By: Soud Khibyeh
With her withered eyes and a body whispering “I am tired” in a language all its own, Fatima, a girl of thirteen years old, stood in front of the door of a basement that has been turned into her ad-hoc school because of the continuous bombing. She hesitated [before entering], school is no longer a safe-space, or a dream, or a place where she plays and learns. It has become a heavy burden that makes her more tired, and she can no longer carry on.
Rubbing her hands, Fatima fought back an uncertain tear ready to drop down from her trembling eye at any moment.
"That morning scene had captured me," said Noor, the director of the girls’ educational center in the Eastern Ghouta region of the Damascus countryside. There, schools are a direct target of the bombing and destruction, and students are hungry and exhausted by the siege, the bombing, and all kinds of killing.
“Why are you standing here out of your class?” the director asked Fatima. The girl’s tears seemed to say ‘I don’t understand anything anymore, I’m not going back to school again.’
With sorrow, the teacher described the situation. The number of students [in class] has dropped in the last four months to below one-third. She is afraid that the school will close if the student absences continue like this.
The school director continued talking about the girl. “Fear was apparent from her trembling fingers and her shivering. Maybe it was a combination of the fear, cold, and hunger that we see among the school’s remaining students.”
Noor explained Fatima’s situation, saying, “She fell unconscious yesterday, we knew that she had her first period, she had reached adulthood.” The director continued, “The weight of this adult [Fatima] was only about 34 kilograms and the symptoms of anemia and her skinniness were apparent. This was not an isolated case, all the girls were like this. It’s been reflected in the lack of focus, lack of educational progress, and mental decline.”
Noor added, “We’ve started to lose everything. The school bells would stop ringing soon if the situation remained like this, and illiteracy would pervade the next generations. Is that what everyone wants for us?”
She calls Fatima, who looks afraid of something for some reason we don’t know. But it’s the typical situation, the teacher says that most of the children suffer from anxiety and stress and cry heavily for any reason. Noor introduced her with a few words, “Fatima has been very successful, I’ve known her for many years, but today she is complaining of a significant decline in her level of interest, achievement, and general focus.”
I asked her why she wanted to leave school. Breaking into tears with her body shaking, she answered, “My brothers and I study by candlelight, yesterday we couldn’t get one, so I didn’t do my homework or study my lessons. We were hungry and there was nothing to eat at home. For a week, my grandmother was trying to get some bread for us but she failed. We were eating olives with cabbage leaves, that was all what had been left to us.” Fatima’s crying was rising as she added “My brothers I feel cold all the time and we have nothing to use to light a fire.”
Fatima’s father died a year ago at one of the military checkpoints. Her mother and big brother joined him a year later, killed in a mortar attack on their house. Fatima remained with her grandmother and two little brothers.
Parents have shown an unlimited desire to make their children continue education despite the difficulties. In the town of Misraba in the Eastern Ghouta region, Abu al-Hassan holds his daughter’s hand while they walk to school. He says, “My daughter is two years overdue for enrollment in the first grade because Bashar al-Assad’s army is shelling schools and closing them. This is the case in every town.”
He expressing his feelings at that moment, Abu al-Hassan says, “Children are hungry. Our daughter goes to school without eating most of times because we can’t afford it.” He is very afraid for the targeting schools in bombing [campaigns], but choices are limited and he insists on his children learning.
In Bayt Naem village, where there is a violent front and clashes are constant, Rania, eight years old, holds her bag. It contains only a book and a pencil, but she still goes alone to one of the buildings with a smile on her face. She says that the school is always closed and she wants to learn the alphabet at her cousin’s house, which her cousin has turned into an ad hoc school offers food for the children when available.
Abed al-Kader, a 15-year-old student at the middle school says that he had to leave school because he hardly understood what the teachers said. He was always thinking ‘what if a rocket landed on the school and the students?’ Abed al-Kader had been through this experience before, losing some of his friends when his school was bombed. That is why he is out of school today, joining one of the military battalions and doing non-combat work.
Quantitative and qualitative decline in learning level and quality is one of the most important direct effects of the siege in these areas. The siege is entering its second year in Eastern Ghouta, and everything is closed, and the most basic needs are not available. Electricity has been cut off since October 27th, 2012. There is no bread at all, schools can’t offer meals or help of any kind, there is nothing.
For a third year, schools struggle to operate in the many conflict zones of Syria. Tens of thousands of students of all ages wait painfully for an alterative to their destroyed schools. Eighty four schools in Eastern Ghouta are fully destroyed, most of them, 400, are partially destroyed or converted to living places, army barracks, or used as places of detention centers while under regime control.
84 thousand children are under the age of 18 in the region, and nearly half of them are displaced and suffering without education. The rest in other areas are forced to stay inside the besieged areas without any way out.
Many ad hoc educational institutions are sponsored by local or foreign parties. Though they began as temporary alternatives to formal schools, they are still open.
Hibat al-Rahman, the director and a teacher at a learning center and a former detainee held by the Assad regime, posted on her Facebook page a touching story that happened to her. While she was encouraging students to share the food that they brought from their homes, one girl followed her and complained ‘Miss, are we really brothers in humanity?!’