our neighborhood was a tapestry of diversity, with Jewish and Christian families, and two Arab families, living alongside the Muslim Kurdish families that lined our long street.

I was raised in a big family, and lived with my parents, grandfather, grandmother and seven siblings in a spacious home designed as a “hosh arabi,” a type of house common throughout the Middle East. A hosh arabi is often characterized by a central courtyard (the hosh) open to the sky, surrounded by rooms and other living spaces. Our home boasted 12 rooms, two kitchens and a generous courtyard adorned with fragrant roses, jasmine and basil. Climbing jasmine adorned the walls, creating a beautiful oasis.

During the summer, we meticulously cleaned the courtyard twice a day, at dawn and dusk. Evenings were a special time when my father returned from work, and we would gather to watch the news, Syrian TV series and movies on television. Unexpected guests often joined us, a common occurrence in our sociable community. We would chat, share meals and conclude the evening by eating fresh fruit.

Our home was a hub of Kurdish culture, frequented by Kurdish musicians who would visit for lively music events. On some occasions, my father invited Kurdish dance groups to practice, especially before the Kurdish New Year, since public cultural activities were often prohibited. Our house and neighboring rooftops would be packed with people watching these enchanting events. Renowned singers like Mihemed Sexo, Mahmoud Aziz Shaker, Salah Awsa and Saeed Youssef graced us with their performances, and Saeed Youssef even composed a song for the celebrated Arab artist Samira Tewfik.

My mother’s culinary skills were remarkable, and I believe I inherited this talent from her. While Kurdish and Syrian Arab cuisine shares many dishes, Kurdish people have unique dishes like koktelk (dumplings) and shamburak (a pastry filled with beef) with which our Arab friends might not be familiar. Along with a respect for the culinary arts, my family also had a great respect for literature and fine art.

A local Kurdish journalist friend shared this story with me. My friend’s family belonged to the stateless “maktoum” community from the village of Karamsin in the Qamishli countryside. His brother, Behzad Arab Daoud, born in 1978, was among the top students to graduate from a vocational technical high school in Hasakeh province in 1996. His dream was to study mechanical engineering at university.

Behzad went to Damascus, seeking permission from the Ministry of Higher Education to study at university. After persistent efforts, an employee in one of the institutions took a red pen and marked Behzad’s certificate in a way that entirely barred him from pursuing higher education. This incident deeply affected him, to the point where he attempted to end his own life by tying a noose to a tree in his backyard.

Fortunately, his family discovered his attempt and intervened, saving his life. Afterward, Behzad explored various professions and ultimately found success as a film director and actor after relocating to Germany.

Throughout history, Kurds have fiercely safeguarded their identity, not just with weapons but by cherishing their language as a powerful tool. Kurds have proudly asserted their Indigenous roots in the Middle East, standing resilient through many shifting and often oppressive regimes and empires.

When my parents gave me my Kurdish name, they followed a tradition that millions of Kurds across the four regions of occupied Kurdistan share. Their choice was not a casual decision but an act of preserving their Kurdish identity. The forcible changing of names is not a minor alteration; it is an attempt to unravel parts of the cultural tapestry binding all Kurds together.

Names passed from one generation to the next create a profound connection and shared legacy; forcibly changing them contributes to the disintegration of these bonds and disrupts family ties, all in a widely acknowledged plan to erode the identity of an entire people.

These forced name changes lead to social isolation and can create stigma even within the Kurdish community. I recall the day my husband first proposed to me. His family carried Arabic names and had lived among Arabs for an extended period, adopting aspects of their language and culture. My Kurdish grandmother and parents initially questioned how an Arab guy could marry into our family. However, their reservations dissolved when they realized the unwavering loyalty of my husband’s family to their Kurdish identity, influenced by the legendary Kurdish leader Barzani. But initially their Arab names had made them appear to my family as if they were ashamed of their Kurdish roots.

Kurdish people have used language to advance human rights throughout the region — with profound global impact. For example, the recent massive uprisings in Iran began in response to the murder by the Iranian “morality police” of Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman. The iconic Kurdish slogan of protesters in these uprisings has been “jin, jiyan, azadi” or “woman, life, liberty.”

Notably, this universal slogan was adopted by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) because women’s liberation has been a cornerstone of its ideology and opposition to authoritarianism in Turkey and Islamic State group extremism in Iraq and Syria. Kurds in Rojava, or western Kurdistan, have advanced women’s rights and, like their Peshmerga brethren in Basur, or southern Kurdistan, have effectively fought and won against the most prominent jihadist organization in the world, the Islamic State.

My family had a great relationship with the Peshmerga (the standing military of the Kurdish nation) during the time of Barzani. We often gave sanctuary to Peshmerga who fled the persecution of the Baath regime in Iraq. We hid these fighters in our house. Our home became a refugee camp for these brave fighters, people who fought for our identities and existence.

My grandfather was detained and brutally tortured by the Syrian regime because he and my father were hiding Peshmerga fighters in our house. The authorities had been observing our house and it turned out that someone had informed on us, although we still do not know who. My mother recounts the pain of the day when her father was finally released; he looked like a ghost and would not have any more children.

The 1970s were the beginning of the Kurdish singer Mihemed Sexo’s journey; he later became one of the most famous Kurdish singers of the modern era. Sexo’s patriotic songs were forbidden because Kurdish music was banned in Syria at that time, so he was constantly chased by the Syrian authorities. Our family also hid him at our house on many occasions before smuggling him into Iraqi Kurdistan.

After years of exile in Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran, he returned to Syria with little, and my family accepted him, his wife and three children, sharing our big house with them and welcoming them as members of our family without expecting anything in return — because he was a Kurd and he sacrificed his life for the Kurdish cause.

In the 1990s, when I was a teenager, Syrian security and intelligence officials carried out arbitrary arrests for those who possessed any Kurdish leaflets or small booklets explaining Kurdish culture or history. At that time, a Kurdish friend secretly gave me one of these publications to read. I didn’t tell my parents about this, but I was so scared for my family’s safety that I went to the backyard, dug a hole in the ground, and hid it in case the security forces raided us.

By contrast, today in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as the Kurdistan Rojava regions, Kurdish children have the freedom to openly embrace and express their Kurdish language and culture. While I can’t help but feel a tinge of envy and embarrassment at not being able to write in my own language, I am overwhelmingly proud and elated that at least these particular Kurdish children are free in a way I was not as a child: free to practice their culture and heritage, free to openly bear their own names.

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