Hala has not been to school since civil war broke out in Syria three years ago. But during the summer she attended classes at the Ajyal Centre in Kafr Nabel.
Following the success of the summer program, the school is now teaching third grade children through the academic year until April 2015.
“The teachers here treat us better than those in public schools,” Hala told Damascus Bureau. “Studying is fun, I am never bored.”
Kafr Nabel, which is under opposition control, has a population of approximately 30,000, and is situated in the southern suburbs of Idlib.
According to the United Nation’s children’s charity, UNICEF, nearly half of Syria’s children have not been able to receive an education since hostilities broke out in 2011. In early 2013, UNICEF reported that the fighting had closed one in five schools across the country.
In Idlib, 60% of schools have been destroyed or are used for temporary housing for those uprooted by the fighting.
A total of 80 fourth grade children enrolled in the Ajyal Centre’s summer school.
Equivalent courses normally cost in the region of 12,000 Syrian Pounds (about 75 US dollars) but the Ajyal Centre’s courses are free of charge.
“It’s relatively expensive considering the financial means of families, so we decided to launch a free course to assist parents in these troubled times,” Wassim al-Nayef, director of the Ajyal Centre, said.
The school also provides pupils with free stationery. Committed students who score well in class receive gifts to encourage them to study and continue with their schoolwork.
The Ajyal Centre was set up by the Union of Revolutionary Offices, a local volunteer organisation in Kafr Nabel. The organisation pays teachers’ salaries and has also committed to covering the rent for one year, as well as providing the teaching materials it needs.
The head of education and planning at the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, Oussama Mahmud al-Ahmad, credits the artist Rafiya Qadmany with helping to launch the school after she donated 6,000 US dollars.
“This amount enabled us to purchase equipment and furniture, from chairs and boards and tables to electricity generators,” Ahmad said.
The school is helping children catch up on the learning that they have missed over the last three years. Its teachers say that weekly evaluations have demonstrated students’ progress. However, teachers and pupils will both need to work hard to make up the lost ground.
“The students are currently below average,” Khaled Ahmad al-Othman, who teaches Arabic, said. “We have to work as hard as we can to bring these students up to standard.”
Parents have welcomed the courses. Ahmad Mohammad al-Bayyoush’s daughter is enrolled in the third grade course, which he described as “a wonderful step”.
“It really saved us, since the cost of similar courses in private institutions ranges from 10,000 to 12,000 SP and the financial situation of most parents is quite dire,” he said.
Other parents have urged the Ajyal Centre to expand its educational programme.
“This is a good step, but the centre should work with students from all grades because the school situation is going from bad to worse,” Abou Mohammad, the father of another student, said.
There are plans to expand to do this and Nayef is determined to accept more students in the future.
“We completed our three month [summer] course and said goodbye to the students,” he said. “We hope that this centre will receive more support to accommodate a larger number of students.”