Last winter, a student at the school in Suwayda where Faed Abdullah is the principal brought a canister of diesel with him to class. It was too cold for him to focus, he said, and he wanted to bring fuel for the school's heaters.
The classrooms were cold because supplies of mazot diesel fuel to heat them that were meant to come from the regime’s Suwayda Education Directorate never arrived, says Abdullah. The excuse was that there was no fuel available, and no funding to buy it.
Abdullah has worked in education in Druze-majority, regime-held Suwayda province for more than three decades. Now the principal of a school in the west Suwayda countryside, the 55-year-old tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Basha that educators and students are suffering from a lack of services for schools as a result of the war.
“Last year, dozens of students missed classes where I work because of the lack of fuel,” he says. “The reason given by officials is always that they do not have the money, and the circumstances of the current war in Syria.”
With winter approaching, Abdullah worries that his school will see a repeat of last year.
Syria Direct attempted to reach the Suwayda Education Directorate by phone several times for comment. An individual at the directorate referred us to its media office, which did not respond. A second employee contacted on Monday said she did not believe that there is a media office for the education directorate.
Syria Direct also contacted the Ministry of Education in Damascus, and was told to submit any request for comment by fax. Syria Direct attempted to fax the ministry at two different numbers. Both attempts bounced. Further phone calls to the ministry went unanswered.
Meanwhile in Suwayda, a lack of basic services, staffing shortages and apathy about students’ prospects in a war-torn and economically struggling nation mean that “more…students are out of school than in,” says the principal.
“We have a huge problem ahead of us to educate and prepare the next generation.”
Q: How would you describe the state of your school today?
Between six years ago and now, schools have declined from a professional, moral and service standpoint.
Q: Could you expand on that point? What do you mean by a decline in services?
It’s almost winter. Naturally, the schools need fuel to warm the students. But so far, schools have not received enough mazot [diesel] fuel from the Suwayda Education Directorate for heating. The excuse last year was that there is not enough fuel available.
Last year, dozens of students missed classes at my school because of the lack of heating. I remember once this past January, a student came to school carrying with him a little canister of mazot from his house. I asked him why, and he said: ‘I want to learn and understand, not come all this way to school just to get cold.’
A classroom in Suwayda in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Suwayda Education Directorate.
At a teachers’ meeting last year, they talked about how some students had destroyed their seats [to burn] for warmth, as a kind of protest against the fuel shortage. Even so, all the schools in Suwayda completed the semester despite the fierce winter and cold heaters.
There is also a problem with electricity. The women’s technical school [a high school teaching sewing, embroidery and knitting] needs electricity to run the sewing machines and give students practical lessons. Many of these classes have been abandoned. Again, the excuse [from education authorities] is the fuel crisis and a lack of money in the budget to buy large generators.
Q: Are Suwayda’s schools facing any problems with teaching staff?
Yes—dozens of teachers have left various schools in Suwayda, causing a staff shortage in a number of schools.
For example, at the high school in our town there was a shortage of teachers, especially science teachers. So, [many] students requested transfers to schools in Suwayda city. Some resorted to private schools. At the high school, there is now only one class, with just 33 students. Keep in mind that this is a town of 17,000 residents, between locals and displaced people from various provinces.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the reasons for the problems that teachers have faced? And how have these problems developed throughout the past several years?
The reason is the neglect of education by the government, which only cares about affairs outside the province.
For example, there are hundreds of young people in the province—university graduates—who are calling for job opportunities. Even so, when competing for jobs they are given on the basis of bribes and favoritism, as a result of the chaos. Small numbers of unqualified people who have wasta [connections] get jobs, while the rest either emigrate or stay at home, unemployed.
Q: Have you personally seen wasta interfere with the appointment of a teacher at your school?
I have. Last year, we sent a request for an Arabic teacher to the Suwayda Education Directorate. Our former Arabic teacher had left the country. After students had already been cut off from Arabic classes for two weeks, they sent us a girl trained as a basic schoolteacher. She was not competent to teach Arabic, since it was not her specialty. Arabic class became a free period for students to play around, laugh and enter into discussions with the teacher. She has been warned many times to take more care in her work, but it’s like the lights are on but nobody’s home.
Q: You are the principal, can’t you dismiss the teacher because she is inadequate?
Of course I can’t. All I can do is present complaints to the education directorate, which in turn sends the request to the Ministry of Education. The ministry then sends someone to make a surprise visit of the class. This individual then evaluates the teacher and dismisses them or not. But those who have support [through connections], neither a principal nor anyone else can remove.
Q: Have you asked for help from the regime? What was the response? How do you see the regime’s handling of the education sector?
I have asked for help from the authorities. Recently, we have had trouble from a group of scoundrels on motorcycles. They hang out in front of the school and harass the girls after classes let out.
We asked the police station in town to post someone in front of the school to fend those troublemakers off, but did not initially receive a response. After the education directorate put pressure on the police station, they sent two policemen and stationed them in front of the school. Even this has not solved the problem, though. Fights break out repeatedly between the students and those troublemakers, and on multiple occasions those disputes devolved into the use of light weapons and injuries.
The way I see it, the regime does not care about education and schools at this moment. This is in everything, from securing staff to services like water, fuel, books, etcetera. The reason given by officials is always that they do not have the money, and the circumstances of the current war in Syria.
Q: Do you believe the regime has the ability to provide complete services to the schools in areas under its control, such as Suwayda?
Yes, it is able. But [I believe] it does not really want to help the schools’ situation, especially in the west Suwayda countryside, which is outside its control somewhat.
[Ed.: In parts of Druze-majority Suwayda province, real power lies not with government forces but with local powerbrokers and militias.]
Many international organizations provide support to schools in Syria, but only a small amount of this aid really arrives, even when it comes to schoolbooks. For example, books were distributed free of charge to elementary school students, but these new books are not fully available. There are worn-out books that are given to the students, and we are asked to charge them even if they do not take care of those books. Students do not receive new books unless the curriculum changes, as happened this year.
When it comes to test papers, students actually pay for them. There is a ‘cooperation and activity’ fee that students pay annually which goes to purchase the test papers.
In the women’s technical school, for example, students are meant to receive a stipend. It is a symbolic sum, but about enough for students to pay for transportation. But since last year, these students only received the stipend twice a year. The reason given was that there are not enough funds.
Many necessities that the school should provide to the student for free are affected by this matter.
Q: How do you see the future of these schools if the situation continues as it is?
I think the results are already starting to appear. More elementary school and middle school students are out of school than in it.
With compulsory education laws not being enforced as a result of the chaos, this number is likely to increase. Young people are now convinced that ‘we are going to study, learn and put in effort, and in the end we’ll end up on the street or in the military, so forget education in the first place.’ We have a huge problem ahead of us to educate and prepare the next generation.