‘We gained nothing’: Graduates of opposition-run East Ghouta schools lose years of study

AMMAN: Students in formerly rebel-controlled districts east of Damascus face the prospect of losing years of academic work and starting from scratch, an opposition education official tells Syria Direct, because of a total refusal by the Syrian government to accept opposition-issued school records.

“What is happening now in East Ghouta is a politically motivated lack of recognition for [our records],” Adnan Selik, the director of education in the opposition-founded Syrian Interim Government (SIG), tells Syria Direct. “The regime does not recognize [SIG] politically,” he says.

Thousands of students in recently government-captured East Ghouta received education certificates, diplomas and transcripts from the SIG during the five-year-long period of rebel control of the suburbs. Now, “students must start again from from zero,” says Selik.

Starting in 2013, schools administered by the SIG’s education directorate in East Ghouta began using a modified version of the Syrian government curriculum. The SIG curriculum—used across opposition-held Syria as well as in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan—was mostly identical to that used by the state, Selik says, while lessons focusing on the Baath party or Syrian nationalism had been edited or removed.

During East Ghouta’s five years outside of state control, parallel structures and entities formed to administer civil affairs in the absence of the Syrian government. Everything from marriages and births to the buying and selling of land and education was handled by non-state, opposition-created institutions.

Then, late last December, the Syrian government launched a major offensive on East Ghouta. A deadly government air campaign left hundreds of civilians dead while fierce ground battles saw pro-government forces capture the entire area in April after a series of surrender and evacuation deals cleared East Ghouta of rebels for the first time since 2012.

Opposition-run institutions disappeared, and opposition-issued documents and education certificates were invalidated or thrown into uncertainty.


Students in a classroom in East Ghouta in January. Photo courtesy of the Outer Damascus Education Directorate.

As the Syrian government has gradually retaken control over large swathes of the country in recent years, opposition-created alternatives to government authority have been largely ignored by the Bashar al-Assad government.

The Syrian government did not recognize SIG education records in Aleppo city after recapturing it in December 2016, and humanitarian officials have raised concerns that documentation linked to the SIG could entail security risks to those who hold them, Syria Direct reported last year.

The Syrian government has made no official statement regarding SIG-issued education certificates in East Ghouta. Syria Direct called the Syrian Ministry of Education’s office in Damascus several times this week without receiving a reply.

For East Ghouta students, the Assad government’s likely refusal to accept their diplomas and certificates erases years of schoolwork, examinations and work, Selik says.

“A great deal of energy and output that could have gone towards [rebuilding] the country is wasted,” he adds.

‘We gained nothing’

Hassan a-Doumi, 20, earned an SIG-issued high school diploma nearly two years ago from his school in East Ghouta’s Douma city. It was no easy task.

In 2013, the Syrian government imposed an airtight encirclement on the East Ghouta suburbs, restricting the movement of goods and people in and out of the area. Intense shelling and bombardment followed for the next half decade—including several deadly airstrikes that damaged or destroyed schools in the besieged pocket.

“Dozens of students were killed in their schools,” a-Doumi tells Syria Direct. “We were studying under extremely difficult conditions.”

When the siege ended and rebels evacuated East Ghouta earlier this year, a-Doumi and his family stayed behind. With the Syrian government in control of his hometown, “someone like me has two choices,” says a-Doumi. “He can join the army or postpone his service by enrolling in university.”

But a-Doumi cannot apply for university as the Syrian government does not recognize him as a high school graduate. Despite his SIG-issued certificate, only a government-issued diploma meets the application requirements for Syrian universities.

Approximately 4,466 students in East Ghouta obtained a SIG-issued high school diploma from 2013 to 2017, while 6,315 students received a primary certificate for completing the ninth grade, SIG education director Selik says. All those documents may now be useless.

“We gained nothing,” a-Doumi tells Syria Direct. “It’s throwing years of hard work and study in the trash.”

“We put our lives on the line and all those years went to waste.”

‘Politically motivated’

Although the Syrian government does not accept SIG-issued documents, the opposition Education Directorate has been working with the UK-based National Recognition Information Center (NARIC), an organization that evaluates curricula and coursework around the world on behalf of the British government, to establish some degree of equivalency and recognition for opposition-issued certificates, Selik tells Syria Direct.

A study released by NARIC in February 2018 found that SIG-issued high school diplomas were suitable for entry into foundational courses at UK universities, and that grade nine certificates were adequate for continuing secondary studies.

In light of the NARIC findings, Selik contends the government’s refusal to recognize SIG-issued certificates is “not on any educational basis,” but rather “politically motivated.”

And although the NARIC study stands to assist students seeking to continue their education outside of the country, students like a-Doumi who remain in government-controlled Syria have few options.

“There is nothing for us,” a-Doumi says. “They’ve neither recognized our certificates nor given us any examinations.”

“Nothing has been explained.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.