At gunpoint and threat of cutting off subsidies … education sector is falling apart in Idlib
Hiba Shehada/ Zainab Masri/ Saleh Malas
During a meeting with Enab Baladi in the Mardabsa camp, east of Idlib, Ahmed Abdel-Razaq remembers that he once was enrolled in school. However, he was unable to retrieve any memories about the time when he was a pupil. The details of that phase of his life are no longer important to the 12-year-old boy, who started working with his older brother to support his family, since his father’s death.
As for Aref al-Amin, 13, he has not forgotten his desire to learn, despite being a full-time construction worker, doing his best to secure a living for his displaced family in the same camp where Ahmed lives. He kept voicing his wish: “I want to learn reading and writing.”
The stories of Ahmed and Aref are not only related to their status as displaced children, nor do they find themselves in an isolated situation, as there are more than two million Syrian children not enrolled in schools today, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and more than a million are on the road to meet the same fate those two boys had to endure.
The rockets that the Syrian regime and its Russian ally have thrown at Idlib governorate and subsequent waves of displacement have brought negative effects on the education sector, in addition to the donors ’ reluctance to pump funds, due to their concern about the classifications of some of the dominant parties in northern Syria.
In this file, Enab Baladi has attempted to examine the state of the educational sector in Idlib and its growing needs, and the effects of its deterioration on hundreds of thousands of students and teachers, with the help of expert opinions and officials’ testimonies.
Dropping out of school, displacement, and logistical difficulties
Condition of education in Idlib is horrendous
Fayha al-Shawash’s fifth-grade class, in the town of Hass in the southern countryside of Idlib, was interrupted by an aerosol bomb= attacks, leaving behind 20 dead children, and a generation afraid of going near schools.
Al-Shawash miraculously survived the “massacre of pens”, which took place in November of 2016, according to what she said to Enab Baladi. However, the events of that day ended the 12-year career she spent teaching, following the statements she made about what happened to media and human rights organizations.
Targeting and sabotaging educational facilities was not limited to the “massacre of pens” only, as those facilities were used in northern Syria for military purposes and were repeatedly targeted. Thus, children, who were supposed to be educated in schools, became a target for missiles.
This prompted the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Rights of Children to describe the situation of education in Syria as “horrendous”, according to its 16 January report, which stated that “all parties to the conflict have deprived children of the right to education.”
According to UNICEF, more than a third of Syrian children are out of school, and more than 40 percent of schools are shut down.
The security threat in addition to becoming a target for military attacks intermingled with poverty displacement, and the lack of international support and attention, led to the deterioration of the educational sector while creating a rupture between children and schools. Thus, those youngsters’ opportunity to re-compensate for what they have been missing while dropping out from schools seems to be diminishing, due to the loss of educational staff, who have been torn between their duty as teachers and the necessity of securing a living for their families.
Difficulties and unmet needs
The current academic year in Idlib is “catastrophic”, according to the description of Mustafa Haj Ali, director of the Media Department in the Education Directorate, as support was scarce due to the successive military campaigns launched by the Syrian regime and Russia, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands displacement amid harsh living and climatic conditions.
The resources of the educational process sector have been depleted, Hajj Ali told Enab Baladi, noting that the impact of the security and material conditions has exhausted both the areas under bombardment and the areas receiving the displaced.
With the absence of accurate statistics on the number of dropouts, “because the situation does not allow a statistical procedure to take place”, due to the displacement of Syrians to unknown and remote locations, which the Directorate cannot reach, it was estimated that about 114,000 children have dropped out of school since the beginning of the year. This number is expected to rise up to 140,000 due to the formation of new displacement waves following the latest military campaign, as Hajj Ali put it.
While assessing the humanitarian situation in north-western Syria in September 2019, based on a survey of 1051 areas, REACH initiative deduced that education is one of the first three priorities in the region, after health care and food security.
REACH initiative considered that 359 regions or 34 percent of the areas covered by the study, primarily need education, while the residents of more than half of the regions suffered from a set of obstacles that denied children the right to education.
Fear stands as an obstacle between the student and the school
The missiles of the Syrian regime did not respect the sanctity of schools and did not stop violating international law, which prohibits the targeting of civilian facilities. Targeting schools has led to losing a safe and appropriate environment for education as a result of conflict and bombing. Thus, since the beginning of the war in Syria, more than 7000 schools have been destroyed, according to UNICEF estimates.
According to a report by the Response Coordination Team about north-western Syria, issued on December 27, 2019, 143 educational facilities were targeted in 2019.
“The Syrian regime’s bombing, which targeted the Idlib countryside, has created a reaction among the students, which is the fear of death or injury, as soon as the child hears the sound of a plane, he or she unconsciously flees the school,” said al-Shawash to Enab Baladi.
In 48 percent of the cases where children have been deprived of education, according to the REACH initiative, long-distance separating the youngsters’ homes and schools to education was the main obstacle, while for 18 percent of cases the reason was the destruction of the educational facilities. Nevertheless, 17 percent of the parents fear to let their children do that long-distance alone.
Shortage of educational needs
Idlib Governorate did not have enough resources to cover 30 percent of the students’ needs before the start of the latest displacement wave, according to the estimates of the Idlib Educational Complex supervisor, Abdullah al-Absi.
This shortfall has been the main reason for 49 percent of dropping out cases in Idlib, according to “REACH” initiative estimates.
Schools lack the logistical resources, fuel, fireplaces, chairs, and stationery of all kinds, in addition to textbooks, which have been re-used year after year by students, leaving them in an awful condition, al-Absi said.
Poverty and displacement worsen education crises in northern Syria
According to estimates by OCHA, the number of Syrians, who have been displaced following the recent military campaign in the southern Idlib countryside, has reached more than 350,000.
The displacement waves affected about 34,000 pupils at school age, in addition to 150,000 people who were most in need of educational assistance and psychosocial support, as a result of the displacement, according to OCHA estimates in September 2019.
Winter had a role in increasing children’s education problems, especially in camps where working hours decreased by 30 percent, with overcrowded camps suffering from a “severe weakness” in the educational structure, according to a report issued by the Response Coordinators team in September 2019.
Out of more than 1,153 camps in northern Syria, which include more than 1.2 million people in northwestern Syria, there are no more than 49 schools in those camps, most of which do not meet educational needs.
According to a report by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICI), the overcrowding of classrooms in Idlib reached to the overcrowding of 120 students in one class in some cases.
In addition to these displacement effects, schools have been formed without requirements to compensate the students in the random camps, which have spread after the large displacement movements, and which lack most of the necessary requirements for the educational process, the most important of which is the shelter that protects them from the extreme weather and climate factors.
With the spread of poverty in Syria in general, as 83 percent of the population under the poverty line, according to UN estimates, many families have resorted to relying on their children to work to secure a living, giving up on far-fetched education opportunities.
In addition, receiving an education in areas not controlled by the Syrian regime does not guarantee to obtain a widely recognized certificate. According to a report by UNESCO, these certificates are given only in government schools inside Syria.
Children in opposition-controlled areas face risks when trying to take exams in regime-controlled areas, including revealing their family names to government authorities, threats to their personal security at checkpoints, and insecurity in regime-controlled areas.
Educational staff in Idlib
Facing the challenge of “duty” and “reality”
The new school year started with the European Union ending its support provided through the Chemoinex organization to Idlib Education Directorate, which used to cover 65 percent of the salaries of more than 7,000 teachers.
In September 2019, the head of the Information Office at Idlib Education Directorate, Mustafa al-Haj Ali, told Enab Baladi that the support had been suspended from the European Union division of the Chemonics organization, which is responsible for the delivery of education grants.
Teachers used to receive a monthly salary from the Idlib Education Directorate estimated at $ 120 under an eight-month contract. Despite the high cost of living and high prices that imposed the need for higher income to secure the needs of teachers’ families in the region, the teachers were continuing their work, until their income was completely stopped.
The lack of educational staff has had the largest percentage among the reasons for children’s deprivation of education, according to a study of REACH initiative, as 50 percent of the study areas lacked sufficient qualified staff.
Humanitarian financial support that does not include teachers
Enab Baladi tried to communicate with the European Commission and with Chemonics organization to obtain a response on the reasons for the suspension of financial support for teachers, which the Education Directorate warned of its threat of the suspension of the educational process in Idlib, but it did not get a response.
A humanitarian expert specializing in United Nations affairs (speaking on condition of anonymity) pointed out that international financial support standards are based on two types, humanitarian support that “continues under all conditions and for all people, regardless of the existing authority”, and support for stability, “including the support for the administrative entity in front of the population to give it legitimacy.”
The humanitarian expert believes that the reason for the suspension of the support is related to the intention to move away from the support of the authority in Idlib, which is the Salvation Government accused of affiliation to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, classified as “a terrorist group.”
Although the Idlib Education Directorate is separate from the “government,” it did not succeed, according to the expert, to persuade donors to support it. According to Mustafa al-Haj Ali, head of the Information office in Idlib Education Directorate, the directorate has made efforts to persuade donors by contacting the European Commission and by constantly publishing on its official pages, which are monitored by donors.
The Directorate is also cooperating with UNICEF to document the violations of the Syrian regime and its Russian ally against the educational sector. Correspondences and meetings with international organizations continued, during which the Directorate provided the available documents and plans to deal with the sector’s need, but it has not yet been able to restore the support, according to al-Haj Ali.
As for the United Nations, its humanitarian financial support is “still continuing,” the humanitarian expert said, but it does not include the salaries of teachers, but rather supports the educational process in terms of logistical matters, fuel, books, educational materials and the establishment of schools and facilities, through the projects of its partnering organizations working on the ground.
The OCHA assessed northwestern Syria’s need for remedial education and self-learning programs and the provision of educational supplies, with the need to repair existing school infrastructure and provide heating oil, winter supplies, school books, and educational materials.
However, the United Nations has only received 18 percent of the required funding for the education sector, amounting to nine million dollars, with the sector’s priority rating declining against the main needs of the new IDPs, which are the provision of camps, non-food items, shelter, food and cash assistance.
No childhood without education…
Severe psychological impacts on school dropouts
Crises and wars leave deep psychological and social impacts on children’s fragile psychology, and the absence of education increases their impacts and future consequences.
Psychologist Amina Turk stated to Enab Baladi that there are various psychological manifestations of children’s disruption of education and its impact on the physical, emotional, and behavioral levels. The most prominent psychological gains that children get during the education phase is the development of thinking and the ability to rely on themselves, by solving some of the problems they face in their daily routine.
Education facilitates children’s establishment of a network of relationships with their peers within their social environment and promotes self-confidence whenever they graduate to a higher level of education, giving them the opportunity to feel that they are valuable and have positive energy.
There are several gaps that the deterioration of education in Idlib will leave in the psychology of educated children, the most important of which is the low level of their motivation to learn, and the lack of their affiliation with educational institutions, according to the psychological Amina Turk.
Children will feel deprived as a result of their natural love for possession, and thus they will lose feeling towards their school tools, including stationery, their classroom places, and all the details of education that they will not know their real value only after losing them.
As for the direct psychological consequences that will affect the children’s psychology, the psychologist assures that there are so-called “post-traumatic effects” that show behaviors of cognitive anxiety attacks and extreme anger, as a result of the feelings of injustice and deprivation of his fundamental right.
In addition to a flaw in his cognitive concepts, especially those related to rights and duties.
Turk indicates that the educational process at school creates an atmosphere of social contacts, and when this process suffers from long interruptions, the child will be born in long-term isolation, withdrawal, and confusion from the large gatherings of people.
According to the psychologist, dropping out of school, war and destruction lead children, who experienced it, to develop hate, hostility and the desire for revenge without awareness of the gravity of this feeling, toward those who made this war.
The importance of psychological support
According to a study conducted by UNESCO, 13% of displaced children in Syria need specialized psychosocial support in the classroom. Identifying and treating children’s psychological trauma is a complex matter that requires specialized teachers.
Educators can provide solutions to less severe cases through routine teaching practices that focus on promoting growth and building individual skills. However, most of them do not receive continuous professional development and do not receive training in mental health and psychosocial support.
In Syria, 73 percent of the teachers involved in UNESCO’s study did not receive such training.
In August 2019, UNICEF estimated that one in eight children in every class needed psychosocial support.
In another report, the agency noted that Syria has an increasing number of children who have never enrolled in schools, which imposes difficulties on them to register and adapt to formal education with their age, which affects their development and long-term opportunities. One-third of children enrolled in schools dropping out, almost before finishing primary school.
According to a report prepared by UNESCO, the importance of educational programs for students in times of wars and armed conflict situations is to allow children to express their own fears and concerns, get rid of painful pent-up feelings, and provide new hope for the future.
In addition to gaining knowledge and mechanisms to restore their daily lives, plan for their future and ensure the cohesion of their families, and enhance their “internal resilience” to face external pressures of destruction and poverty, their absorption, and the ability to adapt and overcome it.
The use of educational gatherings is also important for sharing pain, exchanging ideas and advice, solidarity, psychological support, and synergy, in order to survive and overcome challenges.
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Education-saving initiatives and campaigns
Educators and activists in northwestern Syria have worked to confront the crisis of the educational sector, by launching initiatives and activities aimed at highlighting educational needs and participating in the solution, albeit in an easy way.
Some of these campaigns sparked international reactions, and attracted some support for small projects, while some teachers in Idlib are still providing their services free of charge to children, in individual initiatives to save the future of children who drop out of schools.
Awareness-raising campaigns on the situation of the education sector
A group of civil society activists in Idlib Governorate started a campaign entitled “Do Not Break my Pen” to support the educational process in Idlib and its countryside, with the start of the school year and the cessation of European support in September 2019.
The campaign included protests warning of the negative effects of children dropping out of schools, such as exploiting them in military recruitment and underemployment, as well as increased crime and early marriage for both sexes.
This campaign was followed by a number of protests and demonstrations that raised various slogans, in order to convey warnings to donors.
Nearly 50 media professionals launched a large media campaign entitled “My Pen My Dream”, to highlight the educational reality in northern Syria, in October 2019, which included the dissemination of statistics and information on the impact of dropping out of a school of students in northwestern Syria.
The campaign, which was run by the “Syrian Media Professionals Forum” managed to pressure the organizations supporting more interest in education, and was able to achieve a partial return of the frozen amount from “Cominnex” within the “Manahel” project and created support for a section of schools in the Idlib countryside and Aleppo, according to a member of the Forum Ibrahim Al-Khatib, for Enab Baladi.
Al-Khatib added that the campaign did not achieve its full goals due to the great needs, noting that the work on the campaign is still ongoing through the completion of some videos, promotions, and designs, but not with the same momentum, because the workers focused on the campaign their interest in the “Idlib Under Fire” campaign that they launched in conjunction with the recent intense military campaign in Idlib countryside.
Community and volunteer initiatives
Numbers of teachers continued to work “voluntarily” and activists’ efforts met to create “support funds” aimed at providing “symbolic” salaries to teachers, to express the appreciation of parents and their concern for the continuation of the educational process, and invite parties supporting the interest in the region and the future of children.
Qutaiba al-Harush, the former director and Arabic language teacher in Al-Maarifa High School in the town of Maarshorin in the southern countryside of Idlib, in one of those teachers. His belief in the importance of the education mission prompted him to continue his teaching efforts after suffering from the difficulties of displacement and being stable in Qah, north of Idlib.
Al-Harush told Enab Baladi that a large part of teachers live today according to the rule of “God is covering it.” They still find those who lend them, and others work after school, with other jobs that provide little financial resources that help them a little, on expenses and expenses.
While some of them rely on members of their families to help them, “hoping that their suffering will end”. Al-Harush described them as heroes “they are struggling soldiers despite the many enemies”.
Despite this initiative, not all teachers can go the same way because of the need to meet the needs of the family sometimes, to amounts greater than what some of them receive through part-time work.
Collective or individual initiatives do not change the situation of the educational sector in Idlib, but rather they constitute a temporary solution for pain that will increase with the days, if measures are not taken on a governmental and high-level organizational level, to save 140,000 other children, who will be deprived of education in Idlib this year, according to the estimates of the Education Directorate.
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