Parents, children struggle as education beyond their grasp

April 6, 2014

By Gioia Forster, Raneem Qubatros and Mohammed Ali al-Haj Ali

AMMAN: As the traumas pile up from more than three years of civil war, half of Syria’s school-age children are no longer in school, leaving them frustrated, bored and with growing behavioural problems.

Illiteracy, wetting themselves and aggressive tendencies are just some of the problems reported by mothers and teachers interviewed by Syria Direct. While the UN and other non-profit agencies have issued study after study warning of the collapse of education, few have looked at the actual results of years outside school as the fabric of society unravels.

“I have seen students suffering from fear, introversion and health problems such as involuntary urination in ninth-grade students,” says Mohammad Jamal Shahoud, 44, the director of the Free Education Directorate in Idlib, an association of teachers who have fled their homes and have set up ad hoc schools in areas such as Idlib, the Damascus suburbs, Latakia’s suburbs and A-Raqqa.  

A Syrian boy sitting in his destroyed school in Syria. Photo courtesy of Al Anbar News A Syrian boy sitting in his destroyed school in Syria. Photo courtesy of al-Anbar News.

The association counts 3,000 teachers who have developed a curriculum modelled on the government schools where they formerly worked. Still, the realities of operating in an active war zone present challenges, Shadoud says.

“Our students face continuous shortages of electricity, water, housing and amenities that are supposed to be available in schools,” Shadoud said, adding that in violent areas teachers resort to hosting classes in tents and even caves.

“We will need more than a decade to deal with the effects of uneducated students,” he said.  

A recent UNICEF report notes that primary school attendance and literacy rates were above 90% in Syria before March 2011; today, that number has plummeted to below 30% in some of the hardest-hit conflict zones, among them a-Raqqa, Idlib, Aleppo and Daraa provinces.

Of the 4.8 million Syrian children of school age, more than 2.2 million in Syria are not in school. It is a number that rises daily, UNICEF reports.

The war has destroyed one in four schools in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, “with more than 4,000 schools destroyed, damaged or turned into shelters for displaced people,” according to UNICEF.

Part of the problem, says Al-Momen Saed, 33, a schoolteacher from Outer Damascus, is that immediate survival becomes the priority.

When people flee, “they don’t even take clothes or books – they don’t know where they are heading,” says Saed. “The scattered situation makes the learning process impossible,” he says, because “the priority for displaced people is to have a place to live and the food they need.”

Two girls are using a school desk in the street in Syria. Photo courtesy of Free Media Hub Two girls are using a school desk in the street in Syria. Photo courtesy of Free Media Hub.

With every passing year, the possibility of re-entering education and making up for lost time becomes increasingly difficult. 

Ola is a mother of two who fled violence in her Damascus district of Sbieneh and now lives in Al-Midan. Her husband was arrested by the regime months ago. She has not heard from him since, and her two boys have been out of school for more than a year.

Ola tried to enroll them in the regime-controlled Damascus neighbourhood of Al-Midan, but she says said the school was already full due to an influx of internally displaced Syrians.

Ola says she is starting to lose control of her eldest son, aged nine. He “has become very aggressive lately - he bullied and attacked a girl in the neighborhood and broke a cell phone belonging to a neighbor,” she said. “He is so violent and neurotic all the time” Ola.

“[My son] spends most of his spare time sitting with rebels to get closer to them, […] but I keep trying to stop him,” says Um Asa’ad, a widow, about her 15-year-old son who left school and has since become the family’s sole breadwinner after his father died.

“It is better to work in order to learn a skill and to be able to offer us something to live by,” says Um Asa’ad. Her son Asa’ad works with his uncle as a travelling salesman of petrol in rebel-held Rastan, a town close to the frontlines of northern Homs province.

In regime-controlled Damascus, Basheer, a 16-year-old dropout, says the war has eclipsed his education in importance.

“I started to watch the news and see the daily killing in other provinces,” said Basheer, who chose to leave school of his own accord as protests began around Damascus.

“I felt humiliated and oppressed when I saw dead bodies on television.”

Basheer and Asa’ad’s experiences have become normal throughout Syria.

“Children aged 12 and above are at a higher risk of leaving school and joining the labour force or fighting,” says Juliette Touma, UNICEF’s spokesperson on the Syria crisis.

In Idlib, a primarily rebel-controlled and fiercely embattled city in north-western Syria, 64% of high-school and 38% of primary-school students are not enrolled in school, according to a report by the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“Many kids are on the main streets now selling things, begging for money or being exploited by people,” Al-Mo'men Saed, a school teacher in the Damascus suburbs, said. “They are working in places that don't suit their ages to make a living.”

Three years of conflict and the subsequent social and economic collapse of the country have reversed decades of educational achievement, UNICEF states. In addition to teenagers increasingly leaving school, thousands of young children who have grown up with the war have never even been enrolled.

“There are nine-year-old kids who can’t read or write,” said Rima Said, 29, a mother of two.

The most severe breakdown of education is in rebel-held areas where formal learning is largely suspended due to ongoing fighting and the lack of functioning schools.

“There are no real schools in our area,” Um Asa’ad said of her hometown, Rastan, one of the last rebel strongholds in the northern suburbs of Homs. “Some people do teach their kids individually but I don’t see it as good education.”

Learning facilities are among the casualties of war, with 1,000 schools have also allegedly been used as detention or torture centers in Syria, according to Human Rights Watch.

Near the frontlines, makeshift schools are often the only way children learn. “Many kind people [in our area] made an effort, for instance some of the families in the village offered their houses up as classrooms,” says Um Mahmoud, a mother of three living in a rebel-controlled suburb of Latakia.

In the absence of other options, Ola, the mother of two who fled to the regime-controlled neighbourhood of al-Midan, says her children spend their time playing war-related games.

“They play war, some acting like they are shabiha [pro-regime militia] and some are Free Syrian Army. They capture places and people, and so on,” Ola says of her son’s games, which echo the civil war raging on their doorstep.

Other children process their experiences by replicating classrooms within their imaginations. “Displaced children often pretend that they are studying,” Um Mahmoud said. “You see them playing a game, some pretending to be the teacher, some pretending to be students.”

Where some form of education is available, going to school is perilous – not only outside the classroom, but also inside, where children have reportedly been harassed, interrogated or whole schools targeted militarily, a Human Rights Watch report states

As more and more children drop out of school, whatever the reasons, pro-opposition Syrians say the lost generation growing up in their own homes undermines the goals of bringing down the Syrian regime.

The lack of education “is killing the revolution,” said Um Mahmoud.

Firas Abd and Osama Abu Zeid contributed reporting

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