Idlib fighting takes further toll on children’s education

Studies disrupted by destruction of schools and displacement of families fearing for their lives

The near-daily bombardment of Syria’s Idlib province is destroying not just homes and hospitals but also the hopes of children from all over the country whose education has already been disrupted by eight years of civil war.

More than 150,000 children have been forced to leave school since pro-government and allied Russian forces intensified attacks on the last rebel-held province and adjoining areas in recent months, according Mohamad Hallaj, director of the Response Co-ordination Group in northern Syria.

"Schools have been systematically bombarded to force inhabitants to leave," said Mr Hallaj told The National.

The RCG, an NGO documenting the conflict, says its teams confirmed the destruction of 72 schools in Syrian or Russian strikes between February 2 and June 9.

The assaults caused at least 697 civilian deaths, including those of 203 children, it said. More than 500,000 people were forced to flee the areas under attack.

Idlib’s estimated population of more than 3 million includes thousands of civilians who were already displaced from parts of Syria recaptured by President Bashar Al Assad’s forces.

Among them is 15-year-old Mohammed Ghorane, whose family fled the regime campaign to retake the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in February last year.

After his father was killed, he moved with his mother and six sisters to the town of Maaret Al Numan in southern Idlib. Now they have been forced to move again, this time to the town of Afrin in Syria’s north-east.

“The bombing in Ghouta was something beyond my words or ability to explain,” said Mohammed. “It’s the same here – the attacks were getting worse daily. Schools shut as they started to hit everything in our town.

“After a double air strike killed our neighbours, my family decided to flee to somewhere safe. So I am here in Afrin, working in a fabric shop to help my family instead of chasing my dream of becoming an architect,” he said.

“I hope one day I become one and build a new house for me and my family.”

Repeated displacement is putting families at risk, exhausting them physically and emotionally, and limiting their ability to seek aid and education for their children, said Sonia Khush, Syria director of Save the Children.

The NGO reported a particularly tragic case in late April, when three boys from the same family were killed in shelling that heavily damaged two Save the Children-supported schools near the town of Khan Sheikhoun. The children ran home after their school was hit but died when their family’s tent was also struck.

“Schools should be a safe place, and what we are seeing and hearing is horrific,” Ms Khush said.

Isam Khatib, executive director of Kesh Malek, a Syrian civil society organisation, said many educational facilities in northern Syria had to curtail or cancel classes and exams because children’s lives were at risk.

Kesh Malek has been working tirelessly to support pupils and fund schools in the region, "but our accelerated education project is in danger because of the intense attacks and instability”, Mr Khatib said.

He said the project’s staff visited families whose children were not going to school, to raise awareness about the importance of education and encourage them to send their children to Kesh Malek learning centres.

Over four to eight months, staff at the centres conduct therapy sessions to stimulate the youngsters’ dormant learning ability and prepare them to go back to school.

“What is important is to give children the motivation and power to study in spite of their horrifying experiences and circumstances,” Mr Khatib said.

Displaced Syrian children walk together in an olive grove at Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 15, 2019. Picture taken May 15, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Mr Khatib said that despite the programme’s success, with 70 per cent of children who take part going back to school, “our efforts could go with the winds if the attacks continue”.

He said future plans for the education sector across northern Syria were being affected by the risk from conflict and a severe shortage of funding.

But individuals such as Maryam Sherot are doing what they can to help.

Ms Sherot, 39, a specialist in accelerated education, set up a small institute in Maaret Al Numan where she and other teachers help children from across Syria to make up for lost years of schooling.

But with regime offensive forcing the closure of schools and the drying up of funding, the current situation is the worst education crisis she has seen in the past eight years. Large numbers of pupils have left or are unable to attend her classes for fear of sudden attacks.

“Students fled towards the borders. Even summer acceleration courses will not be able to be held here. It’s sad, but what else we can do?” Ms Sherot said.

“I love teaching and will always try to do something for children in my city. I will bring my neighbours’ children and give small circle lessons, or individual lessons free to any child who needs it.

“We need to act for them, because no one really cares.”