For some Syrian rebels, keeping classrooms open is key to fighting Assad

In basements and mosques in Syrian rebel-held areas, volunteers keep children up to speed in core subjects. 'We're like an ambulance for education,' says one imam.

Zain Karam/Reuters
A view of a school classroom damaged in clashes between forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar al-Assad and rebels in Kafranbel, near Idlib October 6, 2012.

In a cave-like room lit by a single fluorescent light bulb, more than a dozen third-grade students sit in rows of small desks, their tiny backpacks beside them as they face a blackboard hung on rough stone walls.

A teacher interrupts a lesson on Arabic to ask the class a question.

"Who is killing Syrians?" he asks. "Bashar!" the children answer back in unison.

"Why is he killing you?" the teacher, Abu Omar, continues.

One student raises his hand. "Because we want freedom," he says.

This is one of the makeshift classrooms of rebel-held Syria, where bombs have destroyed many school buildings and the government that once paid teachers' salaries is gone. Education has become another casualty of the war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and divided a country. In some cities in this small swath of "liberated" Syria, residents have organized temporary schools in an attempt to keep it alive and prevent children from losing ground at a time when the war's end is nowhere in sight.

"We're like an ambulance for education," says Abu Fateh, an imam in Azaz who has opened a makeshift school in his mosque that serves as many as 400 children. "We're an emergency service to keep these children in school. There is no question that a real school is better than the mosque for the students. But we have nothing else, so we must teach them here."

The United Nations said in September – citing the Syrian Ministry of Education – that more than 2,000 schools were damaged or destroyed in the Syrian conflict so far, while many others were used to house refugees.

On a recent morning in his mosque in this small town near the Turkish border, dozens of boys sat on plush carpets. As the bright sunlight streamed in through large windows, they listened to a lesson about the Muslim practice of washing before prayer. Groups of girls, taught by female teachers, sit behind a curtain hung, says Abu Fateh, to divide the mosque into rooms and keep the students from becoming distracted. On the second floor, younger children learn in mixed-gender groups.

One of the teachers says he volunteers his time to teach Arabic so that children will continue to build their reading skills.

No textbooks

"The important thing is that we want to bring back life to Azaz," says the teacher, Abu El Noor. "We want to live normal lives, even if the regime kills us."

Of course, the school is not quite normal. There are no textbooks, and the only subjects taught are Arabic, math, Quran, and some English. Back in Al Bab, there are at least half a dozen such schools. Some children meet in mosques, while others meet in basements or other places considered safe from the aerial bombardment that often rains terror onto the city.

Abu Omar's school meets in an unfinished room on the ground floor of a tall building, sheltered from bombs by the floors above. Mothers refused to send their children to the place teachers had first planned to hold the classes, because the building was only two stories tall.

Many of the volunteers in Al Bab's makeshift schools were former teachers in government schools. This school operates for six hours a day, in four shifts of 1-1/2 hours each for different grades. The teachers instruct students in Arabic, English, and math, as well as more unconventional subjects, such as how to stay safe from shelling and bombing.

One student sits in class with spent ammunition cartridges from a DShK heavy machine gun, or "Dushka," on his fingers.

Abu Omar was fired from his job as a principal at a government school here for participating in protests. After the Free Syrian Army drove the regime from Al Bab, he returned to his former school to take the desks and used textbooks to use in his makeshift classroom. "I am fighting the regime in my own way," he says, "by teaching the children."

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