Children under ISIS deprived of education
Damascus - Four years of an unabated and brutal conflict have devastated all aspects of life in Syria, depriving scores of children of a proper education. Many schools were turned into shelters for refugees. Others were destroyed or used as headquarters and command centres by various armed groups fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In Raqqa province, stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) in north-eastern Syria, the Islamist group closed all schools at the beginning of the year, pending a revision of the curriculum “to conform with religious rules”. The move left 670,000 children without any form of education, according to the UN Children’s Rights and Emergency Relief Organisation (UNICEF).
Teachers were ordered to “repent” for adhering to official curricula of the “apostate” regime and warned against giving any private lessons, especially to girls.
“Those who refused to ‘repent’ were dispossessed of their property and belongings, whereas those who had signed the ‘atonement paper’ but returned to teaching secretly were considered renegades and punished with death,” Abu Ammar, a teacher of civil education in Raqqa, said.
“I was summoned to the school where I teach to declare my expiation, as well as all my other colleagues who taught other subjects.” he added.
Jamal al-Hammoud, a government employee in the health sector in Raqqa, was apprehended when ISIS raided his house and found out that his 10-year-old daughter and three other girls were being tutored. “Hammoud was forced to sit for a session of religious teaching at the Fawaz Mosque in Raqqa and was made to vow not to give his daughter any private teaching,” a relative of the family said.
In certain cases teachers were flogged publicly for resisting the ISIS decision to ban instruction in subjects that were part of the state curriculum, including physics, chemistry, geography, history, nationalism, drawing and music.
According to the director of education in Raqqa, Abdel Ilah al-Hadi, at least five teachers have been whipped in public in Maadan, 50 kilometres east of Raqqa city, for giving clandestine private lessons.
“The teachers were given 50 lashes each and condemned to cleaning the town’s main streets for a month, whereas the father of one of the female students who had the lessons given at his house was severely punished,” Hadi said.
As a result of the ISIS takeover of Raqqa more than a year ago, the number of students from the province sitting for official exams, including high school, dropped dramatically, according to Hadi. “As many as 22,148 students passed high school in 2012, compared to only 1,282 who sat for the exams in 2015, at a provisional centre set up specifically for Raqqa students in Damascus,” he said.
“But the biggest tragedy of all is that there are more than 50,000 children who reached school age but have not been able to attend school for the past three years, in addition to those who dropped out in first grade, and they are all considered to be without any education.”
Many families left the province to ensure education for their children. Others had to find new ways, such as Oum Amjad who smuggled school books from Damascus for her son. “Bringing books into Raqqa is becoming more dangerous than smuggling arms,” she said. “At the beginning of the school year, I had to make several trips to Damascus in order to bring copies of the books to my son, which I concealed under the inner lining of my luggage.”
In addition to the risk, Oum Amjad incurred extra costs, as she had to pay $150 to photocopy the volumes that normally cost $15.
Sheikh Ibrahim, the father of five, including two university students and three in secondary, intermediary and primary cycles, said he preferred to move altogether.
“After ISIS closed down all educational establishments, I sold my house in Raqqa city and moved to the outskirts of Damascus where my children could at least continue their education,” he said. Ibrahim considers himself lucky because many families were barred from leaving the province and their children now stay at home without proper education.
“I know that ISIS is a temporary situation but I cannot waste years of my children’s education… It is true that I have incurred losses by selling my house at half price, but at least I secured their future,” he said.
Despite the closure of schools, teachers and administrators are still being paid salaries, like all other government employees, Hadi pointed out. He said more than 100 instructors from the educational cadre in Raqqa have been killed, kidnapped or imprisoned on charges of being loyal to the regime.
“We have also lost more than 100 schools across the province, which were completely destroyed during the fighting or in air strikes by the regime or the US-led coalition, in addition to billions of Syrian pounds worth of school equipment which were looted and ransacked,” he said.
Children of school age make up more than 50% of the Syrian refugee population living in makeshift camps and tented settlements in neighbouring countries. Between 2.1 million and 2.4 million are either out of school or attending classes irregularly, UNICEF says.
Many of those unable to go to school are on the streets working to survive.