Thousands of children in the Syrian governorate of Idlib will not be attending school this year due to the continued military escalation in the region.
More than half of schools in northwestern Syria are damaged, abandoned or used as shelters, Save the Children Federation said in a statement released this month. “The situation in Idlib is tragic for thousands of recently displaced children who may be unable to enroll in school at the start of the new school year,” said Joelle Bassoul, a spokesperson for the organization in the Middle East, in an interview.
Syrian teachers working near Idlib who were interviewed separately by Al-Fanar Media supported the Save the Children perspective.
Over the past four months, fighting and airstrikes have forced people to leave 17 towns in northwestern Syria, and nearly half a million people have been displaced to the border region near Turkey and north of Idlib. With the start of the new school year, the remaining schools can only accommodate up to 300,000 students, out of 650,000 school-age children, according to Save the Children. Of Idlib’s 1,193 schools, 635 are still functioning, 353 are abandoned or destroyed, and 205 are used as shelters to house those displaced by the war.
“If the military escalation intensifies, this number will increase as other schools will be closed or destroyed,” said Bassoul.
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Of course, many parents today are afraid to send their children to school.
“Teachers are telling us that parents are pleading with them to shut schools for fear of them being attacked,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria director, in a statement. “Many children are dealing with losing their homes, loss and grief. They should not have to fear losing their lives while they try to learn,” she added.
Ahlam al-Rasheed, an Arabic teacher in the Idlib countryside, understands parents’ fear. “Parents are afraid about their children being kidnapped or bombed,” she said in an interview. “They are also unable to afford food and school supplies.”
When students can get to schools, they face difficult conditions. Students often study in basements or unheated rooms and lack desks, books and other basic supplies, along with psychological support. “The majority of the buildings are damaged and do not accommodate all students,” she said. “The situation is very bad.”
Last year, al-Rasheed launched the “Help Me to Learn” campaign to provide books for students in the lower grades from their older colleagues who have moved to the upper grades. She was able to provide one book for every three children.
“There are no books for children because there are no printing houses, we suffered last year and we will suffer again this year,” she said.
Schools in the north also face a shortage in qualified teachers.
“Teachers have either been displaced in search of safety for themselves and their families, or have been killed or injured,” said Bassoul. “In addition, many families have been displaced more than once, some of them frequently, making continuity in learning and perseverance impossible for children.”
As civilians have been displaced from other parts of war-torn Syria over the past three years, the population of northwestern Syria has doubled from 1.5 million to 3 million people, including more than one million children and 750,000 women, At the same time, the region’s infrastructure and services have diminished after almost nine years of fighting, leaving most people without proper access to health care and other government services.
Yousif Sha’aban, a displaced relief activist from the Damascus area who now resides near Idlib, believes that the recent attacks by the Syrian government forces and the government’s taking control over the cities of Latamneh, Kafr Zeit and Khan Sheikhoun, south of Idlib, caused a large displacement of people from those cities to the Turkish border, in addition to the displaced people who were already there, increasing the pressure on schools in camps for internally displaced people.
Camps With No Schools
“Many of the people of the villages and cities that are currently on the front lines are afraid of bombing so they go to the camps. However, many remain without education,” Sha’aban said in an interview, pointing out that there are no schools in the camps in the actual sense of the word. They are just tents or places where pupils hopeful for lessons gather.
“Students are often taught outdoors and by volunteers,” he said.
Sha’aban and his fellow activists adopted the idea of setting up a school staffed by volunteers after the car they used for bread distribution was targeted by an explosive device, leaving one of his colleagues injured. Money was raised for the worker’s treatment but he died before he could get the help he needed. The money was used instead to build temporary schools in 11 camps in the northern countryside of Idlib.
“Through my work, I realized that the catastrophe of a lack of education is much more severe than the catastrophe of lack of food and drink,” he said. “Even if its results have not appeared yet.”
(Universities seem to be in a better situation than the northern schools. The University of Idlib announced the start of the new academic year on time. So far, the university is located far from the bombardment.)
Bassoul, of Save the Children, believes that only a halt to the conflict can provide quality and continuing education for children in Idlib. “Any new escalation or massive displacement of families and children may increase the risk of dropping out and missing hope in a whole school year,” she said.