April 09, 2018

After years out of school, children return to classrooms in eastern Syria

School children prepare for lessons in Deir Ezzor, Syria

Photo credit: Marcel Holyoak

Islamic State rule meant 200,000 students went without proper schooling and 5000 teachers were out of work in Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding area - but now that's changing.

Her name means "dreams" in Arabic and schoolteacher Ahlam is finally realising hers - returning to her beloved classroom after years of jihadist rule over her eastern Syrian hometown.

Perched on school benches in their bright coats, excited young boys and girls chant in unison as they count the cherries she has drawn in chalk on the blackboard.

The Islamic State group overran large swathes of Syria in 2014, with the jihadists imposing their own rigid interpretation of Islam on residents.

They opened their own schools, banning music and the arts, and dispensed brutal punishments to those who did not adhere to their ultra-conservative values.

Ahlam says the jihadists tried to recruit her to teach in one of their schools in her hometown of Al-Shamatiyah, near Deir Ezzor city. 

She refused, opting to teach her children in secret at home and eking out a living from an orchard she tended to with her husband, an agricultural engineer.

"I thought there would no longer be a future for our children - no schooling, no rights," recalls Ahlam.

"But thank God, the children are studying, so they can at least read and write," she tells AFP, her hair covered by a blue headscarf. 

Many children are now able to return to education in the war-torn nation

Photo credit: UNICEF / Rostowski

Effect of Syrian conflict

1.75 million school-aged children in Syria are still out of education.

Seven years of war has directly affected over eight million children - six million of them inside Syria and 2.6 million registered as refugees in other countries.

Since a Syrian government offensive ousted the jihadists from Deir Ezzor city and nearby territory in late 2017, teachers and pupils alike have rushed back to the classroom.

At 13, Mohammad al-Ragheb shyly admits he does not know how to read or write, having spent the years under IS rein outside of school. 

"I should be in eighth grade now, but I wasn't able to go to school," he tells AFP. He now sits excitedly in a crisp classroom in eastern Syria, awaiting his lesson. 

According to Deir Ezzor's education directorate, the fighting in the region meant some 200,000 students went without proper schooling for five years, with around 5000 teachers out of work.  

Now, the directorate says, dozens of schools have reopened and around 45,000 students are back in school. 

Some 6000 students are also resuming their studies at the Euphrates University in Deir Ezzor, capital of the province of the same name.

Even as IS lost its military grip on Deir Ezzor, the jihadists left unexploded mines and sand berms all across the city and its entrances, barring the way for students and residents in general.

Syrian military personnel have spent months clearing away those explosives, and displaced residents have started to repopulate the city. 

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