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Aleppo's children struggle to stay in school

A first-hand report from Aleppo on local initiatives in rebel-held east Aleppo trying to keep children in school.
Children sell washing detergent on a sidewalk in Aleppo December 1, 2013. REUTERS/Molhem Barakat (SYRIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST SOCIETY POLITICS CONFLICT) - RTX16005

ALEPPO, Syria — A nonofficial survey conducted by a group of activists from civil society organizations in Aleppo determined that half of the city and surrounding countryside’s schools were badly damaged or destroyed. The damage has come mostly from Syrian regime shelling against armed opposition groups that used some schools close to military front lines as headquarters.

After the closure of schools in most areas for a year and a half at least as a result of repeated airstrikes, some civil youth organizations collaborated with local residents to initiate measures to continue education in those areas. They sought the help of supporters and European agencies to obtain funding for schools and educational institutions.

It should be noted that most faculty members who remain in those neighborhoods are volunteers, teachers whose salaries have been withheld or university students who have yet to graduate. Those remaining continuously try to contact official educational bodies asking for required support, and try to secure a semblance of salaries for faculty members.

“The reality experienced by children in Syria and the dangers they face — including the loss of their homes, family members or friends — as well as past and present painful experiences, insecurity, fear and uncertainty toward the future, threaten an entire generation,” said Muatassem (names in this report have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees), who supervises a number of schools in Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods, to Al-Monitor.

Abdullah Badawi, a teacher and second-year engineering student, told Al-Monitor of the difficulty of instilling an education curriculum that wasn’t politicized or influenced by the old Baathist school system: 

“A proper, nonbiased understanding of the meaning of country and love for your country causes many problems to a lot of people. For after 40 years of coercive intellectual guidance for the young and old alike, Baathist ideals prevail, as do problems associated with political money. Many backers and supporters of certain ideologies try to impose their philosophies and sway schools toward adopting curricula that agree with their espoused beliefs.”

Muatassem invited Al-Monitor to visit one of the schools to listen to the views of students and residents in the Bustan Al Qasr neighborhood, which is under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). As we approached the school entrance, we heard the voices of students repeating their teacher’s lessons, and were surprised by the prevalence of drawings on the walls that the students had penciled to express their thoughts and freedom of choice.

The school has around 300 students who attend morning classes only, their numbers dwindling somewhat as a result of repeated evacuations from Aleppo’s neighborhoods.

In a new habit learned during war, children look upward when they enter and exit the school every day, in search of warplanes and helicopters circling overhead. The effects of the war on the minds of children are plain to see, as evidenced by a school-organized art exhibition that contained mostly student drawings depicting explosive barrels, airplanes, rockets and destroyed houses.

Samir, the father of Mustafa, a student in the school, explained, “I am always fearful for my child’s safety when he is at school, because the regime’s planes and exploding barrels are indiscriminate. Yet, I am somewhat comforted to see the neighborhood’s children accompanying him to school, despite my knowledge that no place is safe in these areas, and that the regime considers schools, as well as markets and bakeries, to be belligerent targets.”

Al-Monitor asked third-grader Alaa why his family had not fled the city. “We do not have the money to travel to the countryside or other safe areas. My father fights with the FSA and is fearful of us going to those neighborhoods [regime-controlled areas]. All our neighbors went there and came back. Had the situation been better there, they would not have returned,” he replied.

A few days ago, Alaa lost one of his school friends to a regime sniper hiding in the al-Masharka neighborhood. Shrouding his emotional scars, Alaa said that he was not too saddened by his death because he still had his other neighbors and friends to play with. Such stories are common among the children of Aleppo. Fifth-grader Mais told Al-Monitor about how her home was bombed twice, leading her family to live with relatives, since they had no money to flee to Turkey or the border region.

Mosque-based education is extremely popular here, because it is the only available form of schooling in the area. But education in mosques is limited to teaching Arabic and English, as well as reading the Quran. The burden of education here falls on local committees and charitable initiatives by residents. In brief, everyone here is trying to help this generation overcome the deficiencies they face, for none of them want “an illiterate generation.”

Despite the painful neglect suffered by the educational system, well-intentioned people continue to shield Syrian children as much as possible from the surrounding conflict and help them lead normal lives. Many of those children have lost their parents and are alone, without anyone to support them, and are vulnerable to all kinds of dangers, from resorting to begging, to enlisting in the war effort.

Education possesses the greatest potential to bolster understanding, tolerance and friendship among all peoples, ethnic and religious groups. In a country torn by war and hatred, education may be our only hope to a peaceful future.

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