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.
The presentation comes as Syrian refugees have started arriving in Scotland: since last November, some 300 have now been received by local authorities. The Isle of Bute received 15 families and 20 children who were of school age late last year.
And last week, the Scottish government said that it would ensure all Syrian refugees would immediately benefit from student financial support, without having to meet the usual three-year residency requirements.
“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.”
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.
Bomb shelters and basements
“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 any education at all.”
As a result of this, school enrolment rates in Aleppo have sharply 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 – which cover 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 that they can do for the boys. “Boys are going to work – they become arms dealers, or go to labour in Turkey.”
Increasingly, charities are choosing to patch up damaged schools, so that they are fit for at least limited use. Others are converting half-built, long-abandoned buildings into ersatz classrooms for learning.
Regular power cuts are now a common part of Syrian life. But Aleppo’s schools lack even more basic amenities, such as heating and air conditioning.
In addition, a lack of washing facilities leaves pupils at risk of disease.
Lack of teachers
It is believed that around 52,000 teachers have fled Syria since the fighting began. It has been estimated that the country has lost about 20 per cent of its teaching staff and school counsellors overall.
Kesh Malek’s schools are largely staffed by university students.
Ms Anning, meanwhile, says that Save the Children’s pupils are taught “by anyone who’s able to come forward and teach reading, writing and arithmetic”.
But, she says, this basic education is proving to be 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.”