MARKADA, Syria — It’s unlikely the students and teachers at Taha Hussein High School will soon forget last year’s summer break.
“The liberation began two days after final exams,” principal Firas Mahjoub recalled, meaning the day the rebels seized the city. The timing was deliberate. “The revolutionaries waited until school was over. Some of them have children here.”
“Some of the students fought as well,” added Osama Aigi, a math teacher.
Markada, a city of about 70,000 in eastern Syria, for nine months has been solidly under control of the rebels fighting the Syrian government. The current school year began a month and a half late, but it is in session, a remarkable achievement in a country where it is as common to see school buildings used as military bases or shelters for the displaced as it is to see them used as meeting places for students and educators. Others are simply empty, as parents fear sending their children to school or residents and staff have fled.
UNICEF has sounded the alarm on Syria’s education system. “One-fifth of the country’s schools have suffered direct physical damage or are being used to shelter displaced persons,” the United Nations agency reported. “In cities where the conflict has been most intense, some children have already missed out on almost two years of schooling.”
Yet on a recent sunny morning in Markada, the scene seemed almost normal as a teacher scolded students who arrived late to class. There were small details that belied the situation – a bell had to be rung manually to mark passing time because there was no electricity, and one administrator complained the students have stopped wearing uniforms – but both students and teachers spoke of the importance of being there.
“Even during the Lebanese civil war, school continued,” Mahjoub said, referring to the 15-year conflict that wracked Syria’s smaller neighbor.
That doesn’t mean violence hasn’t touched the school.
“Sometimes people come with guns to see students,” Mahjoub said, declining to elaborate further. “We are powerless to stop them.”
Other problems plague the students. Hasaka province is beset by shortages of basic services and poverty that predated the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. They’ve only grown worse.
“Many days I walk (six miles) to school,” said Saad Hamid Saleh, an 11th-grader whose family was forced from their home in a nearby village by shelling. “The bus is too expensive.”
There are other pressures, Saleh said. Because two of his brothers work in Lebanon, he’s free to attend school.
“If no one in my family is working, then I should go to work,” he said.
Many of the students come from other parts of Syria, forced from their homes by the fighting. That’s made the school overcrowded, as is an elementary school nearby that also has continued to operate.
“Our school was shelled twice,” said Sarah Shibli, another 11th-grader whose family fled the city of Deir el Zour, south of here, six months ago. “We also had bad experiences with the intelligence services. They came to school looking for people they suspected of fighting the government.”
“We have left our village,” said Wael Herma, who said he hoped to pursue an engineering degree after graduation to “help rebuild the country.”
But the shelling that forced his family to flee their village and closed the school there had also taken a toll.
“I have no desire to study anymore,” he said.
The situation has its oddities. Some of the teachers still travel 60 miles north to the city of Hasaka, the seat of the province where Markada is located, to collect their salaries from the government. Hasaka city is one of the few places left in the province that is under government control. Students still are waiting to find out whether their baccalaureate exams will be held in Hasaka or in Markada.
“About a month ago I went to Hasaka, and they were surprised to find out there was still a school in Markada,” said Awwad Ali, an administrator at Taha Hussein. “Some of the teachers are getting paid, others are volunteers. In some cases we are using graduate students.”
“As educators, we must remain neutral,” Mahjoub said.
UNICEF’s study, released last month, noted that “at least 2,400 schools have been damaged or destroyed. . . . Over 1,500 schools are being used as shelters for displaced persons. . . . More than 110 teachers and other staff have been killed and many others are no longer reporting for work. In Idlib, for example, teacher attendance is no more than 55 percent. . . . In Aleppo (Syria’s largest city) student attendance has dropped to as low as 6 percent.”
Schools are often caught up in the fighting. This reporter has seen Syrian government forces targeting schools in the provinces of Homs and Idlib – in one case, the building was being used as a base by rebels, in another it housed displaced people. In a third case, the building was being used to hold classes. Militants have also attacked school buildings being used by the Syrian military as bases.
Across the border in Rehanli, Turkey, one family’s situation illustrates the plight of many.
None of Umm Ahmed’s six sons – her seventh and oldest son was killed fighting with the rebels last year – are attending school. The family fled the rebel-controlled city of Qalat al Mudiq in western Syria three months ago, in part because shelling sometimes forced the school to close.
“I don’t like school anymore,” said Mohamed, Umm Ahmed’s 10-year-old son. Mohamed was forced to flee the school last year when shells landed near the building. Some students were taken to nearby homes, others to the local mosque, until their parents could pick them up.
“It was scary,” Ahmed said.
Umm Ahmed, who for security reasons used a pseudonym that means “Mother of Ahmed” in Arabic, said she had applied for her two youngest sons to attend school in Turkey, but so far, there were no available places for Syrian refugees. Of her four other sons, three have graduated from high school and a fourth, 17-year-old Yousef, dropped out last year to fight.
“We tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen,” said Hussein, Yousef’s older brother. Hussein, 19, said he hoped to continue his university studies, now interrupted by the war.
In the meantime, he had also decided to fight.
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