ALEPPO, Syria — Some young adults who left home to fight the regime in Syria's civil war are getting a second chance at a "normal" life.
Al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front), which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), honored some of its fighters Aug. 3 for obtaining their high school diplomas (baccalaureate certificates) this year. The front held a special ceremony in Azaz, about 20 miles north of Aleppo.
Levant Front military leaders, along with fighters who passed the exams and their families, attended the ceremony. Speakers addressed the importance of fighters returning to school after having dropped out because of the war.
Mohammad Saleh, a Levant Front leader, told Al-Monitor that 77 of the 120 fighters from the front who sat for the exams in June obtained their diplomas. "This percentage is excellent, given that they had been out of the game for a while," he said.
“The Levant Front offered the fighters support by building them a special institute to learn all the material of public schools. Contracts were signed with teachers of all courses. The institute opened in November in Azaz. … For seven months, the students who were fighters were taught and prepared for the baccalaureate exams," Saleh said.
"The fighters were highly interactive during the school year. They had the desire to return to school, which they had dropped out of to carry arms and join the FSA. The fighters who received the baccalaureate certificate will pursue their university education" in Aleppo province, where there are several colleges. "They can major in any discipline. The Levant Front will repeat this experience next year and support other fighters to return to school,” he added.
The Levant Front fighters who obtained their degrees are 20-26 years old. Some have fought since mid-2012 against the Syrian regime and the Islamic State (IS). Many will take this opportunity to leave the fighting for good and continue their education in college, and some will remain in the Levant Front to make money to pursue university studies later. The front pays each fighter in its ranks 530 Turkish liras (about $83) per month.
The FSA is currently fighting the regime on the frontlines from Tel Rifaat to Tadif, north of al-Bab. Tadif is controlled by the regime, and al-Bab is controlled by the FSA. FSA fighters are also deployed with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Manbij in northern Aleppo province, though there are no battles currently.
Mohammad Derbas, a 22-year-old from northern Aleppo, scored 180 out of 220 points on his high school exam. He told Al-Monitor, “I couldn't believe that after all these years of being away from school, I have returned and received the baccalaureate certificate. I can now pursue my [university] studies. I want to study economics at the International Sham University near Azaz."
Derbas dropped out of school when he was 18 due to ongoing displacement and school closings as a result of the regime shelling. He joined Liwaa al-Fateh, a Levant Front affiliate, in early 2015 and fought alongside his friends against IS in northern Aleppo province.
Abdel Rahman Hadaba, 25, from Tell Rifaat in northern Aleppo, is a member of the Levant Front. He received his diploma after working hard for it despite his big responsibilities: He is married with two children and, displaced from his hometown, lives in a camp near Azaz. Still, he managed to get the certificate against all odds, and his family encouraged him.
“When the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, I was a student at the public school. I couldn't continue my studies because I was participating in the protests against the regime. I carried weapons and joined the FSA ranks in 2012. I participated in the first battles against the regime that year, and I'm still fighting with the FSA," he told Al-Monitor.
“I kept dreaming of returning to school all these past years. [Some of] my peers had continued their studies, and I was stagnating. I want to get a job and fulfill my ambition. I want to raise my income. The Levant Front supported us to get the baccalaureate, and I hope other FSA factions in the north would do the same and support fighters dreaming of returning to school.”
Thousands of Syrian youths left school and joined the revolution against the regime in 2011. Many of them carried arms and fought alongside the FSA after the peaceful protests turned into armed militancy against the regime in 2012. They could not return to school because most schools were destroyed under the shelling. The schools that remained weren't safe. Most teachers migrated to safer areas or to neighboring Turkey in the north.
These young Syrians wanted more than anything to provide for their families and shelter them from the shelling. IS took control of large areas in opposition-held land in northern Syria in early 2014 and banned education, turning schools into military centers.
Perhaps the initiative of the Levant Front to support its militants in pursuing their education is a good start for young Syrians who felt their future was slipping away due to the war, displacement and the damaged educational sector.