IDLIB, AMMAN — Determined to overcome the abnormal circumstances surrounding him, 16-year-old Abdulkarim al-Salloum is holding on to his right to education, outperforming his peers in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) Aidoun camp in the city of Salqin in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. 

As a result of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Abdulkarim completed middle school in the 2019/2020 academic year through the “distance learning” system at one of the camp’s schools supervised by the Violet Organization. He and his three siblings shared their father’s mobile phone to receive their lessons and communicate with their teachers, Abdulkarim told Syria Direct. “It was difficult,” he added, since “each of us needs [the mobile phone] for an hour or two [daily] to understand the lessons.”

Abdulkarim al-Salloum helps his little sister with studying, using his father’s mobile phone in the family’s tent in the city of Salqin in Idlib province, 10/21/2020 (Violet - Syria Direct)
Abdulkarim al-Salloum helps his little sister with studying, using his father’s mobile phone in the family’s tent in the city of Salqin in Idlib province, 10/21/2020 (Violet - Syria Direct)

This year, Abdulkarim is continuing his education through the “blended learning” method, which combines in-classroom education with remote learning. The method, also known as the “emergency schedule,” was implemented in northwestern Syria when the academic year began on September 26. “The students are divided into two groups, each of which takes three classes per day, following precautionary and distancing measures,” Hassan al-Shawa, the Director of Idlib Education Directorate affiliated with the opposition Syrian Interim Government (SIG), told Syria Direct

But the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak in the last Syrian opposition-held area are only the latest obstacles facing Abdulkarim, some of which may be more severe than the dangers of the pandemic. The 16-year-old was displaced eight years ago with his family from Haysh, a town outside Maarat al-Numan in Idlib’s southern countryside. They fled to Aidoun camp “to escape the heavy bombing,” his father Abdullah al-Salloum told Syria Direct. At the time, Abdulkarim had “completed first grade in Haysh, and continued his education in the camp,” where the family lives in a tent that provides them with no protection from the summer heat or the winter cold. 

The al-Salloum family’s tent in the Aidoun camp in the city of Salqin in Idlib province, 10/21/2020 (Violet - Syria Direct)
The al-Salloum family’s tent in the Aidoun camp in the city of Salqin in Idlib province, 10/21/2020 (Violet - Syria Direct)

A burden exceeds families’ means

Abdulkarim, however, seems lucky compared to many other children in the area who have lost their right to education since the implementation of distance learning policy. As they do not have devices connecting them to their teachers, or because their families are not able to provide them with the internet, “some 25-27 percent of students enrolled at Violet Organization schools aren’t attending,” said Ahmad al-Naasan, the principal of a school supervised by Violet in Aidoun camp. 

Still, Abdulkarim’s father has not been able to buy a laptop or mobile phone for his children, resorting instead to coordinating between them to take classes through his mobile phone. He organizes times to “stream each one’s classes,” he explained, “so each sibling waits his turn.”

Mustafa al-Shahoud, a father of five who also lives in Aidoun camp, uses the same method to ensure his children get an education amidst COVID-19. He leaves his phone in the tent with his children “until they finish their lessons,” he told Syria Direct. But sometimes, “the teacher sends homework in the morning while I am at work, so my children can’t complete their homework and communicate with the teacher until I come back in the evening.” 

On top of that, al-Shahoud struggles with “the high price of [pre-paid] internet cards and spotty coverage in the camp.” Moreover, the “card could be stolen in some way and used by others,” he said. 

One of Mustafa al-Shahoud’s children studies in the family’s tent in the Aidoun camp in the city of Salqin in Idlib province, 10/21/2020 (Violet - Syria Direct)
One of Mustafa al-Shahoud’s children studies in the family’s tent in the Aidoun camp in the city of Salqin in Idlib province, 10/21/2020 (Violet - Syria Direct)

Further, the challenges created by the new reality of education are not limited to students and their parents but also impact teachers in northwestern Syria. Alongside the weak internet connections and difficulties of sharing a single device among multiple students, there is “the cut off of visual communication between a teacher and students,” al-Nasaan said. With both distance learning and blended learning, online education happens through groups on WhatsApp, and “these groups can’t be called classrooms,” he stressed. 

Even so, as Abdulkarim’s father put it, “learning from a distance is preferable to being distanced from education.”

Suffering beyond coronavirus

Although northwestern Syria is designated as a “de-escalation zone” under the Astana and Sochi agreements concluded between Russia, Iran and Turkey, the region has been experiencing instability since mid-2019 due to military operations by the Syrian government forces. Those operations, which paused in early 2020, resulted in the regime taking over several cities and towns in Idlib’s southern countryside, displacing more than one million civilians from the area.

The Syrian Response Coordinators Group (SRCG) estimates the opposition-held area’s population at around 4,186,704 people, about half of whom are IDPs. And while a truce agreement was reached between Ankara and Moscow in March, violations by government forces and their allies continue, preventing IDPs from returning to their homes. In August alone, SRCG documented 286 violations of the truce, including targeting by artillery, missiles, drones and warplanes. 

“The education sector was subjected to great instability, due to the military operations and targeting of schools that resulted in around 200,000-250,000 students being displaced in 2019, in addition to the bombing of schools,” Hisham Deirani, the Executive Director of Violet Organization, told Syria Direct. “The challenges facing education preceded the coronavirus,” Deirani pointed out, “but they increased as the virus spread in the area.” 

According to the statistics of Idlib Education Directorate of SIG, “the number of school-aged children in Idlib province, its countryside and the camps in it has reached around 600,000,” al-Shawa said, “out of them, 280,000 children have dropped out of the education process.” 

“There are 860 schools in Idlib, including those in the camps,” al-Shawa added, “out of which 140 have been partially damaged, while 360 have been completely destroyed or are in areas controlled by the regime while their inhabitants have been displaced.” 

The right to education is among the fundamental rights affirmed by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030), which emphasize the need to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong opportunities for all.” In response to the deteriorating educational reality in Idlib, civil society and humanitarian organizations, including Violet, have taken over “the task of bridging the education gap by providing educational services, whether regular or remedial education programs for those who have lost their right to education for years,” according to Deirani. Violet “provides education to around 40,000 students in 49 camps,” he said, all of whom have benefited from distance learning and are continuing this year under a blended education policy. 

In the same context, al-Naasan called on “those who want to serve this community and the camps to pay attention to the educational reality. If you produce an educated generation, then it is as though you have realized all these people’s aspirations. But if you gave the whole world to this community yet raised an ignorant child, then it is as though we have done nothing.” 

This report has been produced by Syria Direct in collaboration with Violet Organization for Free Press Unlimited's 2020 Small Grant Fund for Syrian CSO-Media Co-Production.

It was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.