The Chance to Learn

Authorities are working to increase oversight of drought victims to ensure that children attend school. Challenges, however, persist.

Drought victims in Syria - photo by Adel Samara

Drought victims in Syria - photo by Adel Samara

Upon arrival at Sa’sa camp, set up by drought victims 50 kilometres south-west of Damascus, children ran from their tents, greeting outsiders with shouts of joy. They are used to posing for cameras and are well-accustomed to media exposure.

Away from the crowd of giggling children stood a 13-year-old girl with striking green eyes and tense features. Dalila al-Hamad said she was no longer interested in curious journalists. She had other concerns. School was in session, and for the fifth year in a row, she was not attending.

“I want to go to school and make friends,” Dalila said. Instead of studying, her parents instructed her to go and work on a farm, picking vegetables and carrying stones for a salary of SYP 250 (USD 5.43) per day.

Dalila’s parents would send her and her siblings to school if their poverty did not demand otherwise, her brother, Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad, said.

“We are a family of 10,” the 22-year-old Abd al-Razzak said. “Luckily, I managed to finish high school but my brothers and sisters couldn’t. Like all the other adults in the camp, my parents know how important it is for the children to study and get a diploma but they also know that unless the children work, we’ll all die of hunger.”

Loopholes in the Education Law

Education in Syria is mandatory through sixth grade and, if children leave school, officials are tasked with looking for them and returning them to the classroom. Parents who take their children out of school face penalties and even jail.

However, as the number of drought-affected families and immigrants increase, tracking the dropout of school children is becoming unfeasible. Loopholes in the law, bad planning and lack of awareness left hundreds of children out of schools in 2010.

As many as 60,000 drought-affected families have migrated from the Jazeera area to camps throughout Syria, according to a 2009 UNICEF report. Most families left their land in 2008 as a result of several consecutive years of drought.

According to Mohammad al-Masri, director of primary education at the Ministry of Education, the ministry’s branches in the Jazeera region of north-east Syria are responsible for tracking down children from drought-afflicted areas who have moved to Damascus and not the branches located in the capital.

“When the Hassakeh branch, for example, finds that children have dropped out, it is responsible for searching for them and then writing to other branches to take action,” Masri explained. If found, the children are enrolled in an intensive study programme in regular public schools, he said.

Divided families

Drought-induced poverty also breaks up family structures, another barrier to ensuring that children affected by drought are educated. Migrations make it difficult for the government to track the location of children and ensure that they are being schooled.

Aida al-Ali and her husband, who live in Sa’sa, own a 20-hectare farm back home in Hassakeh in the north-east. They abandoned it two years ago when it became too dry to grow crops. Because she has no means to support her children in the camp, last year she sent her two children, aged four and five, back to Hassakeh to live with their grandparents. Now, she struggles to feed her newborn baby.

“I want my children to go to school because I don’t want them to suffer the way I do,” Ali said. “The worst of all is that they are growing up away from me. I cry every day and pray for the rain to come and the diesel prices to go down so I can go back to my farm in Hassakeh and to my children.”

Educational barriers

Children living in camps who are able to attend school also struggle. Because they are displaced, the children have difficulties understanding their teacher’s dialect, Mohammad Ali al-Jadaan, an 11-year-old who moved with his family from Deir ez-Zor in the north-east to Sa’sa last year, said. Furthermore, school does not replace work. After they finish studying and on weekends and holidays, the children must work in the fields.

“I clear weeds with my brothers after school,” Jadaan said.

As he held his three-year-old brother on his hip, Jadaan explained proudly that his high grades at school earned him first place in his class. Yet when asked about his classmates, the bright-eyed boy’s face took on a look of concern.

“They don’t like me and they keep mocking me because I come from Deir ez-Zor and I live in a camp,” he said.

In addition to the language difficulties and an unwelcoming atmosphere, the living conditions in the camp cause health problems which prevent the children from attending class regularly.

“The tents are so thin that in winter children have flu every other day,” Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad said. As the only camp resident who can read and write, he said he is responsible for bringing the children to the hospital.

Aid Programmes

Attempts are being made to improve the lives of people impacted by drought.

On January 18, Tamer al-Hijeh, minister for local administration, put together a special group tasked with investigating the reasons behind the mass migration by drought victims and making field visits to camps and to the areas affected.

The Syrian government is also organising a special aid programme that provides food and water to farmers in the governorates of Hassakeh, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Qamishle.

Once families migrate, however, they are no longer eligible for aid. Press officers at the Ministry of Agriculture said the purpose of this stipulation is to dissuade people from leaving their lands permanently and settling down elsewhere. With no official body responsible for those who are affected by the drought, Syria Today could not obtain official comment on this issue.

Even though aid is provided in Hassakeh, Abd al-Razzak al-Hamad’s said that life in the camp is better for his family.

“Back in Hassakeh, we only had running water every five days so we had to buy 25 litres of water from tankers for SYP 250 (USD 5.43). We didn’t have sanitation facilities either and we couldn’t find work and we had so many bills to pay,” he said. “At least here all the family members can work and we can manage.”

The constant demand to make ends meet, however, leaves children with little hope for an education that will provide them with future opportunities.

“Even though children who leave school for more than five years can still enrol in an intensive educational programme until age 18, it’s seldom the case that children who leave school return,” a teacher at a public school in Damascus said. “Once children enter the workforce, there’s no way back to school.”

A modified version of this article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Ready or Not (Syria’s new school curriculum)

The new curriculum has arrived in Syrian schools. Some are equipped to handle it while others are struggling to adapt.

Photos by Carole al-Farah

Students at Jameel Sultan school in Rukn el-Din, one of four public schools where the new curriculum was piloted last year.

With its beautifully-decorated, sunny classrooms, movable furniture and equipment for conducting science experiments, attending Sate’a al-Husari public school is the dream of every Syrian student. Located in the centre of Damascus, it is one of the four rehabilitated schools in which Syria’s new curriculum was piloted last year.

Starting this academic year, new curricula were introduced to all public schools in the first, second, third, fourth, seventh and 10th grades. This is the first time since the 1970s that the primary and secondary school curricula have been changed in Syria. Modern and interactive, the new programme seeks to introduce computers and internet to Syrian classes for the first time.

However, insufficient training and equipment in Syrian schools have led many to criticise the ambitious new plans as unrealistic and unachievable.

Moving forward

The Ministry of Education composed the new curriculum by taking into consideration the psychological, intellectual, and behavioural needs of students, Abdul Hakim al-Hamad, the ministry’s manager of curriculum and supervision, said.

While the old curriculum was based on rote learning and spoon-feeding information to students, the new curriculum is based on active learning techniques, such as group work and interactive theatre. New books focus on team-based research activities and self-learning. This makes the new curriculum “not only easier to learn but also more fun,” Samar Sukkar, headmistress of Sate’a al-Husari, said, proudly showing off a magazine designed by her students.

Wafa’a el-Khen, a biology teacher said her job is now easier because she can download short educational videos, extra-curricular worksheets and handouts from the internet on his classroom computer.

Students at Sate’a al-Husari seemed equally excited about the new curriculum which they described as “easy” and “appealing”. Seventh grader Rasis said the interactive teaching methods make it easier to concentrate during class.

“With the new curriculum I have more chances to participate in class,” Rasis said. “I also find working in groups more engaging than working individually.”

Frustrated teachers

While teachers and students at the few rehabilitated schools applauded the new curriculum as “wonderful”, those at the country’s other, old-style schools said it was “hard” and “time consuming”.

Students at Saqer Quraish public school in Raqqa.

For example, while working in groups might seem like a great idea in a school equipped with light, movable chairs and desks, it is “hard to implement” when all you have are lines of “heavy schools desks,” said Marina haj-Mohammad, a mathematics teacher who used to teach at Nazir al-Hafez school in Zamalka. Haj-Mohammad now gives private classes to children who cannot cope with the new curriculum.

“Classes are only 45 minutes long. It’s impossible to have time to form groups and teach the class in such a short period,” haj-Mohammad said. “To do that, we need classes to be at least one-and-a-half hours long.”

Securing the necessary equipment is a challenge, in part because the government is not providing any but is rather relying on charities, such as the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), to donate it piecemeal. According to Mayada Salama, public relations coordinator at the DRC, her organisation has donated new computers to all Syrian schools, but only 31 out of Syria’s 24,000 schools have received mobile furniture from DRC. Reaching the rest of the schools will take more than five years, she said.

Large class sizes are an additional obstacle. With 40 and sometimes even 60 students studying in one class, working in groups is impossible. To save time, haj-Mohammad said teachers in her school only ask the children to work in groups when an inspector visits.

The Ministry of Education disputes the argument that implementing the new curriculum is difficult. Its curriculum manager Hamad argued that official statistics show that the average number of students in classrooms is close to international standards. According to Hamad, only 4 percent of classrooms have more than 40 students, while 96 percent of classrooms have fewer than 40 students.

“There should be no difficulty in applying the new curriculum,” he said. “The more students are in the classroom, the more interactivity and participation we will have. This encourages creativity.”

High technology illiteracy among Syrian teachers hinders the implementation of the new curriculum as well. Training on the new equipment was not included in the five-day course conducted by the Ministry of Education to instruct teachers on the new curriculum.

“Old teachers don’t know how to use modern equipment. This makes it hard for them to teach with the new methods,” haj-Mohammad said.

DRC’s Salama does not believe there is any real impediment for teachers to adopt the new curriculum other than inflexibility by some who are resistant to change.

“The content of the new curriculum is the same as the old one. What has changed is the method of teaching it,” she said. “But some older teachers want to keep on teaching the same way they have been doing for the last 30 years. They don’t want to make any effort to learn the new methods.”

Parental opposition

Many families are concerned by the changes to the curriculum. Parents said they worry about their children’s health now that there are more books to carry.

“This curriculum is designed for well-equipped, European-style schools in which students have their own drawers at school to keep their books. We don’t have that,” Um Muhammad, a parent from rural Qudssia, said. “With the new curriculum, my children now have to carry three books for each class. Their bags are too heavy and I am worried it will damage their bodies.”

Parents also complain that the new curriculum is even more demanding on students than the old one. This is making it difficult for teachers to finish the curriculum in time and putting pressure on teachers, students and families.

“My son’s teacher failed to finish teaching the curriculum by the end of the semester. Now parents like me are forced to pay for private classes,” Um Muhammad complained. “But it is too expensive. My elder daughter is helping him with his studies. I don’t know anyone in our neighbourhood who can afford a private teacher.”

To cope with the curriculum, the ministry is planning to makes classes longer. It has also started to teach the curriculum via television and has organised talk shows with teachers and representatives from the Ministry of Education to answer parents’ inquiries.

Every evening, Um Muhammad nervously follows the TV programmes that Syria’s educational public channel broadcasts to introduce the new curriculum.

“In one episode, an official from the education sector said we should be patient because ‘it will take five years to upgrade the infrastructure for the new curriculum to be properly implemented’,” she said. “Why did he decide to sacrifice my children? Why didn’t they wait until Syria has the infrastructure and then implement their new curriculum?”

Syria Today used only first names for students and parents who wished to remain anonymous.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.