Aleppo – The recent advance on Aleppo by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad has spurred thousands of residents to flee for the Turkish border.
Pro-Assad forces, backed by Russian air raids, are seeking to retake areas of Syria’s largest city that are under the control of rebel groups. Aleppo is divided between areas controlled by rebel groups and by the Syrian state.
Many of Aleppo’s schools have continued to operate despite the war. Some have moved underground for protection from bombs, resulting in improved security even as Aleppo’s humanitarian crisis worsens.
However, low attendance, underdeveloped curricula, lack of funds and continued air strikes against schools remain major obstacles for students and teachers alike.
Sixteen-year-old Samir Atrash, a high-school student in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled Mashhad neighbourhood, walks to school amid the debris and rubble that five years of civil war has created. Although he finds history and geography difficult, he likes accounting and gym classes.
put fear in me, to the point that I think staying in the street is safer than going to school.”]
In the Sukri neighbourhood, which is also controlled by rebels, 15-year-old Shadi al-Agha works with his father in a coffee shop. Although he wants to be an Arabic teacher one day, his dad forbids him to go to school, fearing it will be attacked.
A study by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Save the Children claims over 30 Syrian schools had been attacked by September 2015, including some in Aleppo. Russian airstrikes, which began in late 2015, have hit schools recently as well.
Al-Agha stopped attending school altogether in 2012 when his family began moving frequently, which made it difficult for him to continue his studies.
“Of course I want to return to school as soon as possible. But my dad keeps telling me that schools are targeted by Assad’s bombs,” Agha told Al Jazeera. “[He] put fear in me, to the point that I think staying in the street is safer than going to school.”
Atrash’s school, like many others in Aleppo, had been closed for years as a result of the war. “School is hard because my classmates and I had to stop going for more than two years,” he told Al Jazeera.
His school was closed between 2012 and 2014. “Now things are better because the school is open; there is bombing, but it’s better [less] than before,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to Zaid Mohammad of the Syrian NGO Kesh Malek, Aleppo is home to 130 schools that are currently operating or in the process of being re-opened.
Meanwhile, teachers and administrators lament the bombings’ damage to the city’s schools, while acknowledging improved security.
Majid Marai has around 50 students in his four English language classes at the Sakhar Halaq school in the rebel area of Aleppo. While his school has not been directly attacked, he said his students’ behaviour has changed since the war. “Many of them behave…like men. This is nice at first glance, but it’s a risk to their childhood,” he said.
Some students have left school altogether. “About a year ago there was a bombing campaign against schools and several students left [the school],” he said.
However, like Atrash, Marai said the situation was getting better and that “most students have returned to school”. Moreover, he claims that schools are safer nowadays, because “many of them moved to basements underground” in 2015.
Yet schools in Aleppo continue to suffer from physical damage, a lack of funding and inadequate curricula, Marai added. “There are organisational problems. Our curriculum was developed in haste by the Syrian interim government. We need to re-do it.
“There were strikes last year against schools, but no schools were underground. Now the situation is more or less better, in spite of the bombing still targeting the city in general.”
Ayman Amr Hashem, director of the education office for the Free Aleppo Governorate Council, which rules rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo and operates several of the city’s schools, agrees that the curriculum needs reform – and that damaged schools must be repaired.
“We need more organisation and rehabilitation of educational centres,” he said. “Because bombs have hit schools, teachers have lost a lot of experience due to the continual cancelling of classes.”
But local authorities often lack the funds to rehabilitate and re-open schools, and the Free Aleppo Governorate Council struggles to pay its employees.
Hashem acknowledges that schools in Aleppo receive funding from abroad. But he is critical of this funding, which comes from both western and Middle Eastern states, as being “politicised” – and wants the money to be used to repair the schools, not develop curricula.
Despite the risk, students and teachers continue to go to school in dangerous Aleppo. “I want to be an engineer,” said Atrash. “Why else would I take the risk of going to school? Like my dad always says: ‘The future requires hard work and sacrifice.'”
There is little students can do in the event a school is bombed, although Atrash said he has a routine to stay safe. “When the bombs come I drop to the ground, put my hands on my head and get under a table.”