How teachers plan to overcome EU funding cuts to Idlib schools

The EU has cut some educational funding allocated for Idlib province, citing interference by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the sector.

al-monitor Girls stand in line on the first day of school in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, Syria, Sept. 24, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

Oct 13, 2019

ALEPPO, Syria — A group of civil society activists and teachers in the Idlib countryside on Sept. 25 launched Do Not Break My Pen, a campaign to draw the attention of the international community and humanitarian organizations to the importance of ongoing support for education in Idlib. They also staged a protest in front of the building of the Directorate of Education in Idlib province Sept. 28, during which they warned of the potential repercussions on the children.

The campaign is in response to the EU decision to halt support to the Directorate of Education in armed opposition-held Idlib province, in northwestern Syria. Syria Call reported on Sept. 18 that an EU spokesperson had told the Italian Aki Agency that the decision was made in light of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate, controlling wide stretches of territory in the northwest.

There was no official statement from the EU on the suspension of aid, which the EU provides and disburses through Chemonics, a for-profit development agency, through the Manahel Syria Educational Programme, which is co-sponsored by the EU and the UK Department for International Development. 

According to an anonymous source at the Idlib Directorate of Education, the directorate received a letter in mid-September from Chemonics that noted the increased risks of working in Idlib in the past year, in particular the emergence of the HTS Salvation Government and its interference in and attempts to control education. Given the current situation, the donors decided to end the partnership with the Directorate of Education in Idlib, specifically Manahel.

The donors said they would look for other ways to ensure compensation for school employees and that ending the partnership was temporary and linked to the situation on the ground. The situation is to be assessed periodically.

Mustafa Haj Ali, director of the Directorate of Education's media department, told Al-Monitor that the directorate is not affiliated with any opposition group or government. It has its own council that oversees the operation of schools.

“The EU halted its educational sector grant, which covered 65% of the support for education in Idlib because of a lack of funding, officials told us, [in addition to the presence of HTS],” Ali told Al-Monitor. “The EU justifications, however, are not convincing and will have negative repercussions for thousands of Syrian children.” Ali claimed that a lack of funding was not a plausible rationale because the amount provided is not significant. He did not indicate the amount involved.

“Financial support for the Directorate of Education in Idlib allowed it to pay the salaries of 7,278 teachers distributed across 794 schools in the province,” Ali asserted. “The remaining 35% that the EU does not cover will not be affected. It consists of [an amount to cover] around 310 primary schools, which rely on grants from civil associations in Idlib.”

Ali added, “The sudden decision at the beginning of the [2019-20] school year paralyzed the Directorate of Education in Idlib, and it will have catastrophic implications. Many children will be out of school, and thousands of teachers will not be able to support their families because of unpaid salaries.”

“Schools usually open Sept. 15. Some opened, like the primary schools, where many teachers volunteer, while the majority of schools remained shut as enrollment was low,” Ali said, “We will try to open schools Oct. 1 for students to enroll, and we will continue to call on donors to resume support for education. Children should not suffer because of funding issues.” Some schools were able to open in October despite the cut in funding.

Fatima al-Hajji, a teacher from Hass in the Idlib countryside and one of the organizers of Do Not Break My Pen, told Al-Monitor, “The campaign will last for 15 days. We staged a protest Sept. 28 in response to the halted support for the educational process in Idlib. Several teachers and activists advocating our cause took part. We are trying to show that halted support for the Directorate of Education in Idlib will harm the educational process and increase the dropout rate. Children will be more vulnerable to military enlistment. The crime rate will rise, as well as early marriage for both genders, not to mention multiple problems resulting from suspended schools.”

Hajji added that the campaign calls on international donors, the EU and the United Nations to assume what she called their “ethical responsibilities” and back continuation of the educational process, “the ideal choice to protect children.” “We hope the campaign, which is currently limited to Idlib city, will expand in the next stage to other schools, areas and directorates, through all of Idlib province, to echo and make our voices heard. The campaign also includes videos of activists and children warning about the halted support and calling for its resumption. The videos are posted on the Facebook page Your Voice Is an Endless Revolution.”

Amna Mekhbat, who teaches at a primary school in Idlib, said that the halted support portends a humanitarian catastrophe. Mekhbat told Al-Monitor, “I will not stop teaching even without a monthly pay. Children are our responsibility, and we should protect them and call on international donors to have mercy on them and on this vital sector.”

Mariam al-Abdo, a teacher from Idlib and activist in the campaign, told Al-Monitor, “Teachers made a salary of 70,000 Syrian pounds [$120], yes, which is not a large sum, but, it ensured the sustainability of the educational process. After support for the educational sector was halted, many teachers had to quit and find another job because they needed the money to make ends meet. Some teachers are widows and cannot live without a monthly salary to feed their children.”

Amal Sarhan, who teaches at a school in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “Halting support for education in Idlib will have serious repercussions and will lead to deviance and confusion among children. Some families might even think of migrating outside Syria in search of a safe place where the right to education, the most basic right, is met. Syrians in opposition-held territories are oppressed. Donors must think hard about the catastrophic implications resulting from their decision. Do they want thousands of new refugees flooding in? If not, they must support education in Idlib at least.”

The halt in funding is only one problem confronting students and teachers in Idlib. The Syrian government and allied Russian forces have targeted schools with airstrikes in their military campaign. 

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