25/09/2013 - As the new school year starts in conflict-wracked Syria, roughly two million children are unable to attend classes because their schools have been destroyed, or because they have been forced to leave their homes.
“I miss my school,” says eight-year-old Ali al-Masri, one of 15,000 people SOS Children’s Villages has helped in Syria. “I miss teacher Rana and my friend Abdulrahman. I don’t know where my friends are now, but I know for sure that my school is burned.”
Nearly two-and-a-half years of unrest, intensifying violence and continued heavy shelling are forcing ever-increasing numbers to leave behind their homes and lives.
Preparing for school - Where much has been lost Ali's school uniform is something to cherish © O.Sanadiqi
Ali’s family had to move from their home in the Al Tadamoun district on the outskirts of Damascus to a shelter for internally displaced people in Jaramana, near the capital. For a while, Ali’s mother tried to teach him some basics in Arabic, mathematics and science, but she was unable to continue.
The spread of violence to new, densely populated urban areas, which in turn leads to more destruction, casualties and displacement, has a tragic impact on civilians, especially children.
“I used to be afraid of school,” says Ali. “But now I’m not. I’m not afraid of anything anymore.”
A recent assessment by UNICEF found that, as a result of the conflict, many Syrian children are being placed in lower grades than the ones they previously attended.
Luckily, Ali will return to class this year after attending a government-supported summer school which will help him reintegrate.
Children working to support their families
The Breadwinner - Mohammed missed 6th grade - he had to work in a bakery © O.Sanadiqi
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), two million students have dropped out of school since 2012; 40 per cent of them are aged between six and 15; and 50 per cent of them are working to financially support their families.
Mohammed, 12, had to work at a bakery for five dollars a week for several months after his family fled their home in the suburb of Darrayya, near the capital.
“I was in the second week of school [last year] when I had to stop attending,” Mohammed recalls. “The school had to close.”
His family fled their neighbourhood after the violence escalated. It took them almost eight months to relocate to an area in rural Damascus. By that time school was over and Mohammed had missed sixth grade.
Access to schools is a crucial element of education for displaced children, but other issues are also exacerbating the risk of a ‘lost generation’. Inflation and dramatic price increases are overwhelming parents.
“My mother will try to buy me a new uniform for school but she cannot promise.” Mohammed says.
“I used to sit with my friend...she was killed months ago“
Almost two million Syrian children will not receive any education this year because of the ongoing conflict in the country, according to UNICEF. Figures from the UN organisation suggest that only six per cent of students in Aleppo, for example, are in school.
Inas, 15, has lived under siege in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya for 10 months. Heavy mortar shelling has forced all the schools there to close. “One day I will be able to return to my school,” she says “The first thing I will do is check on my old seat. I used to sit with my friend Noor. She was killed months ago.”
Before her school closed, Inas tried to attend classes regularly, but as the violence escalated the road became more dangerous.
"I want to go back"
Back in the classroom with the help of SOS Children's Villages © C. Alfarah“I want to go back“
With 16.5 per cent of Syria’s 22,000 schools either damaged or used as shelters for internally displaced people, children’s opportunities for education are gravely constrained. Moreover, as teachers leave their homes looking for safety, school staff are depleted.
Sabria Yossef, an English teacher from Khan Al Sheeh in rural Damascus says that 80 per cent of teachers in her town had to move to safer locations. Schools now depend on volunteers.
All too often, what’s left for the children are memories and a longing to return. “I hope I will be able to go back to my neighbourhood,” says eight-year-old Ali. “One day, if we do, I will go and visit my old school. I want to go back.”