Photo essay: Displaced Syrians in Rukban camp build an education system from scratch

Rukban teacher Maher gives a math lesson in September. Photo by Omar a-Shawi for Syria Direct. 

“Six times four equals 24; eight times three equals 24; 24 times one equals 24.” In a fresh blue dishdasha, one of Ahmad al-Abdallah’s elementary school students fills out a multiplication table in one corner of the classroom’s tiny, fraying whiteboard.

Above, a popular Quran verse for children is spelled out in the teacher’s neat handwriting, with the complex grammar highlighted from an earlier Arabic lesson: “Your Lord has ordered you to worship none except Him, and to be good to your parents.”

Al-Abdallah, himself displaced several years ago from rural Homs province, now runs a makeshift elementary schoolhouse in Rukban—a remote, poorly served camp directly on Syria’s desertous southeastern border with Jordan.

There, an estimated 50,000 displaced Syrians, mostly from rural eastern Homs province, live in dire conditions. Communicable diseases are rampant. Water, food and medicine are expensive—when available at all—and the recent closure of a vital UN-run medical clinic in nearby Jordanian territory has residents questioning how much longer they can withstand life in the isolated desert camp. According to a UN official speaking to Syria Direct on Monday, the clinic is set to close yet again later this week.

The future of the camp is yet further in doubt, following news of an impending evacuation of fighters and civilians to rebel-held areas of northern Syria, which emerged last week. At least several thousand are reportedly already signed up to leave in the unprecedented evacuation convoy towards northern Syria.

Caught between closed borders and looming evacuations, tens of thousands of residents live out a liminal existence—barred from entering Jordan and often too afraid to return home to Syrian government territory.

Even so, with the start of the new school year this month, education remains a priority, camp residents say, despite a significant lack of school supplies.

“We care about erasing illiteracy,” says al-Abdallah, who teaches Arabic and math to two dozen of his neighbors’ elementary school-age children in a single-room  schoolhouse in Rukban.

Below, Syria Direct provides a rare photographic insight into daily life in Rukban, told from the perspective of its tucked-away classrooms and their young students.

All photos by Omar a-Shawi.

A math lesson earlier this month in an elementary school run by camp resident and school teacher Maher. Some seven teachers, including university graduates and those who taught before the war, instruct 300 children in a school that’s spread across half a dozen makeshift schoolhouses and tents, Maher tells Syria Direct. The work, though necessary, he says, is on a voluntary basis. “There is nobody to pay the teachers’ salaries,” he adds. 

Over 4,000 young children are currently attending elementary-level classes in Rukban, according to Ahmad a-Zgheira, who heads the education office in the camp’s locally run civil administration. At the same time, educational services for older students are unavailable due to a lack of supplies and accreditation that would guarantee them places in upper-level standardized tests and possibly later, in university. Schools in Rukban only go up to sixth grade, a-Zgheira adds.  

“I have a 15-year-old son who should be in ninth or 10th grade,” says 45-year-old Rukban camp resident Abu Muhammad al-Homsi, who fled his hometown in rural Homs province three years ago. “When we left, he was in seventh grade but here there is no middle school, so he hasn’t entered school at all in the camp.” Even for his three children who still do attend classes, “there are no chairs,” al-Homsi complains. “The kids sit on top of blankets or on the ground. The classroom is just a tent.”

A UN aid delivery last year from Jordanian territory provided local educators with supplies of school notebooks, writing utensils and erasers, teachers tell Syria Direct. But the camp’s educational needs are simply too high. At some smaller schoolhouses—including al-Abdallah’s—teachers take a small monthly tuition fee from students to stay afloat. Al-Abdallah says he collects 2,000 Syrian lira (approximately $4) per pupil. 

Despite the challenges he faces teaching in Rukban, al-Abdallah (whose neighborhood schoolhouse is pictured above) is uniquely suited for the job. Before the war, he worked for the Syrian government’s ministry of education, teaching the children of nomadic Bedouin tribesmen in the country’s eastern desert region. 

“My [Rukban] students’ ages range from five to 13,” al-Abdallah tells Syria Direct. “There are no official bodies that provide accreditation for [their studies here in Rukban]. But in any case, the idea of founding the school came from one interest only—we care about erasing illiteracy.” 

Al-Abdallah named his Rukban school, which is pictured above and serves both boys and girls, “Sprouts of the Future.”

This photo essay is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Omar a-Shawi

Omar a-Shawi resides in the Rukban camp and is a trainee in Syria Direct's displacement reporting project, in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

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 in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.