‘Reconciliation’ part of Syria’s post-war education system

Sunday 18/12/2016
Damage at a classroom after it was reportedly hit by rebel rocket fire in the government-held side of west Aleppo, last November. (AFP)

Beirut - At the United Nations’ Middle East headquar­ters in Beirut a major project has been under way regarding Syria’s reconstruction, headed by the country’s former deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Ab­dullah al-Dardari, now a senior of­ficial at the Economic Social Com­mission for Western Asia (ESCWA). High on the reconstruction list is education.
Government estimates set the cost of rebuilding Syria’s war-rav­aged educational sector at approxi­mately $2 billion.
In total, 3,465 schools have been destroyed throughout regime-held parts of Syria, which includes Da­mascus. An additional 1,000 are “out of order” — used by troops or as shelters for refugees or, in some cases, as prisons.
Dardari told The Arab Weekly: “Higher education in post-conflict Syria needs to serve the new social contract between state and soci­ety. It will have to be based on in­tellectual freedom and the ability to debate freely and innovate, in addition to being linked to market development.
“Higher education is also a very important post-conflict melting pot for all Syrians to ensure rec­onciliation; students from differ­ent backgrounds (political, ethnic, social and religious) need to be brought into the frontline univer­sities to study together and build a future side-by-side.”
There are 7,000 schools scat­tered throughout territory con­trolled by rebels in northern Syria, for example; 4,500 of which have been destroyed or badly damaged.
These rebel-held cities have to provide education for about 4.5 million students, 3.5 million of which are out of school, having abandoned their books five years ago to take up arms against the Syrian Army. Among Syrian refu­gees, there are another 800,000 Syrian children who are not getting an education.
A recent UNICEF report stated that 1.7 million students were out of school in Syria during the 2015- 16 academic year and 1.3 million are on the verge of dropping out. The report added that since the war started in early 2011, more than 4,000 military strikes were launched at schools in both camps.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights says that 19,000 children have been killed in Syria since the start of hostilities. Of that number, 668 died at the hands of the armed opposition, 443 were killed by Rus­sians and 307 by the Islamic State (ISIS).
Another 97 died at the hands of the US-led coalition, which started operations in September 2014, and 47 were killed by al-Qaeda. The rest were killed by government troops, according to the Human Rights Network.
When asked about how to re­build Syria’s schools and univer­sity, or how to reopen campuses, government officials and members of the opposition stand speechless. Both have failed to provide a road map as to how to re-enrol students into schools and universities and convince them of how important a university degree is for their fu­ture.
That will be difficult to do since they have become accustomed to the wild life, on both sides of the conflict, making big money from kidnapping, drug trafficking and smuggling.
After all, most of the fighters are university and high school drop­outs, aged 16-25. One day, the war will end and these young men will find themselves well past univer­sity age, with no degrees to em­power them in life and usher them once again into Syrian society.
Territories held by Islamist re­bels have been thrown back into the Stone Age. Schools and univer­sities have been closed and in their place sprouted Quranic classes. Women were banned from educa­tion and forced to wear the veil.
Male teachers cannot instruct fe­male students, and vice-versa. The main focus in these schools is a hard-line Islamic education, rather than any academically accredited textbooks on geography, physics or literature.
Most Syrian universities have been put out of business be­cause of declining student enrol­ment or been forced to relocate in safer parts of Damascus, setting up evening classes at state-run schools and even hotels.
Some went bankrupt as the Syr­ian pound was greatly devalued. They simply could not raise the cost of credit hours or pay salaries to faculty and staff. Others shut down because of the lack of securi­ty in the countryside, with mortar fire hitting campuses and students being shot while driving to college.
According to the London-based Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat, there are about 370,000 schoolteachers in Syria, 160,000 of them in rebel-held territory. Many of their col­leagues have either fled the coun­try or been killed, especially in the countryside around Aleppo and Hama, or in the Islamic State-held cities of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa.
The ESCWA study focuses on the “recovery phase”, regardless of who wins the war, and on the ap­parent assumption that the unitary Syrian state will remain intact.
The ESCWA papers say that all government agencies need to ad­mit that the quality and practice of education, “especially in the last half of the past century”, were among the reasons why the tur­moil erupted.
ESCWA suggests reforming three main subjects — religious educa­tion, regional patriotism (which propagates Ba’athist thought) and history — at all schools and univer­sities. They will not be eliminated but will have to be liberalised.