That used to be an illegal undertaking by rule of the Assad government. But today it’s tolerated, a recognized necessity in a country deeply scarred by war.
The area where I live and teach is called Al-Waer. This is a large district where about 70 percent of the total population of Homs lives. Its population has jumped from around 150,000 before the revolution, to 450,000 today.
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The original inhabitants have been joined by thousands of people who fled the most dangerous parts of Homs. Some of these people have the means to rent an apartment or have relatives host them. They struggle financially but they are better off than many. Others who have no relatives to stay with or money to spend on rent are forced to live wherever they can. We have about 17 schools in Al-Waer that are overflowing with displaced people. There are 40-50 families living in each of these schools. And the rest are in an even worse situation. About 6,000 people are living in unfinished buildings where they are exposed to the elements.
With so many schools serving as shelters, there are only four or five schools left for educating the children of the district. In the government schools, the classrooms are extremely overcrowded. Before there were 25 to 30 students per class—now there are at least 50. And this is after dividing the day into a morning and an afternoon section to keep the classrooms at a reasonable size. As a result, the teaching time has been cut by a third. It is very hectic for the teachers. And there is still not enough room for all of the pupils.
My school is in a wealthy neighborhood, so the vast majority of the students are relatively well off. In contrast, the city’s poor children are missing out on their education. These families do not have the money to relocate to a safe area with operating schools. And because public transportation has come to a standstill and taxi fares are exorbitant, they don’t have the means to send their children across the city for their education.
The city can be divided into three areas: First we have the districts under siege. Every day they face shelling attacks and clashes. There are 800 families trapped there and the Free Syrian Army fighters.
The second areas are those that are strongly anti-regime, but still have an army presence. There are still army checkpoints, but they don’t do anything. About 80 percent of the people are with the opposition and you don’t find portraits of Bashar al-Assad. These areas, including Al-Waer, are relatively safe during the day, but not at night. The residents rush to be home by 7pm, because there could be gunfire or clashes in the night. You can also find extreme poverty, as well as shortages of the basics: heat, electricity, water and gas.
The third areas are completely under regime control. Around 40 percent of the people are still with the regime and 60 percent are against, but they live in fear. These areas are secure because no one makes problems and revolutionary acts are very rare.
About 40 percent of government workplaces are still in operation in the city as a whole. Government teachers and other public employees receive salaries, but the problem is that prices have doubled. Another problem there is only one bank left in all of Homs. Thousands of employees have to wait for more than 3 hours to take their pension or salaries from the same place. And the bank cannot dispense all of the pensions due to the volume of people.
No matter who you are, you are affected by the price increases. Gas is very expensive, food is expensive, and even if you have the money, supplies are always low.
In response to needs across the country, most Syrian youth have started volunteering for relief organizations or the Red Crescent. They are exposed to a lot of difficulties and sometimes shooting or pressure from fighters on both sides. In Homs, however, there is no way to get to the most dangerous areas under siege.
I work for a local organization in the city whose relief branch was founded during the revolution. In our organization, there are more than 200 people, mostly young people. The majority are men but there are also around 40 young women working to provide psychological support to the children. Our support comes mostly from Syrians, but sometimes there is help from organizations like UNICEF. We provide everything from blankets to furniture, to daily items like soap.
In the beginning of the revolution, humanitarian work itself was dangerous. It was banned and everyone was working in secret because the authorities treated us as terrorists, just like the rebels. Up until last year, the government denied there was any humanitarian problem. Because of this, I hid my work from my family because I didn’t want them to be afraid for me.
Since then, the authorities have recognized the humanitarian crisis, and relief work is authorized, as long as you’re working for an approved organization. I finally told my family about my relief work, and they were happy about it. Yet, there are still risks for the volunteers. One time we were delivering aid to refugees and there was a fight between the families and someone pulled out a knife. The most constant worry is the army checkpoints. Every time we want to pass through with supplies, we face interrogations: “Where are you going? Where did you get the money? Why are you doing this?”
My fellow volunteers and I don’t speak much about politics. It’s not that it is prohibited, but people are afraid. It is only safe among close friends, or when you know the political view of the other person.
As teachers, we try to avoid talking about politics in front of the students. We even still have the picture of Bashar al-Assad on the wall. If we took it down or tore it, we fear that the security forces could come one day and make a big problem for the school. The pupils are allowed to speak about politics in class, but teachers try to keep it to a minimum for their own safety.
There is no division among the students—on the contrary, there is love. But they are all with the opposition. There are other government schools in pro-regime areas where the student body is united on the other side. So the city is divided by area.
For the future of my city, I’m concerned mainly about education. I want all the children to go back to school and to keep studying. I want the students to be properly educated and live their life like they should. To be safe and happy, like children are supposed to be.