ISTANBUL — The Syrian conflict has entered its seventh year, leaving more than 6 million people, including 2.8 million children, displaced inside the war-torn country. According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, this is the largest number of internally displaced people in the world. Today, out of Syria’s 22 million pre-war population, close to 5 million Syrians are scattered all across the Middle East and in Europe as refugees and asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch reports that children under the age of 18 represent about half of the Syrian refugee population, with approximately 40% of them under the age of 12. As the United States and its allies continue to contemplate budgets and strategies in their fight against the Islamic State (IS), and Russia’s military assistance remains a pivotal support for the Bashar al-Assad regime, Syria grows into a charnel house whose fate remains a global calamity.
On Feb. 18, Syrian opposition stakeholders, regional nonprofit organizations and Gulf donors met for the first International Conference for Syrian Education (ICSE). The two-day conference held in Istanbul discussed potential solutions to the multilayered challenges of the broken education system for children inside Syria, as well as the hundreds of thousands who are deprived of educational opportunities in neighboring countries.
While the opposition forces inside Syria and their supporters in neighboring countries aim to create some sort of normality through the support of grassroots and local groups and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), there is still no unified Syrian curriculum for Syrian children inside Syria and outside the country. In addition, language barriers outside the country, economic hardship and absence of accreditation leave education as one of the biggest casualties of the Syrian civil war.
On the sidelines of the ICSE, Imad Barq, the education minister for the Syrian interim government, spoke with Al-Monitor. Barq has a doctoral degree in education and was a professor at Al-Baath University in Homs. In 2013, he was detained by the Assad regime and forced to leave the country to Turkey. The Syrian interim government formed its “Ministry of Education” in 2013 as a “national committee for education” that was under the supervision of the Syrian opposition coalition. In May 2014, the ministry was officially established in Turkey, and Barq was elected to oversee the operation out of Gaziantep. But in May 2015 he shifted the headquarters back to Syria, and despite ongoing unrest decided to manage the education crisis inside the opposition-held areas. For him, the only way to monitor the volatile education landscape was to be in his ravaged country. Barq was able to return by road to opposition-held areas. He currently resides in western Aleppo.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: In the past couple of years, there have been reports that the interim government, also known as the Syrian National Coalition, is still fighting for its legitimacy and is weakening. What is the current state of the coalition?
Barq: As the minister of education, my duty is not to speak about the politics within the coalition, but to put all focus on education matters. We work independently of all of that. I am working in my technical capacity and as the education minister, I am not involved in the politics of the coalition. As a technocrat, I don’t belong to any political party and am only focusing to work on this huge challenge — the education challenge that is an incredibly difficult task. I don’t even draw a salary as a minister and take my salary from my work teaching at the University of Aleppo. This is a duty to my country.
Al-Monitor: The current conflict inside Syria has forced almost half of the Syrian population to dislocate — whether as refugees or as internally displaced people [IDPs]. How do you evaluate the current demographic inside Syria, and how many students do you serve in the opposition-held areas?
Barq: You have to understand that inside Syria we have areas held by the Kurds, we have areas under the control of IS, areas controlled by the opposition and then areas under the control of the regime. We control the opposition and neutral areas across nine provinces. Today, there are around 4.5 million school-aged children inside Syria. Over 1.5 million of them live in the opposition areas and out of that number only 750,000 children are in school.
Al-Monitor: Are children in government-held areas in better shape when it comes to education? For example, in eastern Aleppo that is now under the control of the Assad regime?
Barq: One may think that expanding the regime-held areas helps stabilize the situation for families, but it is actually hurting the situation. Because when the regime comes to any area, the people in that area leave and become IDPs. They will move to another place; so when the regime expands into an area — like eastern Aleppo — that area automatically becomes empty. Until now, eastern Aleppo remains empty; even the supporters of Assad are gone. After Assad got control of eastern Aleppo, most of those people moved to northern Aleppo.
Barq: This is a tragedy. We have the majority of the attacks against our schools. The regime and its supporters deliberately attack schools. Today — even now as we are speaking — one attack happened in Homs, but no one is reporting on it. No one reports on these issues anymore. It has become normal for the world and that is a shame. The West knows what’s going on in Syria. They have their satellites, their people on the ground, so they can see what’s going on, but there is no willingness to support the people. When the Assad regime attacks our schools, he does it with a big intention. He wants to displace these children and leave them in a hopeless and vulnerable position so that they would be forced to join radical groups. He wants to show people that if he is gone this is what will happen. He wants to show the rest of the world that Syrians are terrorists — but we’re not. There are close to 5,000 schools in the opposition-held areas, and the regime systematically attacks them. They never shell the schools in the IS-controlled areas. Why? Why is it that they only shell our schools?
Al-Monitor: How many schools and teachers are left in total in Syria and what are some of the main challenges the opposition faces in dealing with the education challenges?
Barq: There are a total of 17,000 schools inside Syria and 5,000 of them are in the opposition areas. Almost 2,800 schools have been shelled and are completely destroyed. The schools that are left are all targets. So due to these fears we are providing informal schooling in private homes, basements and areas that we think the children are safe in. In many areas where shelling is frequent and heavy, we have the kids stay inside and the teachers go to them. No child should endure this — to get education under the fear of dying.
Before the war, 5% of students were disabled, today we have over 15% of children with disabilities and special needs. In total, we have around 275,000 teachers in all of Syria, and in the opposition areas there are only 75,000 teachers left. Out of that number, only 13,000 of them are getting a salary and the rest don’t work or are volunteers — there is no funding to pay these teachers and that is a tragedy. From the 25,000 teachers that are available in our system [work under the umbrella of the Education Ministry] now 14,000 of them don’t have a degree in higher education and only have a secondary education degree. Because of that, these teachers themselves need some support. We are fighting this fight because we are not just fighting to save education for these children — we are fighting the regime’s intentions of destroying our future generation.
Al-Monitor: What is the budget you are working with?
Barq: There is no budget! There are NGOs supporting us, but the whole system is losing funding. The ministry has no budget. Even the University of Aleppo is getting its support from other NGOs.
Al-Monitor: Do you think after six years the world is doing enough to support the Syrian people, in particular the children? Is there enough support from the international community?
Barq: The world does not care because the regime is still being supported. The world has no heart and we are losing an entire generation. The Syrian people know that they are alone. Even our supporters and friends are reducing their support. Funds are decreasing and their backing is weakening. Our team works under shelling and everyday we are facing death. Even I, myself, have escaped death and continue to face it every day.
Al-Monitor: What needs to be done for the people inside Syria?
Barq: We need funding to be sustained — all in an effort to build upon what we are doing. Those remaining in Syria will never leave — we will stay — even if we are working voluntarily. If we leave, there will be a demographic change in our country and we can’t let that happen. That change is what the regime wants. We prefer to die inside Syria than to leave.
Al-Monitor: A lot of people with your credentials left Syria. Why did you stay and why did you take this post?
Barq: It is so difficult for me to see Syrian children live without education and have their future and potential wasted. I can’t see them just sit while being left behind doing nothing. I have to work to serve this community and my country. If I were to leave, and if people like me continue to leave, Syria will be left with no qualified person and that will be an irrecoverable disaster. This is especially critical in the field of education. I have no plans to leave Syria. Syria is my home, my country, I will never leave. We will work inside Syria until the last breath.