After decades of oppression and civil war, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) — the regional body outside of Syrian government control — has been working to design a school system for its 800,000 primary and secondary students that celebrates diversity, counters extremism and promotes gender equality. Last month marked the beginning of a pilot project to test whether SolarSPELL might help them achieve this vision.

Together with the AANES Commission of Education, we’ve been developing a NE Syria library for the last two years — not only curating and tagging content, but also modifying the user interface to be more intuitive to Syrian users. The collection includes open-access resources in Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac and even features Kurdish-language Sesame Street videos created for refugee children.

Senior education officials Dilber Youssef and Bahjat Mohammed Hussein (center) from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, learn about SolarSPELL from Laura Hosman, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, right, during a training session  in Wrigley Hall on the Tempe campus. PhD student Noha Labani (left) provided translation.
Photo by Charlie Leight / ASU News

So we were delighted to finally be able to host two senior education officials from AANES, Dilber Youssef and Bahjat Mohammed Hussein, for a five-day train-the-trainer workshop. In addition to covering our standard training topics — an overview of the SolarSPELL initiative, connecting to the library, maintaining the hardware, navigating the content, teaching information literacy — we also had time for detailed discussions about implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and content updates.

Because the training took place at ASU, many of our students were able to attend and lead sessions. Libbie Farrell and Paye Kialain, for example, presented on the monitoring and evaluation tools they helped update.

Paye Kialain, a graduate student in the Management of Technology program, trains AANES senior education officials how to collect data digitally using SolarSPELL surveys available on Kobo Toolbox.
Photo by Abby Johnson / SolarSPELL

Noha Labani, a PhD candidate in ASU’s Department of English, led a session on the new SolarSPELL training course included in the library, which she helped create. This course will serve as a refresher for trainers and teachers. Noha also served as a translator for much of the training.

Noha Labani (right) a graduate assistant with SolarSPELL, explains features of the offline SolarSPELL Training Course she helped build to senior education officials from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
Photo by Abby Johnson / SolarSPELL

One of the many highlights of this training was our meeting with Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego to discuss our collaboration and the role ASU SolarSPELL has to play in empowering schools in North and East Syria.

About 500 schools in the region have been damaged or destroyed by ISIS. Yet the AANES is not diplomatically recognized, making it ineligible for many forms of foreign aid. So projects like this are absolutely crucial to enable the administration to rebuild and galvanize its education system.

AANES senior education officials Bahjat Mohammed Hussein (left) and Dilber Youssef (second from left) and SolarSPELL co-founders Bruce Baikie (second from right) and Laura Hosman (right) pose with Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (center).
Photo by Abby Johnson / SolarSPELL

After meeting with Mayor Gallego, Dilber and Bahjat shared their insights with the ASU community as well, giving a guest lecture on the challenges and opportunities for education in North and East Syria. 

Dilber expressed gratitude for the many students behind SolarSPELL, saying it gave her hope for the program’s future seeing that it was an initiative made by students for students.

“You joined SolarSPELL because you wanted to make a difference and to have a positive impact,” she said. “You are showing up and you are making a difference.”

Bahjat Mohammed Hussein (right) and Dilber Youssef (center) answer questions after their lunch and learn talk on the challenges and opportunities ahead of Northeast Syria’s education system.
Photo by Abby Johnson / SolarSPELL

The AANES Department of Education will pilot the digital library in three schools and use our upgraded survey tools to evaluate the results. Their hope is that SolarSPELL will help them build out an education system that can serve as a model for the larger region.

Read more in ASU News: Solar-powered libraries help Syrian communities rebuild from war

SolarSPELL staff poses with AANES senior education officials: (top row) Bruce Baikie, SolarSPELL co-founder and tech adviser; (bottom row from left) Abby Johnson, communications specialist; Sara Jordan, library specialist; Rachel Nova, project manager; Courtney Finkbeiner, student engagement coordinator; Dilber Youssef, AANES Training and Education Authority deputy director; Laura Hosman, co-founder and director; Bahjat Mohammed Hussein, AANES Center of Education Research director; and Jacob Shaeffer, web developer and system administrator.