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What's stopping children in Syria getting back to school?

Two million Syrian children are out of school (Photo: Omar Sanadiqi)
Two million Syrian children are out of school (Photo: Omar Sanadiqi)

“I miss my school. I miss teacher Rana and my friend Abdulrahman. I don’t know where my friends are now, but I know for sure that my school is burned”, says 8 year old Ali al-Masri. His family was recently forced to flee their home on the outskirts of Damascus and move to a shelter for internally displaced people elsewhere in Syria.

Roughly two million children are unable to attend classes this autumn because they have been displaced, or because their schools have been destroyed. The UN suggests that only 6% of students in Aleppo are in school, for example. 

Nearly two and a half years of intensifying violence are forcing more and more Syrians to leave their homes. The spread of the conflict to new, densely populated urban areas has a tragic impact on civilians, especially children. “I used to be afraid of school, says Ali. “But now I’m not. I’m not afraid of anything anymore.” 

Ali’s story echoes that of many other Syrian children, whose education has been disrupted by the civil war. A recent assessment by UNICEF found that, as a result of the conflict, many Syrian children are being placed in lower grades than the ones they previously attended. 

Luckily, Ali will return to class this year after attending a government-supported summer school which will help him reintegrate. Ali is one of 15,000 people SOS Children has helped in Syria.

Boys shot while at school

Every day parents in Syria face a dilemma: Should we send our children to school with the hopes of a bright future, or should we keep them at home in an effort to ensure safety now? A tragic incident in a public school in a Damascus suburb this month, starkly revealed the real dangers that school children in Syria endure. 

The schools psychiatrist told SOS Children about the moments after two 12 year-old boys were shot just outside of the school:

“It all happened in a couple of minutes, which felt like hours. We tried to keep the other children inside their classrooms, away from the windows. We weren't sure about the source of the shooting or if it was going to escalate. They didn't know what had happened to their friends. The teachers knew, and couldn't stop themselves from crying in front of the children. I took the seven-year-old sister of one of the boys, and kept her in my office for a while so that she didn't find out what had happened to her older brother in that way.”
Syria boy in camp

The boys were immediately taken to an intensive care unit in a nearby hospital. Safety fears mean that many parents are reluctant to send their children to school. Others accompany them to the door to make sure they are safe.

Children working to support their families

According to the United Nations, of the two million students who have dropped out of school since 2012, 50% of them are working to financially support their families. Mohammed, 12, had to work at a bakery for five dollars a week for several months after his family fled their home in the suburb of Darrayya, near the capital.

“I was in the second week of school [last year] when I had to stop attending,” Mohammed recalls. “The school had to close.”

His family fled their neighbourhood after the violence escalated. It took them almost eight months to relocate to an area in rural Damascus. By that time school was over and Mohammed had missed sixth grade.

School fees additional barrier

Access to schools is a crucial element of education for displaced children, but other issues are also exacerbating the risk of a ‘lost generation’. Inflation and dramatic price increases mean that parents are unable to pay for school costs.

“My mother will try to buy me a new uniform for school but she cannot promise.” Mohammed says. “I used to sit with my friend...she was killed months ago.”

Lack of teachers

As teachers leave their homes looking for safety, school staff are depleted. Sabria Yossef, an English teacher from Khan Al Sheeh in rural Damascus says that 80% of teachers in her town had to move to safer locations. Schools now depend on volunteers.

All too often, what’s left for the children are memories and a longing to return. “I hope I will be able to go back to my neighbourhood,” says eight-year-old Ali. “One day, if we do, I will go and visit my old school. I want to go back.”

Efforts to get children back to schoolSyria girl

Despite the lack of official documents, public schools are accepting all children and trying to place them in age-appropriate grades, even if they had to drop out in the middle of a school year. 

Public schools in relatively safe areas are packed. Some are working on shifts to accommodate increasing numbers of students. Even though the school year has already started, registration offices remain busy because of continued, daily internal displacement to safe areas in Damascus and its outskirts. 

SOS Children, whose primary focus is on children’s welfare, is trying to provide children with access to education through: the distribution of necessary materials, including stationary; support in the registration process; support for national awareness campaigns. 

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