Raqqa pupils and teachers prepare for new school year after ‘pitch-black darkness’ of IS rule

Raqqa teachers attend a July workshop. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council Education Committee.

AMMAN: More than 100,000 students are expected to return to schools across northern Syria’s Raqqa province next month—beginning the first formal academic year since the collapse of Islamic State rule last year.

But as local US-backed authorities rush to rehabilitate an education system in tatters, teachers themselves are preparing for the daunting task of working with children—many of them traumatized by instability and fighting—who have gone years without any formal schooling.

When the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 declared Raqqa city the capital of their so-called “caliphate,” all traditional education came to a halt. IS instead imposed a curriculum based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law and banned the teaching of basic school subjects, including physics and chemistry.

A number of Raqqa’s schools simply disappeared altogether, transformed into makeshift displacement shelters or IS prisons. During a months-long aerial and ground offensive by the the US-backed international coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust IS from the province, human rights groups documented cases of schools being hit by the bombardment.  

“Only a small segment [of people] agreed to let their children go to school,” 22-year-old teacher Zeina al-Abed tells Syria Direct via WhatsApp, asking that her real name be withheld in this report.

As IS was driven out of the province, children slowly started returning to school. However, the education system remained largely unorganized, with limited resources at hand.

The province’s education sector is administered by the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC), a body established by the US-backed, majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in April 2017 that has been tasked with governing the city in the wake of the IS defeat.

According to Ali al-Shahan, head of the RCC’s Education Committee, the committee has so far managed to prepare 181 schools for the coming semester, out of the 231 schools that operated across Raqqa province before the outbreak of the uprising and ensuing conflict in Syria.

With one month left before students return, local staff are busy transporting thousands of new desks, whiteboards, stationary and books piled up at a committee headquarters in central Raqqa out to schools across the province in time for the beginning of the academic year.

 

RCC unload whiteboards on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council’s Education Committee.

But amid the rush to get schools ready, the committee is facing the even more daunting challenge of preparing teachers for classrooms filled with children who have been deprived of formal schooling for years. Teachers and education officials fear they are also dealing with a student body badly traumatized by both the brutal rule of IS as well as coalition bombardment.

“We still see students who get scared of loud noises such as the sound of cars and airplanes in the sky,” says teacher al-Abed, who also worries that children “being out of school for seven years has led to ignorance and a real lack of development on all levels.”

Al-Abed is among some five thousand Raqqa teachers who went through a two-month training program this past summer aimed at improving the “competencies… of teachers after being cut off from teaching for more than five years,” according to a Facebook post by Raqqa Civil Council read in June.

But the training is also meant to prepare incoming teachers for “moral education” of pupils as well as “psychosocial support and the eradication of illiteracy,” says committee member al-Shanan.

The summer training comes as Raqqa’s SDF-linked authorities vie to undo the effects of IS rule on thousands of local children.

The task, teachers say, is one that involves erasing years of IS propaganda. One Deir e-Zor teacher told Syria Direct earlier this year that biggest challenge facing teachers in former IS-held areas is “eliminating the dark thoughts” among students who may have spent several years being taught hardline Islamist ideologies in IS-run institutions.

Photos obtained by Syria Direct in April reveal IS-printed school books that feature missiles, guns and explosive devices to help children visualize simple math exercises. Though the books were unearthed in an isolated corner of southwestern Syria run—until last month—by an IS affiliate, they indicate the type of violent indoctrination taught in areas once under the group’s control.

Al-Abed suggests that teachers need to treat returning students “calmly” and “without hitting the students, but by encouraging them.”

But as al-Abed and hundreds of other teachers prepare their lessons for the coming months, the task of re-integrating hundreds of thousands of children into the educational system poses long-term challenges for teachers and local officials in a province still recovering from years of trauma.

“Transitioning from pitch-black darkness to openness isn’t easy,” says al-Abed. “But ultimately, we don’t want an ignorant country.”

This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Abdullah al-Hassan

Abdullah al-Hasan is from Latakia and left for Jordan in 2012. He studies civil engineering and has worked for refugee-support organizations in the past. In gaining new skills in journalism he hopes to first and foremost support refugees via accurate reporting.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.