AMMAN- Thousands of students sat down to take their final exams last Sunday in the opposition-held area in northwestern Syria following a two-week delay as the Educational Ministry of the Syrian Interim Government struggled to coordinate testing amid massive waves of displacement, resulting from the Syrian government’s bombing campaign on the region.

Akram Said, went to an exam center early Sunday to take his first in a series of final secondary school exams in northern Idlib, close to where he and his family settled after fleeing the government bombardment. Said is just one of the thousands of displaced students who left southern Idlib because of the deteriorating security and living conditions there. 

At the beginning of June, Said, 19-years-old, escaped government shelling with his family from the town of Kafr Nabl, heading towards the Turkish border in northern Idlib. “At home, I wasn’t able to hold [my] book because of the intensity of the bombing and the anxiety,” he told Syria Direct.

Currently, 25,000 students are taking their final secondary and primary school exams in 195 designated testing centers in northwest Syria. Most of these centers are located along the Turkish border in order to ensure the safety of students, according to a statement on the Idlib’s Directorate of Education’s channel on the mobile app “Telegram.” 

There are currently 9,049 students taking university entry exams and 16,628 taking primary school exams. “Among them are 7,000 students either taking exams in areas which they were displaced to, or in alternative [testing] centers,” a source from Idlib’s Directorate of Education told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to talk to media.

It had been previously decided that exams would take place on the 9th of June, but testing was later delayed to Sunday the 23rd of June as a result of the Syrian forces’ military escalation in Idlib and Hama countryside, which targeted schools and medical centers. 

Students urged for a delay in the exams, commenting en-masse on a Facebook post shared by Idlib’s Directorate of Education which reported on the targeting of a school in Kansafra, a village in southern Idlib. 

One of the comments read: “We request the delay of the exams … I know that no one will see [this] comment, but if you do [see it], I hope you appreciate our misfortune.” 

Jamal al-Shuhood, the current deputy prime minister and former Minister of Education at Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-affiliated ‘Syrian Salvation Government’, told Syria Direct that “the exams were delayed out of concern for the students’ spirits [psychological well-being], as well as so that four educational centers could be moved from areas where residents had been displaced by the [military] campaign to new [testing sites].” 

Following the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, among them students, from northwest Syria, Idlib’s Directorate of Education created an electronic form that allowed students to update their personal information, enabling the Directorate of Education to place students in testing centers close to their new places of residence. 

However, unstable living situations, in addition to many students having limited access to the internet to update their information, prompted the Directorate to show more flexibility in their test scheduling.  Testing centers will “welcome displaced students in any [testing] center close to the areas they were displaced to if they [were] unable to update their data on the electronic link,” al-Shuhood said. 

Nonetheless, dozens of testing centers still canceled exams in northern Hama and southern Idlib, many of which were in the areas affected by the military’s latest bombing campaign.

“The areas exposed to daily bombings, such as Jebal Sheyhsho and Ma’aret Hurmah, have completely canceled exams,” Bara Idlibi, an Arabic language teacher in southern Idlib, told Syria Direct. “As for the other areas, test centers were set-up underground.” 

According to a statement by Idlib’s Directorate of Education on “Telegram,” on June 20, 2019,  the latest military campaign has destroyed 62 schools, killed 21 teachers, and displaced 150,000 students in Idlib governorate, in addition to killing no less than 277 students. Syria Direct was unable to verify this information at the time of publication. 

The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the targeting of 24 schools in the Idlib and Hama governorates by Syrian Government forces during a two-week period between the 26th of April and 7th of May.

Official Syrian government media outlets have denied the shelling of civilians in Idlib on multiple occasions, saying that government military operations target opposition military positions and that any resulting casualties are from their ranks. 

Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, warned, in a briefing to the Security Council on the Situation in Syria on June 18, 2019, that there is a “humanitarian catastrophe unfolding before our eyes” in Idlib that has pushed hundreds of thousands to the Turkish border.

Dreadful psychological conditions

Idlib’s Directorate of Education reiterated its commitment to ensuring that students complete their exams, pledging that “students will take their exams, even if we have to set up test centers under olive trees.” 

However, the political situation in northwest Syria means that preparing for exams is not just a matter of studying, but rather adjusting to incredibly challenging living conditions. 

“I think that the biggest challenge that faces the students is the lack of appropriate conditions for studying, especially the continuous bombing on the area which has lasted for more than a month,” Bara Idlibi said. “This has prevented students from studying.” 

“The IDPs are not in the best of circumstances, as many of the students fled to crowded living situations. Some moved to farmland as their fathers are unable to [afford to] rent a house in the places they were displaced to.” 

Southern and western Idlib were subject to scattered and sporadic bombardment on Sunday, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets. 

Manar al-Hassan, a student who was displaced from southern Idlib, spoke to Syria Direct, saying: “I wish that the exams were not delayed, even for one minute, because the situation has gone from bad to worse. And one of the regime’s priorities is targeting schools and testing centers.” 

“There is no other solution. The thousands of other students and I are forced to acclimate to our circumstances and prepare for the exams despite the continuous bombing.”