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‘We cannot go on’: Unpaid teachers on strike for ‘dignity’ in Idlib province

In opposition-held Idlib, thousands of teachers have been working without pay due to lost funding, some for as long as two years. Now at their breaking point, they are on strike. 

16 February 2022

PARIS — Since the start of the spring semester on February 5, teachers in Syria’s opposition-held northwestern Idlib province have been on an open-ended strike, demanding to be paid salaries after years of working as volunteers.

A number of schools affiliated with the Idlib and Hama Education Directorates issued a statement, a copy of which was reviewed by Syria Direct, announcing a “work stoppage until the teachers’ due rights are secured.” The statement represented “all the volunteer schools under the Idlib Education [Directorate], with all their assemblies: Jisr a-Shughour, Ariha, Harem, Maarat Misreen, Idlib, and Dana.”

On Sunday, dozens of teachers, alongside students and activists in solidarity with them, held a protest under the slogan “Dignity Strike.” It was the second protest since the strike began. They held up signs reading “depriving a teacher of their most basic rights pushes the rest of the educational process to the brink,” and stressing that “work is suspended until our demands are met and teachers are treated with dignity.”

“The strike came after we were completely exhausted,” said Muhammad al-Mustafa, a math teacher at Abdul Karim Ladhiqani High School in Idlib city. His school lost funding two years ago, after it had previously been supported by the American development consulting firm Chemonics. “A teacher is the weakest link in the liberated [opposition-held] areas,” he said.

There are more than 6,156 teachers working on a volunteer basis, without pay, in areas under the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-backed Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), while 14,609 do have financial support, according to a statistic issued by the SSG’s Ministry of Education. 

Repercussions of the strike

In northwestern Syria—home to more than four million people, half of whom are internally displaced according to estimates from the Syria Response Coordination Group—HTS-controlled areas are facing instability due to the gradual cessation of support for a number of projects, including education, since the announcement of the HTS-backed SSG in November 2017. 

Out of 1,033 schools open to students in Idlib province, “the staff of 373 schools work completely voluntarily, while local and international organizations support education in 660 other schools,” said Hassan al-Shawa, director of the Idlib Education Directorate. 

The teachers’ strike has led to “the closure of 82 schools to middle and high school students,” resulting in “160,000 students being deprived of an education,” said al-Shawa. 

He warned that “volunteer teachers interrupting their teaching negatively affects the continuity of education, and threatens an entire generation with a catastrophe of ignorance, especially in Idlib, which suffers from a 40% dropout rate.” The directorate also “suffers from 1,397 vacant teaching positions,” he said. 

The escalating education crisis in northwestern Syria could prompt more students to drop out, as in the case of 15-year-old Omar (a pseudonym). “If the school stays closed as a result of the teachers’ strike, I have no choice but to pull him out to work,” Ahmad al-Bakour, Omar’s father, told Syria Direct. He stressed that he wants his son “to complete his education, but I can’t enroll him in a private school with an annual tuition of $250,” approximately SYP 900,000 at the current black market exchange rate. Al-Bakour makes $20 (SYP 720,000) per month working as a painter, which he says “barely covers our monthly expenses, and is minimal.” 

Challenges beyond teachers’ power

In November 2021, the Idlib Education Directorate launched a project to support volunteer schools that aimed to expose the conditions of schools with unpaid staff in order to attract funders. Director al-Shawa expressed “appreciation for the efforts of teachers who have taken on the responsibility of preserving children’s right to an education.” He said “the directorate is working to communicate teachers’ voices to official bodies and international organizations, and will not spare any effort until teachers’ true status is restored.” 

“Appreciating teachers’ efforts in words is not enough,” said teacher al-Mustafa. He stressed the “need to take real steps to preserve our dignity,” and praised the parents who participated in the recent teachers’ protest. 

For her part, teacher Bayan al-Shahoud rejected the accusation that teachers participating in the strike are threatening education in Idlib. “Those who are fighting education are the Ministry of Education and the organizations sponsoring the educational sector,” she told Syria Direct

Al-Shahoud teaches Arabic at the Arab Unity School for Girls, which is affiliated with the Idlib educational assembly. She has been working without a salary since “the school’s support,” which came from the Ihsan for Relief and Development organization, “was cut off a year ago.” After funding stopped, “teachers kept working without pay so that 300 students wouldn’t be deprived of their right to education,” she said. 

Al-Shahoud, displaced from the southern Idlib countryside, is the sole breadwinner for her three children since the death of her husband. Before the school lost funding, she received a monthly salary of $170 (SYP 611,000), $100 of which she paid in rent for the house she shares with her brother and his family. The rest went to cover her family’s basic expenses. 

Since her salary was cut off, al-Shahoud has been unable “to meet my children’s needs,” she said, like “many widowed teachers who have no supporter but God.”. 

Math teacher al-Mustafa, displaced from the southern Idlib city of Khan Sheikhoun, is a father of four. Since his salary was cut off a year and a half ago, he has relied upon his brother living in Turkey “to pay the monthly rent of the house, which is $75 [SYP 270,000],” he said. Al-Mustafa works “evenings at a bookshop for $20 [SYP 72,000] a month, to meet some of our monthly needs.”

“My children are deprived of their most basic rights to food and clothing,” he said. “Sometimes we make do with bread as a main meal.” 

While al-Mustafa acknowledges the role of teachers in building a society and their responsibility towards Idlib’s children, “we have reached a point where we cannot go on,” he said. “It is a teacher’s responsibility to build the future generation, but he is also the head of a family with obligations and can’t afford to go without pay.” 

“We are the cornerstone of building society,” al-Mustafa said, “but if this stone is not supported, society will collapse.” Al-Shahoud echoed his sentiment, agreeing that the strike must continue “until we achieve our demands to secure a dignified life.”


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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