Editor’s note: Only first names have been used in this story to protect the safety of those interviewed.
DAMASCUS—In January, Nagwa hastily left her house in the town of Talbiseh, in central Syria. She thought she would only be gone a few days and did not know that the new books and notebooks she left on her desk would be buried under the ashes of war.
Nine-year-old Nagwa’s case is common. Many young Syrian students have had to abandon their homes. Amidst the ongoing war, families have left behind farms, stores, workshops and schools. Children who were born in the midst of the March 2011 uprising against President Bashar El Assad are reaching school age this year. But more than 7,000 out of 22,000 schools across Syria have been closed, in Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, Idlib, and the countryside near Damascus.
In their place, some parents, teachers and other concerned adults are setting up informal, underground schools to try to educate their children. They convert their homes or other buildings into classrooms to replace those that have been bombed out.
Talbiseh is north of the city of Homs, on a main road crossing Syria from north to south. It is one of the first cities that rose up against the regime and was a battlefield between regime forces and their opponents. After one of her relatives was killed in an airstrike, Nagwa’s family moved to settle in Bsyrene, 15 kilometers south of Talbiseh.
In this small village of under 2,000 people, Rana, a university undergraduate, turned a room in her home into a classroom and gathered children coming from Talbiseh and other areas. Local schools could not accommodate the large number of incoming displaced students. Families were afraid to send children to school in neighboring villages after some children were kidnapped and held for ransom.
Rana’s determination to keep children from dropping out of school has faced challenges. “We had to place children of different ages in the same classroom,” she says. “Students suffered from cold weather because of the lack of heaters in the village. In some cases we had to burn wood to warm up, but then we could not stand the suffocating smoke.”
War has changed the children’s dreams. Nagwa, who once wanted to become a painter, now wants to be a doctor, to treat the injured. Her classmate Anas, who once wanted to be a pilot, now dreams of becoming an engineer so he can reconstruct his house, which was demolished in an airstrike.
Last winter, 25 students gathered in the 16-square-meter classroom, trembling from the cold. In February, power cuts lasted more than 12 hours. The children knew the electricity would come back on at around 10 in the morning, so they gathered excitedly around the electric heater, which was their only source of warmth.
There is one textbook for every three children. Rana accepted a small donation from a wealthy man in the village to buy pens and copybooks. She uses a plastic advertising banner donated by a local business as a chalkboard. Rana, who runs the school alone, has divided the students into two groups. One is for students from 6 to 9 years old and another is for students from 10 to 12 years old. Each group has three classes a day. “I try to work according to the available possibilities,” she says. A friend of Rana with a bachelor’s degree in English literature will start teaching the children English soon.
Keeping the children’s interest in such harsh conditions is not easy. Rana uses art classes to give the children a break from academic subjects. “Every day, we have a class for drawing and handicrafts. Just for entertainment and joy, especially because we do not have a yard for sport or playing,” she said. Rana has suggested to colleagues in the education faculty at Hama’s Albaath University that more such informal classrooms could be created. But colleagues told her such volunteer initiatives are illegal under Syrian law. The opening of any private educational entity requires the approval of governmental authorities, in addition to the approval of security services. Citizens feel there is little hope of getting those approvals.
Rana, who teaches the official national curriculum, is preparing students for their final exam. The children are excited to be promoted to higher grades. “I have always dreamed of becoming an English teacher, because my father, who died last year, was always keen to improve my English vocabulary,” said Abdel Hakeem, 10. “I will pursue my education so that one day I can be like my father.”
Speaking about her future, Safaa said: “I had dreamed of becoming an engineer to build my country just like other developed countries, but I changed my mind and I want to become a gynecologist.” Safaa saw a woman die in labor, her father explained, because the neighbors could not take her to the hospital because of attacks targeting their area at that time.
In a house near the school, Nour prepared a weekly meal of chicken and rice for the students. Nour said: “Even angels hail knowledge seekers, so we should at least be generous to our guests coming from destroyed areas. We have to harness all our capabilities to serve these children. A long time ago, Winston Churchill said that he would rather lose the war than waste an academic year. Now as we are approaching our fifth year of war, some students are forced to drop out of school!”
Some children have to work to help their families; others have been displaced and have not been able to continue their studies. A report issued by the Syrian Center for Studies and Research, a nonprofit organization in Damascus, estimates that there are three million children who are unable to attend school in Syrian and in neighboring countries where they are refugees.
“The threat of destroying the future of a whole generation of one million and a half students, who were described by UNICEF as a ‘lost generation,’ is increasing,” said Rana, “because of their deteriorating health and psychological state, and their exposure to traumas that may be very difficult to heal.”
While the end of the conflict may be distant and talk of recovery may seem optimistic, those who consider such matters say people like Rana will be vital. “As all are busy in fighting, creating such small education units can be one of the solutions,” said Yasser, a former employee of the department of curriculum at the Ministry of Education.
Civil society can play a very important role in filling the gap created by losing one-third of the country’s schools, Yasser believes. “Still, it needs a support from international organizations so it can be implemented in other conflict areas,” he added.