When Gamal Mohammed Kassem, a 32-year old Kurdish farmer born and raised in the north eastern Syrian city of Hassake, needed to travel south to Hama city for surgery, he had to ask a Syrian friend to provide the authorities with a written promise he would return.
He is one of an estimated 75,000 Kurds living in Syria without an official identification card proving citizenship, and is therefore, technically, stateless.
“The only thing that proves who I am is my face,” said Kassem, one of 27 children whose father lost his Syrian citizenship in the late 1960s after working for the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria.
“When I took my daughter to school to have her registered, the schoolmaster approved her age by looking at her teeth,” he recalled.
Because his Kurdish wife, Rojine, is registered as a Syrian citizen while Kassem is not, their children aren’t even eligible for the orange card given to the some 220,000 Syrian Kurds still officially deemed “foreigners.”
“They don’t accept my sons into school, and I can’t teach them because I’m uneducated myself,” said Rojine, sitting in the brightly-lit reception room of the family house in Hassake.
Syria’s “Kurdish question” has long been one of the most sensitive issues facing the ruling Ba'ath party. In 1962, a year before the party came to power, a survey of Syria’s north-eastern Hassake governorate deprived some 120,000 Kurds of citizenship on the grounds that they had not been born in Syria.
Hassake lies on the borders of both Iran and Turkey.
Since then, Syria’s total Kurdish population has trebled to approximately 1.5 million, making Kurds by far the largest minority in the country.
Of these, the vast majority are recognised as citizens, while even those officially classified as foreigners have access to state education and healthcare.
But the ruling party, founded on an ideology of pan-Arabism and a strong central government, and fearful of Kurdish demands for autonomy, has until recently made no move to resolve the issue of the roughly 300,000 stateless Kurds.
This is despite the fact that, under Syrian law, foreigners living in the country for more than five years are entitled to citizenship.
In a November 10 address at Damascus University, Syrian President Bahsar al-Assad said the issue had been solved in 2002, when he himself visited Hassake.
Implementation, however, had been delayed due to massive riots in March 2004 between Arabs and Kurds in Qamishli, a city 80 km north of Hassake.
“Now, state authorities are dealing with the issue, which we will solve soon, in an expression of the importance of Syrian national unity,” the president said.
Kurdish reactions to the president’s promise, however, were sceptical.
“We need actions, not words,” said Mustafa Osso, spokesman for the Kurdish Freedom Party in Hassake. “Citizenship is a right for the Kurds to take back, not a gift for the Syrian government to give.”
In Damascus, Hyam Murad, a 23-year old Kurdish engineering student, and a bearer of the orange card, said: “I need citizenship. I might not be able to get a job in the public sector because I am classed as a foreigner.”
In an effort to resolve the issue, Information Minister Mehdi Daklallah announced this summer that the government was considering granting citizenship to 120,000 Kurds.
Kurdish political leaders, however, point out that this figure is unrealistically low.
”Daklallah’s figure is from a 1962 census,” said Hassan Saleh, Head of the Kurdish Yakiti Party. “We won’t accept any half-measures, because Kurds are original inhabitants of this land.”
Other Kurdish leaders point out that the citizenship issue is only one of several Kurdish concerns.
“Granting citizenship will not satisfy all Kurdish demands,” said Kher Adeen Murad, Secretary General of the Kurdish Leftist Party.
“We want the government to change the constitution to recognise Kurds as a second nationality, and grant us cultural and linguistic autonomy.”
Kurds often look to a federal model of self-rule, under which their Iraqi counterparts live, as a desirable alternative. Officially, however, they maintain that autonomy is not on their agenda.
Privately, though, many admit they would like to live in an independent state of Kurdistan.
“My own personal aspiration is to establish an independent Kurdish state,” said Murad.
Questions of constitutional change aside, Syrian Kurds are also faced with a new law banning ethnicity-based political parties. Currently, there are 12 Kurdish political parties based in Syria.
In hopes of getting around the new legislation, some have suggested converting the current Kurdish political groupings into parties based on Arab nationalism.
Some, like Ismail Amo, head of the Kurdish Unitarian Democratic Party in Syria, feel confident that Kurds can work within the new limitations. “When democracy comes to Syria, the Kurds will not just demand their rights, but will also participate in the political process,” he said.
Others, however, are less sanguine.
“If they drop the Kurdish cause, the Kurdish parties will lose their credibility,” said Mohammad Nazir Mustafa, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria. He went on to cite the example Turkey, where Kurdish parties collapsed under the strain of similar constraints.
While their leaders attempt to come to grips with new political realities, however, most stateless Kurds remain in limbo.
“Although both my grandfathers lived in Syria, I’m still considered a foreigner,” said Ibrahim Mohammad, a 44-year old tailor from Malekeya, 20 km west of Qamishli.
“My four sons have no papers to prove their names or nationality, and they can’t study at university because the government won’t grant them high school certificates.”
He added, with considerable melancholy: “For me it’s too late – I’m an old man. I can’t get a passport or own a house. But I’ll be happy if my sons can study at university, and maybe get a job working for the state.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions