ALEPPO, Syria — In defiance of the grinding war that has been raging in Syria for nearly four years, underground shelters have been turned into schools. Students in rebel-held areas of Aleppo have returned to studying after most of the schools were destroyed.
With the intensifying bombings, parents feared to send their children to school. They were even more concerned following the tragic incident on April 30, when warplanes bombed the Ain Jalut school in the neighborhood of Al-Ansari al-Sharqi, killing more than 25 and injuring 60, mostly children.
However, the reconstruction of shelters and their conversion into schools has encouraged parents to send their children back to school. In fact, one can hardly believe that the basement of Noor Al-Shuhadaa Mosque in al-Shaar neighborhood, which was destroyed by airstrikes, has become a school receiving hundreds of boys and girls every day.
After placing the children in their designated seats in class, Safaa Baraka, the headmistress of the school, told Al-Monitor that parents used to fear for their children's lives, given the heavy shelling. Some of them used to receive schoolbooks and teach their children at home, sending them to school during exam period only.
"Today, their fears are dissipating as they sense that this place is somehow safe. The mosque has been bombed three times, but the school in the basement was not affected. Still today, students come to enroll," Baraka said.
Nevertheless, some parents prevent their children, especially teenage boys, from attending school. This does not necessarily stem from fear for their safety, but rather because three years into the war, parents are no longer eager to provide their offspring with a decent education, as much as they care about their finding a source of livelihood.
In the same vein, Barakat said, "Most of this school's students are girls, as boys-only schools have low enrollment rates because parents send their children to work, believing that academic degrees are no longer of value at this time."
In the mosque's basement, three meters (10 feet) underground, there are no walls to separate the classrooms. Students sit in groups next to each other to overcome the cold. They listen carefully to the teacher, who speaks quietly so as not to disturb the other groups.
Math teacher Samar al-Ahmad told Al-Monitor, "The main problem we are facing is the confusion and disturbance in the basement as all classes are in a single room. Any small move by students would disturb and distract the rest of them."
"We face many problems in securing books. We had to copy many of them. Yet, things are going relatively well," she said.
All teachers in this school are unpaid, as is the case in most of the rebel-held areas in Aleppo, which makes it difficult for schools to find teachers. "Although the school is registered in the Directorate of Education, which is affiliated with the opposition’s local council, we do not receive any salaries. We only receive some 'rewards' from organizations supporting education from time to time," Barakat said.
"There is great difficulty in finding teaching staff, since it is volunteer-based. This is not to mention that new graduates have left the country in search for job opportunities, especially graduates with a bachelor's degree in English," she added.
During recess, the children are noisy as they play, as in this shelter they are deprived of many activities they used to do in school before. "We can no longer play football or any other sport. We stay in this basement during school hours. It is gloomy here," one of the students told Al-Monitor.
The war that destroyed everything in its path, even schools, may have prevented education above ground, but not beneath it. The volunteer teachers and workers in this school say the education of the new generation will not stop — whatever happens.
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