On Syria's coast, children of ‘martyrs’ and ‘terrorists’ attend the same school

22 November 2019

The arrival of huge numbers of displaced children to Latakia has put immense pressure on the coastal province's teachers and educational infrastructure. Photo by Hazem Mustafa / Syria Untold.
Hazem Mustafa

Hazem Mustafa (pseudonym) is a Syrian writer and journalist residing in Latakia.

Ahmed, a sixth-grade student in the northern Latakia neighbourhood of al-Raml, did not expect the quarrel with his classmate to end at the school gates with knives drawn.

This wasn’t the first such dispute between him and the other child since the start of the school year, but this time it was worse.

Ahmed enrolled in the school in Syria’s northwestern coastal city after his family were forcibly displaced from Andan in the Aleppo countryside, when fighting erupted between armed opposition factions and pro-government forces there in mid-2015.

When they arrived in Latakia, Ahmed’s family first headed to the al-Raml Palestinian refugee camp as they already knew some people living there. However, overcrowding and lack of housing, and high rents when housing was even available, pushed them towards a more northern area of al-Raml. There, the majority of the population is Alawi.

According to Ahmed, the problem all started when he refused to lend the other student a maths book. The other student promised to beat him up after school the next day. When the fighting did eventually break out, punches were thrown. Eventually, one of the participants fell down after being cut with a small knife. Bleeding, his screams reached the school principal who immediately intervened. She brought the fighting to a halt and requested medical assistance from a nearby clinic.

Shocking as it may be, fighting between boys in the schoolyard might seem like a relatively normal occurrence. However, the insults exchanged during the fight highlighted something else lurking deep within the generations of the Syrian war. The student who instigated the fight said to Ahmed: “You have taken our places,” calling him a “stranger here [in Latakia].”

“Your father is a terrorist," he screamed.

A new life

Ahmed's case is not unique, reflecting the myriad tensions between IDPs and some host communities around the country. Social customs and even political dynamics often dictate that displaced populations are treated with acceptance and solidarity. However, this does not negate the many tensions that have also emerged among children—and particularly among boys—as a result of the war. In these cases, tensions are overt and explicit.

When one of the fathers becomes a victim of the conflict, any relationship between two pupils from two different geographies will end. Sometimes that will give way to scuffles and fistfights, with each side blaming the other for what happened.

According to Mona,* a 42-year-old sociologist and educator in Latakia, “the disparity between the social environments around Syria is clear, whether that's between the countryside and the city, or even between cities themselves."

“Under the status quo before the crisis, Syrians’ knowledge of one other was limited, and mostly confined to an economic, rather than a social, context. Among children, it was nonexistent outside of the camps and activities of the Baath Vanguards," Mona says, referring to the youth wing of Syria’s ruling Baath Party.

She adds that the forced displacement of Syrians to different areas, “including to the coast with its different customs, traditions and political dynamics…has made the attitudes of displaced people, and their children, all the more complex.”

A school principal in Latakia’s Hammam Square neighbourhood explains that the relationships between children in mixed displaced/host communities have taken on aspects of the Syrian conflict—not least because children's fathers have ended up fighting on either side of the Syrian war.

The principal, who has a sociology degree from Damascus University, adds that the military and political dynamics of war impact the students at school. “When one of the fathers becomes a victim of the conflict, any relationship between two pupils from two different geographies will end,” she says. “Sometimes that will give way to scuffles and fistfights, with each side blaming the other for what happened.”

"There were displaced parents, and locals, who explicitly asked for us not to sit their child next to a child from another region. But we refused—especially given the fact that there's so many displaced children in our schools,” the principal adds.

Another problem is a feeling among local communities in Latakia, often regarded as a stronghold of the Assad government, that a missing father means he must be a “terrorist” fighting against the “state.”

“But in fact, he may be stuck in a camp, outside the country, or absent for any other reason,” the principal explains. “Even so, the public perception is to consider every absent father as having joined an armed [opposition] group.”

Schools struggling to accommodate displaced families

Schools in Latakia, and the wider coastal region of Syria, largely absorbed the children of the displaced, putting real pressure on teaching staff as well as the schools themselves.

Between 2013 and 2018, it became a luxury for a school to have just two students sharing a desk. It was already rare to have fewer than 50 or 60 children per one teacher in a one-hour class, with a teacher spending about half that time trying to keep control over the classroom.

In May this year, Syria Untold visited a basic education school (grades one to nine) in al-Raml Palestinian refugee camp. The number of students per desk ranged between four and six, during two school shifts (one in the morning and another in the afternoon). The total number of students passing through the school’s doors each day was 1,500—while it was previously the standard to have no more than 20 students per class, and 400 students in total per school.

UNICEF statistics, collected in cooperation with the Syrian Ministry of Education, show that all basic education schools in Latakia have taken in displaced children at rates of up to 40 percent of the total number of students in the governorate. The rate in secondary schools is 20 percent.

According to that UNICEF study, between 2012 and 2015, six schools were selected in a random sample of 6,635 students, of whom 4,530 were female at an average of 1,000 students per school. The study took into account that the first batches of children followed their parents’ places of residence, as well as the waves of migration which followed the Russian intervention in 2015. The numbers of students increased after that.

In 2018, the UN verified 142 attacks on education facilities, the highest ever number since the beginning of the Syrian war. Schools in Latakia province, and neighboring Tartous province, have not been damaged. However, some of them were used as temporary shelters in the conflict which, between 2011 and 2015, left 10 schools out of service, according to an official at Latakia's Education Directorate. Most of these schools resumed activity after 2018.

This large number of incoming students has led to all kinds of problems in all basic education.

Najwa Muhammad, a 36-year-old English teacher, says the main reason is the combination of larger numbers of students with short class times, meaning that it's harder to actually implement the curriculum as it’s supposed to be.

Meanwhile, the prohibition of failing students or forcing them to redo a school year—based on a government directive issued years ago—means that many of these overcrowded schools are producing a whole generation of largely illiterate children, she adds.

Twice as many girls as boys

The majority of those enrolled in basic education are girls, who are more than double the number of male students, according to the UNICEF study. That only increases in older school grades, as boys become of an age where they can start working and providing for their families.

Ahmad’s father, Muhammad, works in Latakia's industrial zone in ​​a car repair shop. He says that his son will join him after finishing ninth grade—the age at which it's legally permitted for his son to leave school.

Muhammad said that securing a livelihood for the family is ultimately more important than education.

“Ahmed loves school, and can attend an evening school provided by UNICEF [after that],” he adds.

Specialist Mona Tanzakly, 42, tells Syria Untold that “female students are better at coping within the new community, and are less tense and more accepting—even though the majority of women have retained traditions from back home like wearing the hijab, and even the black abaya.”

Even so, she adds, “[Latakia city] has seen good relations and a climate in which people help one another out and support the children.”

For boys though, Tanzakly adds, there are added pressures of having to play a patriarchal role, “as an heir and then as a protector of the role of the absent father."

Official and parallel curricula

Waed Hammad is a 42-year-old teacher who previously taught at an IDP shelter in Latakia's Faculty of Athletics, which housed IDPs from the rural Idlib town of Harem. She notes that in many cases, the educational level of displaced students is “inadequate compared to their peers of the same age group.”

“In the classroom, I had students at the ages of 12 and 13 who could not read or write. One of them was 12 and in the third grade [for children aged eight], and could not be placed with other third grade students.”

Adolescents who have dropped out of school since the first years of the war—not a small percentage—have undergone a different curriculum, known as “Curriculum B,” which was launched by the Ministry of Education in cooperation with UNICEF. It attempts to reduce the educational gap between peers of the same age, and push struggling students back towards the standard curriculum after they’ve completed Curriculum B.

According to the Ministry of Education, Curriculum B is aimed at children between the ages of eight and 15 who have never attended school, or who returned to school after at least one year of interruption. These include students who had undergone rehabilitation courses at the Social Affairs Ministry’s centres, which then referred them to the Ministry of Education. They are admitted to special classes attached to basic education schools, where they pass grades one through eight at a quicker rate.

In a single semester, each student receives a curriculum equivalent to the basic information for a whole year. The student then takes an exam at the end of each semester to pass to another class. The program is only implemented in public schools and using their same teachers, according to the ministry’s website.

Curriculum B was introduced at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, and was gradually implemented in more than 200 schools within government-held areas.

There are difficulties that require years of serious collective work, not to mention dozens of psychological issues associated with the war that require considerable amounts of counselling.

The future for Latakia's schools

Displaced children often arrive to Latakia schools after living on the move for several years.

“I didn't go to school, and I couldn't, because our circumstances were beyond all probability,” says Rima, 24, who finally passed her high school diploma this year after being internally displaced with her family for four years after fleeing eastern Syria’s Raqqa.

“Fortunately, my father insisted on me completing my education despite all the hardships. Otherwise, I would have been confined to my husband’s home, raising children,” she says.

Many students arrived in a host community without official documents, including birth certificates—although these are now easier to replace through the Syrian government’s civil registry. However, the absence of school cards approved by the Student Life Records, or past attendance documents, has caused some students to sit through admission tests in the schools where they tried to enrol.

According to Waddah, an Arabic teacher at Slaybeh High School, the educational level of non-dropouts is determined based on tests in the main subjects: Arabic, English and Mathematics as well as some general knowledge.

Waddah explains that the Ministry of Education gave a verbal directive not to be strict in these tests, describing officials attempts to “keep the educational system on its feet, as part of an effort to preserve state institutions.”

Even so, the educational landscape on the Syrian coast, and across Syria more broadly, is not expected to change in the coming years, due to the current realities of schools and teachers.

Latakia-based sociologist and educator Mona believes that "unfortunately, all of these efforts to change the current reality are not enough."

“There are difficulties that require years of serious collective work, not to mention dozens of psychological issues associated with the war that require considerable amounts of counselling,” she adds.

“We need to repair the deep wounds in our relationships with one another as Syrians, and this does not seem to be feasible any time soon.”

*All sources quoted in this report asked that their real names and identities be withheld for security reasons.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad