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The Syrian Woman Running a School in Atmeh Refugee Camp

We expect that by the end of the month, we’ll see 80 percent improvement of the students’ reading, writing and arithmetic skills.”.

Written by Wessam Franjieh Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

With thousands of schools destroyed in the conflict, and families being displaced from their homes and communities, maintaining any meaningful form of structured education has been impossible for many pupils and their teachers. Thus, the average number of children in basic education has dropped drastically since hostilities began.

According to a U.N. Relief and Works Agency report published in May 2014, over half of school-age children in the country no longer attend school, with that figure rising to 90 percent in particularly badly affected areas. In addition, over half a million child refugees do not receive any form of education whatsoever. These tragic numbers have motivated many to try and save an entire generation of Syrians from growing up illiterate, unable to read, write or perform basic arithmetic.

Syria Deeply met with Lamia Nahhas, 53, who was a lawyer before the uprising. Lamia has been trying to limit the effects of war on education, specifically among refugees.

Syria Deeply: Lamia, tell us about your experience with the education sector under wartime conditions.

Lamia: When I first got to Turkey, I established the Al-Salam school in Al-Rihaniyeh, in collaboration with a Canadian organization. We established the school, and I ran it. We later established an educational committee that helped in expanding the school, building a second floor so we could take in more kids.

Afterwards, I worked at a rundown school called Al-Hikme school in the Atmeh camp on the Syrian-Turkish border. I went for a visit and realized that the children were so behind for their age, so I took over and we were able to overcome many of the obstacles we faced with the help of a supporting organization.

Syria Deeply: What are the main obstacles you faced?

Lamia: There were many, especially under the current circumstances and with the limited support given to educational projects. But the main problem was our inability to take in all the children in the al-Salam school. This caused friction with the parents, even though we worked six days a week in three separate shifts. This really affected our work.

We faced the same problem at the Hikme School in the Atmeh camp as we were only able to take in 350 students. Other problems we faced were the fact that the school wasn’t properly equipped, so we were only able to teach [a limited number of] classes.

Additionally, the school doesn’t have running water or power or heating facilities. We also have to drive a long way just to be able to print exam papers as we don’t have a printer.

Aside from that, there was the problem of the teachers who soon grew tired of not getting paid by the supporting organization. The salaries are so low that the teachers barely make ends meet, and I am always trying hard to motivate them to carry on with the work.

Syria Deeply: What are the major difficulties you were able to overcome? What did you achieve?

Lamia: The inability to take in all the children was our main concern. We weren’t able to overcome it fully, but we were able to contain it. For example, in the Salam school, we were able to [expand the school by] building a second floor. In the Hikme school, we moved from teaching in tents to building walls with corrugated ceilings and had school chairs, tables and books made available for the kids. We switched to emergency education, which is based on teaching reading and writing skills as well as arithmetic.

We expect that by the end of the month, we’ll see 80 percent improvement of the students’ reading, writing and arithmetic skills. We also managed to stop the beating [carried out by teachers] in the Hikme school, which was a reason many students avoided coming to school.

Syria Deeply: Tell us more about the beatings. How were you able to overcome it?

Lamia: When I first got to the Hikme school, I saw the headmaster and some teachers carrying a hose that they’d use to beat the children. The whole thing got me angry, especially when I saw the children wincing with pain when beaten on the palms. I had to put an end to it. I talked to the teachers and made them understand that beating is not a way to educate children. I implicitly threatened them with terminating their contracts should they continue with beating. I also talked to the students and informed them that we were starting a new chapter, and asked them to assist their teachers by being quiet and attentive. I assured them that I would be around during class and recess, and we were able to overcome the issue of beating via collaboration and understanding.

Syria Deeply: What does this project mean to you? What are the sacrifices you’ve given?

Lamia: It means a lot to me. My main concern is to help every child in my country gain some form of an education. I also want to work against the tragedy that my country and my people are going through as much as I can. When I was in Turkey, I used to work 16 hours a day at the Salam school, trying to give everything I have to make sure we can take in as many children as possible. My home was in Antakya, and the school was in Rihaniyeh. Today, I have given up on my own comfort and came to the Atmeh camp to run the Hikme school. I sleep at school, despite the bad conditions here and the cold.

Syria Deeply: In your opinion, what’s the one thing most Syrians need today?

Lamia: There are many things we can mention and the needs of the Syria people are numerous and just as important. But in my opinion, the most important thing they need is to take care of the children. Our children have lost their childhood due to the death and destruction they see every day. They need care and attention, but especially an education so we can save an entire generation from being illiterate.

Syria Deeply: Can you please tell us a little about yourself? What do you think of what’s happening in Syria? What are your expectations for the coming years?

Lamia: I’ve worked in criminal law for over 24 years. I joined the revolution because of what I saw happen in the courts, especially when college students were arrested in Aleppo and were dragged to court either harmed or inappropriately dressed. I organized demonstrations demanding the release of the detainees. We then started working on providing housing, food and medicine to the displaced families arriving from Homs and Hama then. I also helped establish the Free Lawyers Union and the Free Syrians Organization. I had an arrest warrant issued for me along with a number of my colleagues. Two were detained and sent directly to Damascus. I fled to a popular area in the Bustan al-Qusr neighborhood.

One night, I wanted to check up on my children whom I had left at their aunt’s. I must have been watched, and there was an attempt on my life. I was shot at twice, but thankfully, I was not hit. I later learned that the assassination attempt was because of our work in the revolution. I still don’t know who was responsible for it.

Afterwards, I moved to Turkey and worked on establishing the Salam school then I moved to the Atmeh camp to run the Hikme school.

There are still real revolutionaries on the ground without any real support. They are holding their ground while the dark forces are corrupting the land. I place my hope in those revolutionaries.

I don’t see a solution on the horizon especially since the world doesn’t care about us or our cities that have been shelled for the past four years. Many countries have come together to support the Assad regime in [its fight against] his own people.

The lack of education remains one of the most detrimental problems that are a direct result of the Syrian conflict. It is a crisis that, should it worsen, means that an entire generation would grow up illiterate. The only solution we have is for people with experience to go out of their way to limit this crisis.

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