Five years on: the Syrian children who dream of going to school

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies

Syrian refugee Khalil Al Alzi wiht younger children at a refugee camp in Lebanon Picture: Tabitha Ross


Five years ago today, pro-democracy protests erupted in Syria and several demonstrators were shot dead by security forces.

Few people back then could have predicted the country’s rapid descent into a civil war that has resulted in more than 250,000 deaths and forced more than 4.5 million people to flee Syria.

The victims of this horrific conflict have included millions of children. There are 2.4 million child refugees and at least 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school there and in neighbouring countries. One in three Syrian children was born after the fighting started.

As the conflict enters its sixth year, A World at School has talked to some of those Syrian children – and their parents – whose lives have been blighted by fear and trauma.

In this article, Beirut-based writer and photographer Tabitha Ross – with the help of the education initiative Sonbola – meets those who were born into the war and others who have been robbed of an education.

You can also read about the children who are in school and want to help rebuild Syria.



Tabitha writes…

Arriving at the camp where Khalil lives, the first thing that strikes you is how many children there are and the way they all crowd around you. 

I’ve been to lots of camps but it’s never before happened to me that every kid in the camp tries to be in the tent when I’m doing interviews, even after we’ve repeatedly asked them to leave. 

None of these children are in school. No wonder they are fascinated by the strange visitor with the camera. The only focus for their energy that they have is playing games such as marbles or football, or helping their parents, or working in the fields in the summer time. 

Khalil has been out of school since the start of the conflict. From Idlib in the north of Syria, his village was bombed very early in the crisis and his family fled to his grandparents in the Homs area, where he couldn’t find a place in school. 

When the war followed them there, they fled again, coming to Lebanon two and a half years ago. 

He’s shy and slightly reticent to answer questions and when he admits that he’s forgotten all his English, which he used to love, he looks profoundly sad.

But he cheers up when the camera comes out and enjoys showing off his skill playing marbles and football for the camera.


Khali says…

I reached grade five in Syria but when I was nine the crisis started and I couldn’t go anymore. It’s five years since I’ve been to school.

I had to leave school because our village was bombed and we had to run away. We left Idlib and went to near Hama, to my grandparents’ house. But there we couldn’t find a school for me to go to – many were closed because of the war.

Then when we came to Lebanon, there were no school places.

When I went to school, I liked English. But I’ve forgotten it all now. If there had been no war, I would be in school today. I’d be in grade nine now. 

Yes, of course if I could go I would want to go. But as it is, I’m here. I help my mum at home with chores and with the kids. 

In the summer I work with my older sister – we pick potatoes and other vegetables in the fields for the farmers. It’s good to have work. 

I have lots of friends in the camp and my cousins are here. We play all sorts of things, like marbles or football.

The tent isn’t cold, not even at night. We light the stove and it keeps us warm. We all sleep in here together, mum and dad and me and my five brothers and sisters.

I can remember how to read and write. I teach my little brothers and sisters their letters sometimes, if we have a notebook and pen.

I want to open a computer shop in Syria when I grow up.



Tabitha writes: In a camp full of children vying to have their picture taken, Shahed – the sister of Khali – is more reserved and shy than most. 

While her older sister and all her cousins push each other out of the way to get in front of the camera, she holds back.

I don’t think I’d have any pictures of her at all if I hadn’t singled her out and asked to photograph her. She looks into the lens solemnly.

It is difficult asking her mother Mona questions about Shahed – and indeed about her children’s experience generally. 

How do you ask a mother how she feels about the fact that her children are missing out on their education and opportunities for a better life?

Holding her youngest child, a one-month-old daughter, Mona looks like she might cry as I ask her what the war’s biggest impact on Shahed has been. 

Sitting in the tent that serves as their home – bereft of possessions and security – she answers that the biggest impact is that Shahed should be starting school and isn’t.


Shahed’s mother Mona says…

The month that Shahed was born, there started to be revolutions across the Arab world – Tunisia, Libya, Egypt.

I never thought these things would come to Syria, would come to us.

When I saw the first demonstrations in Syria, I felt scared and afraid and tense. But I still never thought that such things would reach our village or affect us. 

But the war spread and spread. They started bombing our area. 

A plane hit our village so we moved to the village of my parents, in the Hama area. Then two and a half years ago the bombing came there too and we fled here to Lebanon.

If there had been no crisis, if none of these events had ever happened, if Shahed were still in Syria, she would be starting school now. She should be going into first grade. 

The most direct impact of the war on Shahed is that she couldn’t start school. 

And also that whenever she sees or hears a plane she starts crying. She has known nothing but war.


Tabitha writes: One of the only things that Malak remembers clearly from Syria is the bombing.

She is still scared when she hears a plane, although she has lived in Lebanon for nearly three years, most of her life.

Despite knowing nothing but war and displacement, Malak is an animated and cheery child, with a cheeky grin and an open affection that touches your heart. 

She comes and sits on my lap voluntarily and is happy to be photographed and the centre of attention. Her mother Aziza says she likes playing with her friends and socialising and I can well believe it. Her name means “Angel”.

If she were still in Syria, Malak would be starting school now – but a shortage of places for refugees in Lebanon means she is not. 

She attends classes in a tent in her camp to start learning her letters,. But this is not counted as formal education and will give her no qualifications – not even to say she’s done first grade.

Malak’s mother Aziza cannot write her own name and wants her girls to have more education than she did. 

If it were up to her, she says she would let her girls study as long as the boys.  However, she says that’s not the prevailing mentality in her community, where girls are expected to leave school early and marry. 

Between the war and the attitudes of her community, sadly it seems more likely that Malak will end up as a child bride than a school graduate.


Malak’s mother Aziza says…

Malak was born in Aleppo. She was two when we came to Lebanon and we’ve been here nearly three years.

My oldest two children, Iman and Abed – who are 12 and 10 – go to classes in the camp [informal education run by NGO Beyond] in the morning and then to a Lebanese public school in the afternoon. 

The middle three aren’t in school but they go to learn their letters at the classes in the camp.

If we were in Syria the middle three would be in proper school but it’s hard to get enough places here.

Malak remembers our house in Syria a little bit. She remembers the bombing. She is afraid whenever she hears a plane – she knows nothing but war. She has nightmares about planes and bomb.

She likes playing and going to the classes with the other kids. She likes to get up in the morning and go to “school” like her big sisters.

Five years ago we were in our village in Syria. In five years time, God willing, we will be back there. We miss it so much.

Education is the key to rebuild the future of Syria. I never got the chance to learn. I want my children to have the opportunity that I didn’t have. So I tell them to go and to learn something new every day.

I don’t know what I would like Malak to be when she grows up because in our village girls just get married. It’s pointless to dream of anything else because a girl might be allowed to study until she was 18 and then get married. 

The attitude is that girls only need enough education to be able to read road signs or to take their children to the doctor’s.

My wish for Malak is for her to live in peace and not go back to Syria unless the war ends.



Syrian refugee in Lebanon Waed Al Haqbami aged 10  picture by Tabitha Ross

Tabitha writes…

Waed (whose name means “Promise”) is a cousin of Khalil and Shahed and lives in the same camp. 

With her little sister hooked on her hip, she follows me impatiently around the camp while I talk to and photograph her cousins. 

The eldest of five, I get the impression she ends up with a lot of responsibility for younger brothers and sister – not an easy task aged 10. 

She only completed grade one in Syria and wants to get back to school so that she can start learning again.


Waed says…

I am from Hama. I was in school in Syria but there’s no school available for me to go to here in Lebanon.

None of the children in this camp are in school.  

When I was in school what I loved most was just that I was learning. 

I only completed grade one. My teacher was very nice, I loved her.

I’m going to Sonbola twice a week now. We’re learning some letters and we go on the computers.

But I want to go more and go to proper school too so I can learn properly.

There’s five of us in my family – three boys and two girls. My dad wants all of us to go to school.

I want to be a teacher when I grow up so that I can teach children.

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