By Abdallah Kleido
School openings this fall in this town of 30,000 people began with a deep divide between the parents: some in favor of re-opening the schools and others opposed to the idea.
The hesitation about reopening schools comes from fear about the security situation and the fate of the kids, who attend school in the shadow of on-going battles in many areas.
“I heard they would begin shelling Wadi Al-Daif,” said a principal for one of Kfar Nubl’s schools, about the eastern part of Maarat Al-Nu’man, a town neighboring Kfar Nubl, where regime forces have been massing for over a year. “If they shell there we’ll shut down the schools immediately, but it hasn’t actually begun yet.”
The principal’s worry is countered by the resolve expressed by a member of an umbrella group of local grassroots activists that calls itself the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus. He emphasized the sanctity and compulsory nature of education.
“War can last for many years [in the face of the regime],” said Mohammad, 29. “But are we to leave our children without schooling for that long?”
Parents have a different perspective.
“What’s the use of sending my children to school?” asked a storekeeper, who preferred to remain anonymous.
“Why would I send them to school under bombardment when I already know they’ll be sent back because of the shelling? I’d much rather leave them ignorant than send them off to die on the way to school.”
“We have to protect the schools from the bombardment,” agrees Ahmad Abboud al-Qassem, 38, a defected policeman. “I can’t send my children off to school because they’re terrified of the shelling.”
There are 10 public schools in Kfar Nubl. They were run by the government’s Ministry of Education. Six of them are now full of displaced people, three are occupied by the military council, the local council and some fighting battalions, while the final one, called “Thi Qar,” was damaged over a year ago during one of the battles between the regime and the opposition forces.
Ahead of the announcement of the beginning of the school year, the local council, along with the military council and some organizational bodies in the city, tried to settle the situation of the refugees.
“The local council, in cooperation with the military council, issued a decision to remove the refugees from the schools,” said Khalid al-Khatib, the head of Kfar Nubl’s local council. “We allocated 20,000 Syrian pounds (US $117) for the repair of the Thi Qar School in order to be able to move the refugees there.”
The decision was not well received by most of the refugees, who consider it unjust and unfair.
“If Thi Qar isn’t fit to receive students, then how are we supposed to live there?” asked Abu Ahmad al-Mi’rawi, 50, who was displaced from Maarat Al-Nu’man.
Despite Thi Qar’s derelict state and the small amount of funding allocated for its repair, families from three of the schools did move there. Classes have now begun in the three schools that were formerly being used for housing refugees, despite the continued presence of some displaced families.
These schools are still run by government-paid teachers and administrators, despite their presence in an opposition-controlled area.
As for the schools being used by the local council, the military council and the “Hawks of Islam” brigade, the head of the Local Council Khalid al-Khatib said that the Computing School was offered “an empty part of the building in which to hold classes, as well as our commitment to protecting the school labs and computers.”
The head of the Military Council Colonel Ahmad al-Issa said that the council has offered to vacate four classrooms at the Guidance School. The school administrators, according to Issa, decided to set up another building to receive the students because they consider the area surrounding the school “a military zone,” adding that they expressed fear for the students’ safety.
In addition to these two schools, the vocational Industrial School has also been taken over by the opposition “Hawks of Islam” brigade.
“The Industrial School consists of three buildings,” explains Colonel Jamal al-Aloush, 43, the commander of the “Hawks of Islam.”
“We’re stationed in the applied learning department, from which all the equipment was stolen during the battle for the liberation of Kfar Nubl. The students don’t have much use for this department, but regardless, we’ll support any decision [to evacuate schools] so long as it applies to everyone.”
The other six schools suffer from different issues. Abu Yazan, the principal of the Reef school, blames the displaced people for the vandalism and damage in the schools.
“Most of the refugees who were in school smashed up the wooden desks and burned them for heat, stole the aluminum from the radiators so they could sell it and also destroyed all the locks,” said Abu Yazan. “The military council needs to appoint night guards or set up night patrols in order to protect the schools from vandals.”
The student population has also swelled due to all the children of the displaced, as well as the additional students transferred from those schools occupied by the local and military councils as well as some armed factions.
“The school once served as our home,” said Abou Akram, 55, a refugee from the village of Kafrouma. “We have lost our home. I don’t want to lose my children’s future as well.”
There are often five students to a single desk, built to accommodate only two, because so many have been smashed up and burned. Some schools don’t even have a chair for the teacher to sit on, so the teacher is forced to remain standing for the duration of the class.
In addition to the regular bombardments that interrupt the school schedule, there is also the problem of schoolbooks being delayed, with certain individuals in the town having created an illicit trade around the books.
“The delay doesn’t come from the central [government] bookstore in Idlib, because the books are actually available in abundance,” explained an official in charge of providing books, who declined to be named. “[The delay] actually comes from the school bookstore administrators, who were late checking their lists.”
The official also suggested that these administrators make an illicit profit from selling these books.
“The price of a book for a third secondary year (the equivalent of a Junior in High School in the US) is around 3,000 Syrian pounds (US $ 17), but is sold for 10,000 pounds (US $58) in Kfar Nubl. They have no problem trading off our children’s futures,” the official said.
There is also the issue of those students sitting for the exams of the Examination Board of the Syrian National Coalition, particularly those students in their third year of intermediary school. The government schools won’t accept the results, and therefore public school administrators can’t allow the students in for fear of being fired or having their salaries docked in retribution.
“We are only allowed to accept the students who obtained the degrees issued by the SNC in to audit classes, not to formally attend,” said Abu Shakib, principal of the secondary school. “They can’t sit for our exams, because the results at the end are handed over to the exam board in Idlib, which is affiliated with the government in Damascus… How are our students going to sit for their final exams?” he asks. “The coalition has to be able to adopt these students.”