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Children in Daraa suffer in overcrowded classes

When the opposition controlled Daraa in southern Syria, several organizations found innovative ways to continue teaching children, but after the regime took control, all these projects were suspended and children are forced to attend dilapidated and overcrowded schools.

DARAA, Syria — An entire generation of Syrian students has not attended school regularly since the war broke out in 2011, as educational facilities in areas outside regime control in southern Syria have been targeted by regime and Russian airstrikes.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education has neglected opposition-controlled areas. Hundreds of thousands of students have thus found themselves displaced or settling in informal camps, in addition to the psychological and physical damage they have suffered.

Thousands of Syrians returned from the Gulf and neighboring countries to Daraa during the summer holidays after an absence of over eight years, to restore their homes and register their children in Syrian schools and universities.

Muhammad Hariri, a school director in Daraa, told Al-Monitor why the educational process has suffered a setback.

“Schools continue to suffer in Daraa because of the influx of pupils returning to the governorate. Schools in Daraa have a capacity of 25-30 pupils per class, but these numbers doubled with the start of the new academic year, affecting a large number of schools. We were forced to put over 60 students in one classroom, as there is a shortage of adequate classes to receive those numbers,” he said.

Hariri noted, “After the regime forces took control of the area in late July 2018, hundreds of experienced teachers were reluctant to work in our schools since a government teacher’s salary amounts to $70 per month at best. In addition, teachers required for compulsory and reserve services were prevented from working. They had to be replaced by unqualified teachers who only hold a baccalaureate degree.”

He added, “Even if wages and salaries are increased by 100%, living conditions of the employees will not improve. In the pre-war years, the salary of a first-class employee was $800 per month, but it has decreased to around $70 nowadays.”

Hariri pointed out, “According to studies issued by regime-affiliated centers, a family of five needs about 300,000 Syrian pounds or $500 a month, and so even if the employee's salary is raised to $140, the same issues persist.”

Maha al-Radhi, a 16-year-old student, told Al-Monitor about students who attended institutes and schools affiliated with the Syrian interim government during the years of opposition control over the area.

But, she added, “The Ministry of Education forced thousands of students to take an entrance exam and retake preparatory and high school exams [after the regime retook control], as it did not accept the certifications issued by the opposition [interim] government.”

Radhi added, “This affected the already poor educational level in public schools, making it harder to properly instruct the more than 60 students in one classroom; if only 20% of students had questions, teachers would spend the majority of the class just answering them.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ali Ayyash explained the reasons for his recent return to Daraa from Kuwait with his family of five.

“Some friends advised me to return to my country after an absence of nearly eight years, during which I had more children,” he said. “I was burdened with high educational expenses; I could no longer afford them in Kuwait, and I decided to enroll my children in public schools here free of charge.”

Ayash added, “I was shocked by the current situation in schools, and my children are increasingly suffering due to the difficulty of coping with the new situation, as it is completely different than what they are accustomed to in Kuwait. Not to mention the curriculum, and the need to take expensive private lessons in order to adapt to them, especially when it comes to subjects that they have not previously studied such as French.”

When the opposition had control of the area between 2013 and 2018, dozens of schools in southern Syria were destroyed by heavy shelling and buildings were looted. However, dozens of volunteer teachers have continuously tried to save this oppressed generation. Any location far away from the shelling was used as a classroom in order to educate the children who were denied access to schools, despite the lack of resources.

Al-Monitor met with teachers who supervised the establishment of educational camps that received the support of some local organizations, such as Daraa Free Governorate Council, to help about 800 students from al-Lajat area in the eastern countryside of Daraa, and to accommodate them in rickety tents near their camps, to ensure the continuity of their education. However, they were all removed after the regime took control.

Adnan al-Danha, one of the volunteer teachers in these camps, gave Al-Monitor a detailed explanation of their efforts to prevent dropouts. “We adopted the slogan ‘Learning outdoors is better than ignorance,’ after we failed to persuade those children to enroll in schools in villages near their camps, as many of them were traumatized by the terrifying moments they witnessed when their schools were targeted,” he said.

Danha added, “Another team of volunteers was unable to provide tents to accommodate about 200 students from a camp for the displaced near the town of al-Musayfirah in eastern Daraa, which further complicated the problem of their education. The team was forced to assemble the students in an abandoned feed store that was turned into a school.”

Mohammed al-Hittiti, one of the students who attended school in the feed store, told Al-Monitor about their suffering during that period. “Most of the students had to sit on bricks for several hours and try to focus on the book the teacher held up to 4 meters [13 feet] away because there were not enough seats and boards,” he noted.

The Olive Branch Organization was one of the most prominent organizations that contributed to the establishment of educational projects in the provinces of Daraa and Quneitra and most cities in southern Syria. It worked to provide educational and recreational courses, and provide some tents equipped to receive the children of the camps in the villages of southern Syria. In 2017-18, it launched a project to turn buses into mobile classrooms that made daily visits to the camps, benefiting more than 1,000 students.

The Olive Branch Organization tried to persuade the government to continue working in these centers after the regime took control of the area and to obtain an official license from the Ministry of Education, as it is not affiliated to any opposition party and does not have any political objectives, but all these efforts were rejected. All its centers were closed in southern Syria, while those located in opposition areas remain in place. 

In light of these tragic conditions plaguing educational institutions, the Department of Legal Affairs of the Ministry of Finance issued a decision Sept. 11 to seize movable and immovable property belonging to former Minister of Education Hazwan al-Waz and his wife Irina, along with 48 individuals, on charges of corruption and embezzlement of state funds. This explains the educational system’s inability to make any progress, while the future of students remain at risk in a war-weary country.

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