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Braving Barrel Bombs to Create Schools

ALEPPO—In the basement of a six-story building whose inhabitants have fled to escape death by barrel bombs, mortars, and missiles, dozens of children are crowded into a small area of about 50 square meters. Wooden logs divide the floor into makeshift classrooms away from the ongoing airstrikes.

“We are afraid to send our children to schools because of airstrikes and barrel bombs,” said Samer Qorbi, a father of two primary-school students. “We want them to pursue their education but in safe schools.”

Several times recently, education was suspended in all schools in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside because of the heavy pounding the city is taking from the government’s planes and helicopters. Finding safe schools amid the destruction wrought on the city by the five-year war is not easy.

But the Aman project of the Foshet Amal Charity Association seeks to fulfill this educational need.

“We try to find basements and refuges in Aleppo where we can move school children to ensure at least the continuation of the educational process,” said Mohammed Samer, the project supervisor, based in Aleppo.

The association’s 12 schools have 3,000 primary and secondary-school students and about 145 teachers. The schools give all students free stationery and textbooks and teach a curriculum modified by the Syrian opposition coalition to remove government propagandizing.

The schools are operating in the middle of chaos. Electricity in Aleppo is erratic, limited to a few hours a day at best. Running water is even scarcer. Only those with satellite dishes can reliably connect to the Internet. The ground-shaking barrel bombs, stuffed with shrapnel and explosives, are often dropped in pairs to kill those who rush to rescue those initially injured. Residents who move from one area of the city to another have to thread their way through multiple checkpoints controlled by competing rebel groups.

A government air attack on an elementary school in April 2014 killed at least 17 students and two teachers—that attack came just as a children’s art exhibit was scheduled to open.  Four children and a teacher were killed in a barrel-bomb attack last May that struck as the children were sitting for exams.

In 2013, a group of Syrian expatriates established the Foshet Amal association, which was the first rescue association operating in the liberated territories of Aleppo. The association’s operatives noticed the deteriorating quality of education in the territories occupied by the Syrian opposition as a result of the lack of good teachers and a shortage of school materials. The association, along with other several civil society organizations, is now trying to improve education.

A man walks through the rubble in Aleppo AFP/GETTY.

“We were shocked by the situation in our country and the sufferings of our people, and thus we thought of helping as much as we can to alleviate the pain of those afflicted by the calamities of the war,” said Samer Seryo, a Syrian immigrant to Canada and a co-founder of the association.

So far, seven basements have been equipped to receive primary-school and high-school students. Each school has about five classrooms. The association is preparing another five schools despite the difficulties.

“We don’t have enough buildings with basements, in addition to the fact that equipment, ventilation, sewage, wall maintenance, and painting take time and require ease of movement and work, which is not always available because of restrictions due to security,” said Mohammad Bakour, a principal of one of the schools.

Teachers and students feel more secure now, but they miss their former educational institutions. “It’s safer here, but we miss the school building and its playground,” said Omar, a first-year high-school student.

Those responsible for Foshet Amal association seek to provide students quality education not only by giving them school materials, but by training teachers. Before the start of the school year, the association held training workshops for teachers, most of whom were young and had not continued their university education because of the war.

“Teachers need support,” said Zein Al-Malazy, the head public relations officer of the association, explaining that the workshops sought to help teachers not just with subject matter and teaching but also how to reach students who have been traumatized by the war. Administrators set up two centers: One is for mothers to offer them advice on how to deal with fearful, angry and nervous children. The second provides children with activities such as painting, singing and reading to help them get rid of their fear and anxiety. There is no safe place for sports.

This year psychologists were appointed in each school to counsel students, especially those who suffer from psychological problems as a result of the ongoing war.

“The workshops helped us prepare for the new academic year and learn new educational methods for dealing with students inside and outside the classrooms,” said Abou Mohammed, a secondary-school science teacher.

“We have a plan to expand and add more schools and move to the countryside, but current budget and capabilities are insufficient,” Malazy said.

“We do not work to fulfill a need only, but also to make a difference,” Malazy concluded. “In spite of the small magnitude of our work, we try to make it as effective as possible.”
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