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War Zone Education: A Textbook Crisis for Syrian Schoolchildren

A volunteer teacher spends time with Syrian Kurdish children in a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey near the border with Syria.Getty Images
A volunteer teacher spends time with Syrian Kurdish children in a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey near the border with Syria.Getty Images
A volunteer teacher spends time with Syrian Kurdish children in a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey near the border with Syria.Getty Images

by Laura Cesaretti

They say that history is written by the victors, but in Syria the winners and losers are not yet clear. The education system has become just as scrappy as the battlefield, as each faction introduces its own altered version of the national curriculum.

The Syrian education system is being attacked on many fronts. The first onslaught was the loss of life and displacement of students and teachers. Those who remained in the war zones saw the destruction of schools; the classrooms that still stand are often used as barracks, or even prisons. Lessons, where possible, are cobbled together in “bunker schools” in underground concrete cells or the homes of teachers, who go to great lengths to prevent an illiterate generation.

The old Syrian curriculum has also come under fire. While the official syllabus is still taught in government-held areas, in the so-called liberated zones, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC)—the official opposition-in-exile—as well as the Islamic Levant Commission, another group of Syrian expatriates, have introduced new textbooks. Various other opposition and rebel groups have introduced new subjects into Syrian schools ranging from citizenship classes to religious sermons.

The state of education varies greatly according to where you are in Syria, or where Syrian schoolchildren have ended up in neighboring countries. The SNC’s Office of the National Higher Commission for Learning and Higher Education, based in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, has printed an extra 7.2 million copies of their post-Assad curriculum to meet demand. The books will be distributed across the refugee camps and, where possible, inside Syria. While the core subjects remained unchanged, history has been edited. Historical events have been re-examined and given new names. In the Islamic Levant Commission’s textbooks, the 1973 war with Israel has become the “October War” instead of the “October Liberation War.” The official symbols of the Ba’ath party and pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his family have been removed. An activist at the SNC’s offices calls it “a needed cleaning.”

As yet, revolutionary values and new education policies have not been formally introduced into the new textbooks. “It is too early for that. For now, we have to focus on the main issues, which concern the distribution of the books, the safety of the buildings and the support of the teachers who work in and outside Syria almost as volunteers,” says Azzam Fadel, member of the newly formed Syrian interim government and currently responsible for education.

In the areas under the control of (ISIS), such as Raqqa, the extremist rebel group has opened Islamic schools, but it has not yet introduced a new standard curriculum. Although many parts of northwest Syria already adopted conservative Muslim norms before ISIS arrived, the imposition of a religious school program may prove to be a step too far for some parents; the fighters are perhaps avoiding this issue to maintain some sort of post-battle order. According to local activists, Islamic studies remain separate from regular schooling, which uses the SNC books left behind by the Free Syrian Army that controlled the area before ISIS moved in. Nonetheless, numerous reports have emerged of the enforcement of religious education in favor of math and science in schools where jihadist rebels hold sway.

At the other end of the country, in the Damascus suburbs, the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria has introduced human rights and citizenship principles into subjects at schools. “Those are the core values of the revolution,” explains Rafif Jouejati, founder and director of the foundation. Jouejati says the foundation is also working on a long-term project that focuses on teaching freedom, justice and inclusivity: “We are Syrian first, and then Christian, Kurdish, Sunni or any other religions and ethnicities.”

Most NGOs working with refugees in neighboring countries have developed a creative and therapeutic approach to education. In Turkey for instance, the Karam Foundation has established the Zeitouna mentorship program in the Al-Salam School in Reyhanlı, a Turkish city a mere 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the Syrian border. Volunteers from all over the world visit the school to teach children photography, sports, painting, writing and other crafts. Lina Sergie Attar, an American–Syrian activist and founder of the organization, considers stimulating young Syrians’ dreams a priority for the new education system: “It is really all about interacting and giving hope, showing them that they are not alone, listening, and talking with them as equals.”

Without clear guidelines from the SNC-affiliated Education Commission, the new Syrian curriculum is being implemented in a haphazard and inconsistent fashion. This is partly because the SNC suffers from a lack of support among Syrians on the ground. “We usually bypassed the Syrian National Coalition, no one had hope with them, and that is why we have tried to work directly with local councils or fighters who are usually ready to help us and offer protection,” explained Zaher, a Syrian activist who previously worked with a French NGO in northern Syria.

Fadel, however, denied this was a problem and stressed the difficulty of coordinating education in areas ruled by different rebel groups: “Where we have control, like in the rural region of Latakia, we have visited lots of schools and tried to coordinate programs, but we don’t have the power to go into the cities ruled by the other forces such as the Kurdish areas.”

The challenge for the new interim government, then, is the effective coordination of education across a fragmented Syria. Activists and charities were recently in Gaziantep to discuss a long-term strategy for education alongside the Coalition. “We called the local NGOs to make a plan, coordinate the support of aid and schools inside and outside Syria,” says Fadel.

For now, though, the debate on the future of Syrian education remains open and many are skeptical of the SNC’s ability to deliver real results. “They have just established the government, but we have been working in the Damascus suburban schools for the last year and a half,” explains Jouejati. “We are open to talks and to discuss a long-term plan, but we have to see what they are proposing first.”

To date, the Education Commission has made many promises including the investment of 8 million US dollars into education. Fadel said that the interim government had proposed that money be set aside to pay for teachers’ salaries—200,000 dollars for teachers inside Syria and 100,000 for those outside. The fulfillment of these promises rests largely on the ability of various factions to co-ordinate for the sake of a generation of children who may otherwise grow up without an education.

*Laura Cesaretti is an Italian freelance journalist specializing in Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs. She is currently based in southeast Turkey, traveling along the Syrian border.

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