ALEPPO — Students in Aleppo will be changing classrooms this year, but the move certainly can't be characterized as an upgrade.
According to a statement issued by the education department in the city's liberated areas, classes will no longer be held in existing schools. Students will instead attend classes in basements and other "secure areas" that have been equipped with security features meant to protect the children.
The statement, issued earlier this month, explained that because the Syrian government frequently targets schools, the municipality had been forced to undertake precautionary measures, additionally instructing both students and teachers not to leave the new locations before the end of the school day.
The decision came after repeated bombings on schools. The most recent happened in April, when Syrian government forces targeted the Saad al-Ansari school in the al-Mashhad neighborhood. Nine children and four teachers were killed in the attack, and 24 others were injured.
"I did not want to send my kids to school this year. I fear for their safety," says Abu Ali, a 39-year-old father of two children, ages seven and nine, from the al-Qatirji neighborhood. "However, I heard from friends of mine that some classes will be held in basements this year," he says. "After checking the new places myself, I discussed the issue with my wife, and we decided to send them to school. We want our kids to have an education, but we care more for their lives and for their safety."
Other than the musty smell of the basements, the biggest challenge educators face in the liberated area of Aleppo is the scarcity of financial resources. Most schools in these areas are entirely dependent on contributions from humanitarian organizations.
"All of our schools are run by the directorate of education, which is administered by the Syrian interim government," says Safwan Badawi, a lawyer and the principle of an elementary school. "It is not able to secure all needed supplies, like stationery for students and salaries for teachers. And due to very low salaries, which range between $25 and $100 per month, many teachers are moving either to other countries or to the regime-controlled areas."
Staffing is difficult
Badawi also says schools in the area lack teachers with any kind of specialization. "Right before the beginning of the school year, the directorate of education started a job search, but most who applied were either university students who could not continue their education because of the conflict, or those with no more than a high school degree. The directorate has no choice but to accept them because most teachers with a higher level of education have already left."
He adds that the curricula are based on the regime's recommendations, with some alterations. "We, for example, omitted the book of national education, which revolves around the Ba'ath Party and its achievements," Badawi says. "We also omitted all pictures of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad and all references to the regime, replacing them with pictures and references to the Syrian revolution, like Hamza al-Khatib, the first kid who was killed in the revolution."
Hamza al-Khatib — Source: Ocaasi/Wikimedia Commons
Badawi says the ongoing civil war, now well into its fifth year, has had a disastrous effect on youth education in the area. "When the regime escalates its military campaigns against us, many families don't send their kids to school, or they leave and move to other areas," he says. "These frequent ruptures weaken the kids' commitment to education. In many other cases, parents don't send their kids to school because they need them to work and earn money to help the family."
Yasin, 11, is in the fifth grade, and his class now meets, when they can, in the basement of his old school. "I really hope the bombing stops soon," he says. "I wish I could go to school every day. I want to be a doctor someday. But when there is bombing, my parents keep me home."
According to Muhammad Mustafa Abul Hassan, an Arabic-language teacher and the director of education in liberated Aleppo, the area has 130 schools registered for this academic year.
"We have 32,000 students, most of whom are in elementary schools," he says. "But of that number, only 1% are high schoolers. Most students that age have migrated to Europe or to neighboring countries."
He says that though classes this year are being held in unusual locations, they plan to include recreational classes and activities. "We are doing our best to help the new generation receive a decent education, despite all the difficulties," he says.