The struggle to educate Syria’s ‘lost generation’

19th February 2016 at 00:00
Bombed-out classrooms, traumatised children and widespread hunger – but Aleppo’s schools must go on

In the schools of Aleppo, the glass has been taken out of the windows and replaced with plastic or nylon, so that explosions do not send shards flying. Children cower in freezing classrooms, attempting to learn to read and write, while aeroplanes hum overhead and bombs explode across the city.

There has been war in Syria for almost five years now. In Aleppo, the country’s largest city, a fierce battle for control is currently raging between the government and opposition forces. Many fear that it will be besieged – potentially for years – by the government.

This week, several Syrian education workers gave a presentation at the House of Commons in London, to draw attention to the reality of day-to-day life for pupils in the northern Syrian city. They hope that this will inspire British teachers and pupils to step in and help their Syrian counterparts.

“Our students are obsessed by weapons and conflict,” says Marcell Shehwaro, executive director of Kesh Malek, a charity that runs several schools in Aleppo. “The new obsession of teenagers in Syria is arms.”

Her comments are echoed by Caroline Anning from Save the Children. “When children draw pictures, there are lots of tanks, lots of aeroplanes, lots of guns,” she says. “Lots of crying eyes, that sort of thing. This helps us identify which children might need extra support. But, particularly in the middle of a war zone, it’s challenging, because children will continue to see these things.”

Bomb shelters and basements

Last year, more than 6,000 schools in Aleppo were targeted by air strikes. Some schools have been requisitioned by military groups; some are being used as shelters by locals whose homes have been destroyed; others have been bombed into disuse.

“In the beginning, we were naive,” says Ms Shehwaro. “We thought, ‘No one’s going to bomb a school. Not with the world watching us.’ In 2015, we decided we needed a plan B.”

All Kesh Malek’s schools now have bomb shelters. Save the Children’s pupils, meanwhile, are often taught in basements.

“Some parts of the city are just ghost towns,” Ms Anning says. “There’s very little respect for schools by any of the warring parties. Whole swathes of children are left without education at all.”

As a result, school enrolment rates in Aleppo have plummeted from 100 per cent before the war to as low as 6 per cent in some areas of the city. Across Syria, 2.1 million children are out of school. “In areas under siege or aerial bombardment, or with a lot of fighting in the streets, parents don’t want to send their children out of the home,” Ms Anning says.

Kesh Malek runs basic home-schooling sessions – covering maths, Arabic and English – for girls who married early, or whose parents will not let them travel to school. But, Ms Shehwaro says, there is little they can do for the boys. “Boys are going to work – they become arms dealers, or go to labour in Turkey.”

And many of the people who remain in Aleppo are there simply because they are too poor to leave. “These children are either begging or looking for work,” Ms Anning says. “Children don’t have enough food to eat in some areas, so they’re too hungry to learn. At the extreme end, all of that makes it very, very hard for children to go to school and learn.”

Poor amenities

Increasingly, charities are patching up damaged schools, so that they are fit for at least limited use. Others are converting half-built, long-abandoned buildings into ersatz classrooms. “Rooms are broken up with a partition made from packing cases – the ones with ‘UNHCR’ [the UN High Commissioner for Refugees] stamped all over,” says Ms Shehwaro. “We use that to divide the classrooms.”

Regular power cuts are now a common part of Syrian life. But Aleppo’s schools lack even more basic amenities. “There’s no heating and no air conditioning,” Ms Anning says. “It’s stifling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.”

And, says Heba Ajami, who has worked as a teacher with Syrian refugees in Jordan, the threat of air strikes is not the only risk that pupils face. “There are poor washing facilities in school,” she says. “It encourages the spread of disease.”

Ms Ajami adds that an estimated 52,000 teachers have fled Syria since the fighting began. The country, she says, has lost about 20 per cent of its teaching staff and school counsellors overall.

Kesh Malek’s schools are largely staffed by university students, who have been trained in basic communication and non-violence (corporal punishment was often a feature of their own school days).

Ms Anning, meanwhile, says that pupils are taught “by anyone who’s able to come forward and teach reading, writing and arithmetic”.

But, she says, this basic education is increasingly vital. “We’re nearly five years into the war now,” she says. “If we let education lapse as it has, we will end up with a lost generation, who can’t read or write. They won’t be able to rebuild their country when the war is over.”


How your school can help

Charity Kesh Malek is looking for British schools to sponsor their counterparts in Syria. “One school would collect funds for another school,” says its executive director Marcell Shehwaro. “Sell cookies, and send funds to Aleppo.”

British pupils would also be able to set up Skype conversations with their Syrian peers. “It creates a generation that knows about Syrian schools,” Ms Shehwaro says. “I think that would be helpful.”

She has already set up a link between a Dutch and a Syrian school. The Dutch pupils sent money to Syria, as well as 65kg of toys. “Smuggling them across the border was an experience,” Ms Shehwaro says. “Imagine getting caught because you’re smuggling toys.”

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