Mahmoud* is a 42-year-old teacher in Damascus. But it’s not his only job.
He also moonlights as an accountant for a restaurant, having been forced to look for more work once his teaching income barely reached 42,000 Syrian pounds (around $70) and couldn’t cover even his basic daily needs.
“How can I possibly take care of my students and offer them the best education, when I have to work overtime for eight hours per day?” he asks. “I always end up feeling drained of energy. That effects my performance as a teacher.”
It's not just teachers taking on extra work.
Abdelrahman, a 15-year-old student, works at a fast food restaurant for a 5,000 Syrian pound ($75) wage, ever since his family lost its main breadwinner as a result of the war.
“How can I succeed if I can’t find time to study? How can I learn, knowing that my family and I are threatened with poverty and starvation each day?” Abdelrahman says.
Mahmoud’s situation resembles that of most currently practicing teachers in the Syrian capital. With more than 80 percent of Syrians now living below the poverty line, the deteriorating economic situation after years of war means that many teachers are forced to juggle multiple jobs at the same time, while also working overtime shifts. They are often met with stares of pity and mockery, especially those who work in factories, grocery stores and restaurants, or as taxi drivers, to make ends meet.
The income of a teacher “raising generations” nowadays can fluctuate anywhere between the equivalent of $70 and $80—and at best, it could reach $100. Even then, that's still barely enough to pay rent for a liveable house in the city.
“My students often come by the shop to buy things, and students from other neighbourhoods deliberately come to see me to inspect how different I am compared to school,” he tells Syria Untold. “Some troublemakers walk in front of the shop at night, come in every few minutes to buy something and treat me like just another storekeeper.”
“The most embarrassing and unforgettable situation was when a girl who turned out to be one of my 11th grade students hailed the cab along with another woman, and I picked them up. I could see her inspecting me with her shocked stares, and she showered me with embarrassing questions until my whole face turned red. I felt uneasy and started sweating,” Ghassan explains.
“A few days later, her mother called me, after having taken my number, to ask for a lift. When I arrived, I was surprised to see my student and three of her friends waiting for me in front of the house to drop them off at their friend’s birthday.”
“I barely see my wife and children because I’m sleepy,” he says. “I wake up the next morning for school, where I feel tired, bored and snappy. Information gets mixed up in my head, and I feel like there’s a barrier between me and the students.”
With many teachers feeling unappreciated in their jobs at public schools, some have instead opted to work in private educational institutes, with others quitting the teaching profession altogether in the hopes of finding a better income.
“I work in wholesaling, distributing food to grocery stores,” he tells Syria Untold. “I quit teaching because nothing motivated me anymore. Teaching lost all its financial and moral value once the war started.”
Some teachers look down on the displaced students, discriminating against them in class, undermining them, ignoring them. Worst of all, some teachers consider these displaced to be sons of terrorists not worthy of care or attention.
Students from displaced families have been suffering for years, facing extreme levels of poverty and constantly deteriorating living conditions since fleeing their homes. Syria’s massive levels of internal displacement have resulted in divided communities, as class disparities emerged between host and displaced communities. Discrimination followed.
Life is hard for displaced students inside school and out. Some can’t study where they live because of overcrowding at home, with apartments and shelters often rented by two or three families at the same time—and even sometimes more—so as to keep the costs down.
Ahmad is 12, and lives in a small, unfurnished apartment in Jaramana in the southeast of Damascus. There are 10 other people living in the flat. After school, Ahmad goes and does his homework outside the house, to get away from the din inside the apartment.
“Most of them felt inferior to their peers who had better social and financial standing. Some local students would show off their clothes, bags and money, call their displaced peers poor and mock their attire, accent, habits and houses,” she tells Syria Untold.
“Some teachers look down on the displaced students, discriminating against them in class, undermining them, ignoring them. Worst of all, some teachers consider these displaced to be sons of terrorists not worthy of care or attention.”
It was obvious that I was going to fail.
In another area of Damascus, Khaled, a displaced student in the sixth grade, lives in a miserable-looking, unfinished apartment. Khaled watches his father’s vegetable and fruit store in the evening, and stays until closing at 11pm.
Khaled’s classmate, Tim, meanwhile, takes private lessons going over most of the curriculum material. Private tutors come to his home and teach Tim in his fancy-looking bedroom, with its coloured walls and warm bed.
Ayman adds sadly: “I would work from morning until 8pm in the evening and return home to study, but would be too sleepy to do so. During the exams, I would leave for work directly after submitting. I would then return too tired and try to study for a couple of hours with no focus. My head would hang over the book, and I would doze off while sitting there. It was obvious that I was going to fail."
During the long years of war, Syria’s educational sector has suffered a great deal—given secondary status and left out of the government’s developmental plans for the future. Teachers and students, meanwhile, suffer.
“When I was still a student, I dreamt of becoming a teacher, taking on an active and influential role in society,” he tells Syria Untold. “But the war extinguished any hope to improve this sector. My dream has become a nightmare that keeps me up daily.”