ALEPPO, Syria — The Syrian war has taken its toll on the education sector in Syria, specifically in the areas under opposition control, and schools have lost many teachers. Some opted for immigration due to the tough security situation, others were displaced to safer areas in Syria, and many changed jobs and quit teaching. Some teachers were killed in the raids of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that deliberately targeted schools, like the shelling that targeted Saad Ansari School and Al-Rajaa kindergarten in Aleppo on April 15, 2015, in addition to the Russian air raids that targeted schools. Others could not teach due to the Islamic State’s control.
The education sector in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo and its countryside has been the most affected. The war has led to the collapse of the educational sector in all Syrian regions under the opposition, and one of the main problems has been the lack of staff, thus prompting the search for a solution to save education and reintegrate children into schools.
The severe shortage of teachers has led to the emergence of teacher training institutes in several areas under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) during the last quarter of 2014 in Marea, Azaz, Tell Rifaat and Anadan in Aleppo’s northern countryside; in Atarib and Darat Izza in Aleppo’s western countryside; and in Zerbeh and Tal al-Daman in Aleppo’s southern countryside. The aim of such initiatives is to equip elementary and secondary schools with specialized teachers in Arabic, English, mathematics and science, and classroom teachers for grades 1-4.
The Marea Teacher Training Institute — established by the education bureau affiliated with the local council in Marea on Sept. 3, 2014, in Marea city, which is under the FSA’s control in Aleppo’s northern countryside — is a successful model. It offered the city the first group of graduates in several disciplines (English, Arabic and classroom teaching), and the opposition has started to reap the fruits of this training center as the schools now have enough teachers. On Aug. 1, 2016, 35 students graduated, and they started teaching at the start of the 2016-17 school year.
The director of the Marea Teacher Training Institute, Salah Naasan, told Al-Monitor that the institute offers theoretical and practical education to students for two years until they become capable of teaching and handling the responsibility of educating a generation of children. He said, “The holders of secondary education certificates can apply to the institute, regardless of their gender, and their employment is guaranteed upon graduation due to the pressing need for teachers in Marea and other FSA-held areas in Aleppo’s countryside.”
He added that about 50 trainees in various disciplines are currently being trained at the institute and are expected to graduate next year.
Naasan said that the female turnout to the teacher training institute is high — out of the total number of trainees, 65% are women. The first class that graduated in August 2016 included more than 70% women. Naasan said, “The high female turnout stems from their love for this noble profession. Meanwhile, young men are more inclined to join the ranks of the FSA.”
He added, “These institutes are giving hundreds of students who had to drop out of university due to the war the chance to continue their studies. Besides, they can now get a job. Teachers graduating from the institute start out with a salary of $100 per month, which humanitarian aid organizations pay, with the sponsorship and supervision of the Syrian interim government represented by the Ministry of Education. Studying at the institute is almost free of charge. Students pay $15 only for each term to cover the cost of printing and exams. They pay $60 for the two-year program.”
The Marea institute and others like it were established in the opposition-controlled areas in Aleppo’s countryside through cooperation between local councils and education bureaus affiliated with them, and also in cooperation with the Syrian interim government that encourages such initiatives. The staff salaries of the Marea institute and others are paid by the Sankari Humanitarian Foundation, under the supervision of the Syrian Interim Government based in Gaziantep, Turkey.
Naasan said, “The Marea Teacher Training Institute and the other institutes in Aleppo’s countryside are mainly suffering from lack of stable financial support. We are now paying the monthly salaries from the aid offered by Sankari Humanitarian Foundation under the supervision of the Syrian Interim Government. But these salaries are not enough to cover the needs of the staff. Besides, the institutes are not equipped with modern materials [such as computers and overhead projectors], and there is a shortage of books. We are instead photocopying the class materials for the students.”
The Marea institute and its counterparts in Aleppo’s countryside adopt a curriculum that the Ministry of Education affiliated with the Syrian Interim Government has put together, which combines several curricula. Part of it is taken from the curriculum taught in institutes in areas under Assad’s control, and the other part from the curricula of institutes in Arab countries such as Egypt and Sudan.
Marwa Urfali, 20, is a student at the Marea Teacher Training Institute. She is in her first year of English training. She told Al-Monitor, “I am glad I got this chance to pursue my studies. I have always loved the English language and literature, and I was afraid I would not be able to continue due to the war. Despite the institute’s limited capacities, it offers experience that helps me to gain teaching skills. I am glad I will be contributing to building an educated generation when I graduate.”
Urfali's parents support her studies at the institute. She said that nothing can stand in her way, and she is bent on teaching in the future, even at the expense of getting married.
She said, “We cannot succumb to the circumstances. We should take the initiative to change things and build a generation that understands the meaning of freedom. We are responsible for ensuring that our children get an education, and this is motivating me to become a specialized teacher."