Back to school in Tartus: ‘Syrians can’t afford a decent life’

It is back to school in Syria, and in Tartus, a regime stronghold, public education may be free, but families must pay for stationery, uniforms, whiteboard markers and other fees. That can add up to hundreds of dollars.

Abu Mohaned, 45, an employee in a government company in Tartus province along Syria’s coast, took on a second job loading concrete blocks into vehicles at a cement factory earlier this month in order to send his three sons to public school.

The 45-year-old electrical engineering graduate considered withdrawing his sons from school after prices doubled since last year, but his wife refused.

“I insisted that education is their future,” Um Mohaned tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nasser.

Um Mohaned’s sons were among 252,000 students in Tartus province who started school this past Sunday, SANA reported the same day.

This year, Um Mohaned, who is related to a Syria Direct reporter, spent $215 on school supplies for her second-, sixth- and seventh-grade sons—more than Abu Mohaned’s $173 monthly salary.

Even with Abu Mohaned’s second job, the family had to borrow an additional SP20,000 ($93) to cover school costs.

“Syrians can’t afford a decent life if they don’t find other work.”  

Q: How much did you spend on school supplies this school year for your three sons?

I paid SP15,000 ($70) for stationary and SP30,900 ($145) for uniforms and backpacks. In total I spent SP45,900 ($215) for the beginning of the school year.

[Ed:. SP214 equals $1]

 Notebooks, pens and stationary for Um Mohaned’s children. Photo courtesy of Um Mohaned.

Q: Can you give me a breakdown of the cost of school supplies, compared with last year?

Prices have more than doubled since last year, placing financial strain on middle-class families. This year we had to borrow money.

This year, for middle school students, a uniform costs SP9,800 and the cheapest backpack is SP5,000. Students need a total of 24 notebooks for all subjects. A large, 100-page notebook is SP600 while a small, 50-page notebook costs SP400.

I spent the following on school supplies for my second-grade son:

SP7,500 for his uniform and SP3,600 for a small backpack. I also bought stationary, which costs the same for students in sixth and seventh grade.

Q: Do you have to pay other fees?

The initial costs I listed don’t include classroom supplies. Teachers ask students to bring additional materials like molding clay and markers. Students have to buy refillable whiteboard markers for class, which should be the responsibility of the school administration.

I’m also paying school bus fees, since we live in a mountainous area with difficult roads. My sons need transportation to school, especially during winter. The monthly bus fee is SP2,000 ($9) a month, so I’ll be paying SP6,000 ($28) every month for my three boys.

Finally, the school also requires each student to buy a Book of Vanguards plus pay a “cooperation and activity” fee. [Ed.: The Book of the Vanguards is a mandatory book that teaches students the principles of the Baath party and accomplishments of the Syrian state.The cooperation and activity fee is paid by every student and helps the school repair any damage to its property that occurs during the school year.]

Q: What is your monthly income? How could you afford to buy all those school supplies?

My husband, who works for the government, receives SP37,000 ($173) a month. His salary doesn’t even cover our weekly expenses, since the cost of living is so high.

He found temporary jobs to supplement his income—working at a cement factory and digging holes and picking fruit on farms. This week, he’ll be harvesting olives.

In short, Syrians can’t afford a decent life if they don’t find other work. There has been a lot of financial pressure this year, with school starting around the same time as Eid, so my husband borrowed SP20,000 ($93) to pay for this month.

He even thought about making our sons drop out of school because it’s too expensive, but I refused and insisted that their education is their future.

Q: What are your alternatives? Are there ways to limit the cost of school supplies?

Teachers won’t allow a student to use one notebook for multiple subjects. They require students to buy high-quality notebooks for each subject.

No one can buy used uniforms—they aren’t available. Stores no longer sell uniforms made with good fabric. Sometimes a student has to buy more than one uniform in the same school year because the fabric is so low quality.

Also, students can’t wear regular clothes to school. If a student comes to school out of uniform, the administration reprimands him and immediately calls his guardian to the school.

A parent may send their child to school with different clothes, but only after informing the principal and obtaining his permission. There must be a compelling excuse, like the child’s uniform needs to be washed. Even then, that student is expected to wear his uniform the next day.

Schools want students to wear uniforms even if they have to beg on the streets for them.

Q: Are you satisfied with the quality of education in schools?

Education is extremely weak in the government schools in Tartus. Basic subjects like math, English and Arabic need private lessons because teachers no longer care about their work.

Private lessons, which used to be SP300 ($1.50) an hour, are now SP2,000 ($9) per hour. Teachers have started asking students to come to their houses after school for additional lessons.

I don’t trust teaching in schools. Families have started relying on private lessons more than school itself. It’s gotten to the point that elementary school students take private lessons every day. This is a huge burden; not everyone can afford tutors.

As for books, students receive used books that vary from good quality to torn and tattered. In the past, schools distributed new books to elementary school students to encourage them since they are learning to read and write.

Now, everyone gets old books and most of the time they are torn. Students must laminate the books and return them at the end of the year in one piece or pay a fine.

Q: Did you expect this increase in prices?

Rising expenses no longer surprise us. As the war continues and resources are used up, things have gone from bad to worse. This will lead to disaster for Syrians and the future of Syria. 

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.