Syria. Schooling in War-Torn Country

The war which has been raging in Syria for nearly eight years now has had one dramatic consequence which is largely ignored: the collapse of the school system, depriving huge numbers of children of any education whatsoever.

March 8, 2017. For the first time in four years, some children from Eastern Ghouta are spending a full day in their school.
© UNICEF /Amer Al-Shami

The Syrian regime was proud of having practically done away with illiteracy, made primary schooling accessible in every part of the country and secondary and higher education available to increasing numbers of Syrian youths. If we are to believe Unicef statistics, the rate of primary school enrolment in 2011 was 99.6% for any given age group, and was practically equivalent for girls and boys. At secondary level, it was 58% with only a slight advantage for boys. And finally, while illiteracy was not entirely eliminated, the literacy rate among adults was 84%, and 95% for young adults between 15 and 25. These seemingly remarkable figures must in fact be taken with a grain of salt, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

“We came to realise that we did not really know our society,” says Sahar, an activist in Damascus. When she and her friends decided to help families fleeing the bombs of the regime everywhere in the country, they discovered the true extent of illiteracy as well as practices they thought had been eliminated such as the early marriage of little girls – which the general violence and disappearance of fathers have made worse – but also the considerable numbers of children whose births were not officially registered and therefore are not enrolled in any school. Not only were the material conditions woefully deficient but the educational methods were authoritarian with a predominance of learning by heart and the inculcation of obedience to authority through “patriotic education” (tarbiya wataninyya) which has developed a servile devotion to the Nation and the State, and an abstract and passive relationship to knowledge.

Already, over the last few decades, unbridled population growth had given rise to seriously overcrowded classrooms. Private lessons had flourished and profit-making educational institutions emerged to provide support for pupils of primary and secondary public schools, often ensured by the staff of those same schools.

Today, when nearly a third of the population is in exile and almost as many have fled their homes for another part of the country, nearly half the children are out of school. In 2015, according to a report by the UN Secretary General, the Syrian Ministry of Education admitted that “since the beginning of the conflict, more than 6,500 schools have been destroyed, partially damaged, used as shelters for internally displaced persons or rendered otherwise inaccessible.” According to a Unicef report for 2016, “Syria counts 2.1 million school-age children (5 to 17) who are not in school. Moreover, 600,000 Syrian refugee children scattered throughout the region are also deprived of an education.”

Two, Three, Four Removals

In the areas controlled by the rebels, neither of the schools, hospitals or public buildings have been spared; in fact they have often been targeted by the bombings.

In the areas still controlled by Damascus, while many school buildings were made available to needy displaced persons for varying length of time, public schools still in activity have seen the size of classes double or triple, not to mention the predicament of exiles in neighbouring countries or refugee camps.

In practice, for the thousands of children whose families have been forced to move house two, three or four times – sometimes even more – it means either an interruption in their schooling or a delay of several years before it can even begin. And as time goes by, the children from areas abandoned by the public service and who are no longer listed in the civil registry if they ever were, add to the number of out-of-school children.

Nayla, a teacher from Idlib whom I met in Damascus early in December 2018 told me about the arrival of the Al-Nosra Front in 20151: how its fighters had forced women to dress according to supposedly “Islamic” norms, hunting down those whose dresses showed a bit of ankle; how “kids” separated the women from their husbands in collective taxis, making the men sit on the front seats and the women in back; how they accused civil servants, and especially the teachers, of being shabiha (members of the government’s militia); how they changed their teaching curriculum.

Good Conduct Overseers

However she also said that when “the coalition” took control of the city, women known as murchidates (good conduct overseers) were sent into the schools to supervise the way the girls were dressed. One incident caused a great stir around town: during an exam, one of these murchidates tried to force a girl to leave the room because she felt she was incorrectly dressed. The other pupils stood up for their classmate until her father arrived in a rage and forced the so-called educator to leave the pupils alone.

However, Nayla went on, whereas the Al-Nosra Front had imposed its own school curricula by doing away with philosophy classes, replaced by religious teaching, when the schools came under the control of the coalition the official curriculum was restored, merely purged of its political content and the cult of the Assad family. And in 2018, there was even one school where the personnel was still being paid by the central government and which continued to use the official curriculum in its entirety.

Actually, in a certain number of regions which the regime has ceased to control since 2012, the teachers who remained on the job went on receiving their pay for varying periods of time. Despite material hardships, the schools were still in operation, following the official curriculum minus a few courses like “patriotic education” or “social studies.” Indeed, the teachers’ main concern was enabling pupils to prepare for the exams which would earn them officially recognised diplomas. At Aleppo, in Eastern Syria, the Regional Council had taken over the educational system, restored many school buildings and paid teachers’ salaries. The latter also followed the official programmes, eliminating the political education courses but introducing new artistic activities and training teachers in new educational methods.

Regions administered by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party represent a special case: its autonomous administration has set up a teaching program in Kurdish, while maintaining classes in their own language for Arabic-speaking pupils and creating specific classes for the tiny minority whose language is Syriac.

The curricula have been completely made over in keeping with the political project of the new regime.

In the regions which have remained in the bosom of the regime or returned to it, all children must officially be able to attend public school. However the extent of displacements within the country has caused terrible overcrowding of classrooms and a deterioration of the children’s material environment. We hear tell of classes of 40, 50, sometimes as many as 60 pupils, even after a second section has been opened, with morning and afternoon sessions. Nonetheless, here and there we are told the pressure has been lessened due to the return home of displaced families.

In Nanyas, Hanaa, a primary school teacher, reports that rosters have risen from 30 to 40 or 50 per class as a result of the influx of displaced families, often having fled Aleppo after 2012. A large share of the population of the Sunni districts were able to flee the Spring massacre of 2013 but the schools they left behind them were destroyed. However since Aleppo was recaptured, she tells us, a number of families have now returned to their villages and their districts, easing the pressure in Nanyas.

An Absolute Priority

According to her friend Sorayya, the overcrowding is sometimes made worse by the parents’ reluctance to accept the splitting of the classes, they want their children all to be on the same schedule: in Banyas, most of the schools appear to have given up that solution while another witness reports that in Lattakia the school authority set up morning and afternoon sessions, gave them up, and then restored them. . .

Confronted with this situation, Syrians, needless to say, have not been sitting by, and waiting for international organisations, intergovernmental agencies or NGOs to come to the rescue: “This is an absolute priority,” says Souheir, “if we leave those kids hanging around in the streets they can become delinquent or be recruited by the terrorists.” In response, the population relies primarily on local resources, volunteer initiatives, material support from community leaders and various existing structures, but also material and financial aid from other countries, sometimes from nearby Lebanon, Catholic charities, and associations of various sizes via ad hoc local relays. However, the law forbids receiving foreign aid without government authorisation. Whatever its ethnic identity, its political or religious orientation, every school involved in these initiatives must find ways around the obligation to submit to the control of the Ministry of Education.

Thus, this statement by Nabil Antaki, a physician who took part in the founding of the Maristes bleus who have taken charge of thousands of displaced persons from East Aleppo, echoes the strategy of other activists in Lattakia or Damascus: “What we are doing here is illegal. . . So we play with words, we never speak of a school, only of ‘a project.’"2

In Lattakia, where until now the only pre-school educational structures were private and charged tuition, associations have set up two nursery schools meant specifically for children of displaced families. Unfortunately, their limited resources do not allow them to satisfy the demand, the people in charge regretfully explain. One of them is run by activists who decided to operate in keeping with officialdom, thus making it possible for them legally to receive foreign aid and pay wages, but obliging them to submit to stringent official surveillance. The other refuses to depend either on governmental control or help from foreign donors and hence has greater freedom, but smaller resources: it mainly relies on a voluntary workforce and on its ties with groups of exiles who manage to send them small amounts of aid through unofficial channels. In so doing they are outside the law, and know they are running a risk.

In the suburbs of Damascus, Umm Wassim, who began by working with the Syrian Red Crescent, and then, by using that as a cover, managed to open a shelter for displaced children within, and with the help of, a private school. Two types of activities are carried out there: in the evening children are taken in hand who need to make up for lost time in basic subjects (Arabic, English, maths); the daytime is for children who have been denied schooling for lack of any ID.

And finally on Saturdays, extracurricular activities are organised which are open to all, and which include body language sessions meant to alleviate accumulated stress.

Activities for pre-school children are meant both to help them overcome the traumas they have experienced and prepare them for primary school. But in Lattakia and in Banyas, as well as the suburbs of Damascus, activists all lay emphasis on the way the overcrowding of primary classes is likely to cancel out much of these efforts as soon the children arrive in the official schools, despite the aid supplied by Unicef.

Development of the Private Sector

To what extent will the failings of public education favour the development of a private sector, confessional or for profit, which was already in full swing before the uprising began 2011?3 Knowing that 80% of the Syrian population lives below the poverty line, it is obvious that only a minority can be concerned by a development which widens the gap between a tiny elite of privileged citizens and the masses.

In Salamiyah, I am told of a growing number of ‘institutes’which offer complementary evening classes for groups of twenty pupils, often taught by teachers from the public school system, who are thus able to top up their monthly wages or old-age pensions. Rafiq, a retired science teacher, has classes in three of these private institutes and explains to me that these existed long before the ‘events’ began.

Even though, as several people told me, the obligation to hold classes in ‘patriotic education’, ‘national culture’ and other ‘social studies’ had grown less stringent prior to 2011, the government still insists on guarding the curricula against any attempt to introduce ‘subversive ideas’ , be they religious or cultural.

UNICEF, whose official partner is still the State, has contributed to the ‘modernisation’ of the curricula in order to help pupils catch up their lost ground and more generally to rethink the whole school syllabus. However the curricula under elaboration are the object of debates and controversies which are likely to water down the teaching content even more. History, geography, and civic instruction are not the only matters at stake here; literature as well can come under fire, since an author praised by the opposition will be seen as anathema by the powers that be, while an image of a veiled woman or a bearded man used to illustrate a textbook will be seen as Islamist propaganda.

And, of course, the language used in class is equally an issue. It is out of the question to offer Kurdish or any other minority language, not even as an option. On the other hand, the Minister has started to bring Russian into secondary schools. To what extent will Russian or Iranian advisers be taking part? In its editions of last 23 January and 5 March, the Syria Report refers to the development of relations with these two countries in the area of education. Iran is said to have already opened many schools in Damascus, Lattakia and in Eastern Syria. On the other hand, the region administered by the Kurdish Democratic Forces is currently setting up a ‘national’ educational system which is repeating the defects of the Ba’ath system from the ideological standpoint. Revolutionary political instruction and the cult of the personality of Abdullah Öçalan arouse the hostility of part of the region’s population, especially among non-Kurds. In the 2,400 new schools, only the final forms follow the Syrian curriculum. For the others, the old textbooks are banned.

Like the reconstruction of the country itself, that of the school system is likely to take a long time and in fact may well be an impossible dream. Far from reflecting a ‘healthier and more homogenous society’ (which the President claims to be in the offing, the school system which Syria is preparing to build will long be confined to turning out a mass of unqualified workers for a totally deregulated market, alongside a minority of poorly qualified college graduates reduced to silence and, at best, a tiny elite with no choice but to emigrate or wheel and deal in a borderless, globalised world. Even if a few experiments are still being carried out by activists or pedagogues concerned to form open-minded citizens, one can only fear that their efforts will be nullified by a regime whose only goal is to maintain its rule whatever the cost.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: The Islamist Rebel Coalition, Jaich Al-Fatah (The Year of Conquest), composed mainly of the Al-Nostra Front, Ahrar Al-Cham and Faylaq Al-Cham, as well as factions of The Syrian Free Army, took over the city of Idlib in March 2015.

2Nabil Antaki, Georges Sabé, Les Lettres d’Alep, L’Harmattan, 2018.

3It is amusing to read that the Minister of Education is worried about the development of private tutoring “which pushes students to dependency and a tendency towards memorisation” (sic) and tries to counter this, “by airing educational lessons on the Educational Satellite Channel . . . and developing the evaluation system.”