The opposition-held suburbs are best known as the site of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that left an estimated 1,400 dead. Residents say they are under constant shelling by government forces. Six months ago, 10 activists created the Tanmea Center for Management and Development, in the northeast suburb of Douma.
One of them is Abdullah al-Shamy, 33, who believes that “so many educators have left the liberated Damascus suburbs [that] we needed to establish new civil organizations to take their place.”
Even before the siege on eastern Ghouta, it was unthinkable for many of those living in the opposition-held areas to continue attending university in Damascus.
Now some of those residents, ranging in age from mid-20s to early 50s, are attending courses at the Tanmea Center. Some of the most popular courses are management, administration and communication; others are taught computer skills and accounting to support new civil institutions founded in the rebel-held parts of the city.
Saeed al-Batal, a young media activist, recently taught his first course in videography for Tanmea after teaching other courses through the Douma Local Coordination Committee.
“We are looking forward to sharing the knowledge of the few with the many,” he said.
More than 35 students showed up for class, and in the weeks since they completed the course, many have gone on to find work in media offices —whether for civilian initiatives or military battalions—or start their own.
Teaching comes naturally after facing three years of war. “Because of the revolution, I had to work with strange people all the time,” he laughed. Al-Batal said many of his students learned to use a camera for the first time because of the conflict.
Most students worked far different professions before the war, many in nine to five jobs, and others were students.
Batal’s course is six days long and covers the basics of photography, how to get a good shot and how to make a media report.
“On the fourth day I divide them into a group of three and ask them to work on a report. The fifth day we talk about what was filmed and what was done right or wrong, and on the last day each group presents their own report, like a graduation task, and I publish the reports online,” he said.
Al-Batal’s youngest student was only 15, the oldest 47. Today both are managers of media field offices. “When I did the first course there were two media offices in Douma; now there are more than seven,” he said.
With every Free Syrian Army battalion starting up their own media office to show videos of their exploits, the field has become attractive to civilians looking for work.
An Honest Dialogue
The center also leads weekly dialogues to get young adults talking about the world around them and the changes in their society.
“We did not have possibility under Assad to have [such] dialogue — it was blocked. So we created a forum to exchange thoughts and experiences. People can come to our discussion and exchange their views in this space we provide,” Shamy said.
“Usually we invite more than one person who has knowledge on the issue to present their argument, and then we leave the space open to discussion.”
Recent topics have included education in the opposition-held territories, where there are no official government universities and the opposition is struggling to follow through on promises of continuing education.
Another topic was the siege on eastern Ghouta. The third, which signals the center’s attempt to put global events in context, was about the political situation in Egypt and evaluating the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It was about how Morsi had failed.
Part of the participants were saying he had failed and other said that he did well but the military men were quicker than him,” Shamy said. “All [in the class] were against [the coup]. The discussion was about Morsi’s rule of Egypt — as a first Islamic try at government.”
Cost of Education
The financial set-up of Tanmea is not designed for profit.
“Everyone must pay 2,500 Syrian pounds [roughly $18] at the beginning. If they don’t miss a class, they get [the fee] back at the end of the course,” al-Natal said.
But the war finds ways to seep in.
“Each discussion lasts one hour and a half — or however much electricity we can utilize,” said Shamy. “And last week there were many cases of fainting in the schools among students because they do not eat well. The big problem now in our area each day is how to eat.”
Many students will continue to struggle finding work even after earning certificates from the center. “Most jobs have stopped because of the difficult situation, the high prices and the scarcity of materials,” Shamy said. “We are trying our best to teach people new ways to work. It is our obligation: we each have a certain kind of experience and we should help our society this way.”