Zabadani, a town in southwestern Rif Dimashq province, has been under siege by government forces for more than two years. Most of its buildings have been destroyed by shelling, and the town’s infrastructure – including school buildings – is practically gone. Across the country, UNHCR estimates that close to 2.3 million Syrian girls and boys are out of school with no access to education, or in danger of dropping out or being cut off by continuing violence.
Some Syrians have created localized education initiatives to put children back in the classroom. Sereen, a Zabadani resident in her 40s who holds only a high school diploma, opened a small school for local children to catch up on basic reading, writing and mathematics. She is now effectively the school principal, overseeing a team of six local volunteer teachers and 60 students [who study for two hours a day] in a donated home. The house, which belongs to a fellow Zabadani citizen, has been converted into makeshift classrooms.
Here, she discusses the dangers of operating a classroom in a village under siege.
Syria Deeply: How did the idea come to you and how did you take the first step towards realizing this initiative?
Sereen: One day, I was visiting a relative. Her son, an eight-year-old, was randomly drawing on his notebook. I asked him if he could write his name, and he said he couldn’t. At that moment I realized how catastrophic the education situation is.
I contacted teachers and they were all positive and willing to help. One of the people of Zabadani donated his house as a place for a school. We took the idea to the local [opposition] council. The council refused at first, out of fear that the children would be in danger while out in public. But the teachers and I collected signatures from parents – a petition that said they agreed to sending their children to school. So the council caved. At the beginning we had 22 teachers and 150 students.
Syria Deeply: How did you get the required equipment and textbooks? How are you covering costs?
Sereen: We brought any remaining seats over from shelled schools, as well as books, chalk and boards. The teachers all volunteered and have refused to take money for their work – they believe in their mission and they know that resources are scarce. Work hours are divided into a morning shift for elementary classes and an afternoon shift for higher levels.
Syria Deeply: Has the school ever been attacked? If so, how did you convince the parents to send their children to school again?
Sereen: It was shelled on a Saturday, five months after we started. We were hit by a barrel bomb – after the afternoon shift was over, fortunately. The damage was not big, compared to the damage in the neighboring houses. Neither students nor teachers were hurt. But the parents were very frightened to send their children to school again. It wasn’t easy to persuade them.
So, we monitored the pattern barrels and found that early morning is the safest time. We decided to hold classes for two hours only, from 7 to 9 a.m. But parents were still afraid to send their children to school, which led to a decrease in the number of students and teachers. We now have 60 students and six teachers.
Our school now teaches only elementary grades, first to sixth. Parents bring their children to school and wait for them until the end of their classes. Fortunately, some parents here realize the importance of education even in our catastrophic circumstances.
We’re trying to keep parents’ spirits up to make sure they keep sending their children to school. As teachers, we are not going to stop, no matter how many shells and barrels are dropped upon us. We realize how dangerous it is to lose all education. To be honest with you, our concerns of losing the school are bigger than our hopes of developing or improving it.
Syria Deeply: Have you tried to get more funding or aid from foreign relief groups?
Sereen: Several international relief organizations offered to finance the initiative but we refused for two reasons. Being publicly and widely known would endanger our school. And we didn’t want too much interference that might affect the precarious way the school functions.
Edited by Karen Leigh.