Schools become makeshift camps as Raqqa’s displaced seek shelter in Kurdish-held city

AMMAN: A total of 20 schools in one Kurdish-held northern city and its outskirts remain closed to students on Tuesday, as thousands of displaced people from former Islamic State territory use the buildings as makeshift camps, local officials and displaced Raqqans told Syria Direct.

Displaced families are occupying 20 public school buildings in the small city of Tabqa, which sits on the southern bank of the Euphrates River in western Raqqa province, said Mohammad Nayyef, president of the city’s education council. The people living in the schools include displaced residents of recently captured Raqqa city.

US-backed SDF fighters captured Tabqa from the Islamic State in May. A number of SDF-affiliated local councils now run the small city, home to an airbase and the country’s largest dam.

Families living in Tabqa’s school buildings are among the most destitute of those who fled the battles to drive IS from northern and eastern Syria in recent months. The five displaced people interviewed for this report all fled Raqqa city at the height of US coalition airstrikes this past summer, and all said they had “no ability” to rent homes in Tabqa for their families.

A displaced Raqqa family in Tabqa on Monday. Photo by Ayham Murad for Syria Direct.

“People choose [to come to] Tabqa because they have relatives here,” a spokesman for the SDF-affiliated Tabqa Civil Council told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity. Hundreds of displaced families headed from Raqqa to Tabqa in recent months “because it quickly became stable again after liberation” from the Islamic State.  

But upon arrival in Tabqa, displaced people from Raqqa told Syria Direct there is little available housing for them.

Houriyah Hammad, a mother of several school-age children, told Syria Direct she found no free housing in Tabqa after fleeing there from Raqqa five months ago. With few other options, she said, “I fled directly to the [local] school.” Her husband is elderly and cannot find work, leaving the family unable to afford any other home in the city.

Another Raqqa native, Mahmoud al-Hamed, fled to Tabqa two months ago amid heavy US-led airstrikes on his home city. He suffers from diabetes and is wheelchair-bound, making it difficult to find work. Al-Hamed, too, said he cannot pay for housing outside the school he currently lives in with his wife and children.

“My wish is to find any place other than a school, even if it’s just one room, for shelter,” al-Hamed said.

Displaced Raqqa family in a Tabqa school on Monday. Photo by Ayham Murad for Syria Direct.

At least one displacement camp, Tawahineh, exists 25 kilometers north of Tabqa city, Roushen Hammi, joint head of the Tabqa Region Legislative Council told Syria Direct. While the camp is home to an estimated 1,450 families, living conditions there “are not suitable,” said Hammi.

“International organizations demanded that a more suitable location be found to provide necessary services, so we found another location in the [nearby] town of a-Mahmoudli in the hopes that UNHCR would build a new camp there.”

Syria Direct reached out to several different UNHCR officials on Tuesday, but received no response.

Tabqa itself is still recovering from a weeks-long battle that began in March when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were airdropped behind IS lines on the western bank of the Euphrates River by coalition aircraft.

The SDF’s eventual capture of Tabqa in May was a major step toward reaching the Islamic State’s former Syrian capital city of Raqqa, some 42 kilometers east along the Euphrates.

When SDF fighters finally did launch their fight in June to wrest Raqqa city from IS control, thousands of residents of that IS-held city began streaming from their homes for safety. In the ensuing five-month battle, the US-led coalition allied with the SDF dropped some 20,000 munitions on the city, according to the UK-based international monitor Airwars. Landmines and IEDs planted by Islamic State fighters killed civilians trying to flee the encircled, embattled city. An estimated 1,800 Raqqa civilians died over the course of the fighting, Airwars reported.

A displaced man in a Tabqa schoolyard on Monday. Photo by Ahyam Murad for Syria Direct.

Today, virtually all of Raqqa city’s residents are scattered across northern and eastern Syria, taking shelter in camps run by the Kurdish-led Self-Administration in Syria’s north. There, medicine, food and bathroom facilities are reportedly scarce, while authorities actively bar civilians from leaving, residents and activists told Syria Direct in recent days.  

Raqqa residents living in Tabqa’s public schools also say there are few resources for them. Najeh, a mother of several schoolchildren from Raqqa, and Ahmad, who came to Tabqa three months ago, both told Syria Direct they received aid “just once” since arriving. Meanwhile, their hometown of Raqqa is still riddled with landmines planted by IS, and basic water and electrical infrastructure is destroyed.

As 20 schools in Tabqa are used to house displaced people, only half of some 50,000 children in the city and surrounding countryside are enrolled in classes, local education head Mohammed Nayyef told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

But with no viable camps outside the city, there are few alternatives.

“We can’t just get rid of the displaced people from the schools,” Nayyef said. “They are under difficult humanitarian conditions, and we are at winter’s doorstep.”

With reporting by Ayham Murad.

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of northern, Kurdish-held Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Ammar Hamou

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

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.