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.

“Bee Panic” in Abu Dhabi city?

With American filmmaker Taggart Siegel’s film about the effects of the declining population of honey bees on human life screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year, the “bee panic” has finally reached us in the Middle East. Or maybe not?

Stills from Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?

Stills from Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?

According to Einstein (or maybe it was not him who said it after all?), if the honey bee became extinct then man would only have four years left to live. In 2002, 40% of German bee colonies died. In 2006, 50% of bees in the USA died and according to all the “bee articles” I have read it has been downhill from then on.

But is not having more honey worth all this fuss? According to bee experts, as bees pollinate our plant-life, if they are gone then 40% of our food will be gone as well. So the world freaked out; are we going to die? Ok, not the whole world – we in the Middle East have too many wars right now to worry about bees. Tens of Western filmmakers have started the trend of “bee docs” – take for example The Last Beekeeper by Jeremy Simmons, To Bee or not to Bee by David Suzuki, The Last of Honey Bees by Jeremy Simmons, Vanishing of the Bees by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein and Colony by Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn, to name a few. The latter focuses on the human rather than the scientific or environmental angle of the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), or in other words the declining population of honey bees.

With Taggart Siegel’s Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?, screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year, the “bee panic” has finally reached here. While most bee films create fear and anxiety, Siegel tries to touch the heart of viewers in his lighthearted and at some points even funny film. “Without inspiration, audiences will leave the theatre depressed and we won’t overcome the issues facing the honey bees,” the film’s co-editor and producer Jon Betz said. The film does include talking heads and lots of scientific information. Nonetheless, the animations, lively characters and hair-raising art scenes that Siegel incorporated in his film make it more accessible.

It is also clearly an activist film. That said, in spite of his obvious passion for bees, Siegel resists being too pushy and imposing solutions on how the viewers should save bees. Instead, he follows the typical American film recipe of a happy ending by presenting a cheerful image of what is being done for the “insects in distress”. Betz does hope though that their film will push the audience into action:

“It is tough to achieve change on a large scale, but by raising awareness you are actually achieving some change. If you choose not to eat pesticide-treated food, for example, that’s already a kind of activism.”

He has reason to be optimistic – in previous screenings, he has seen some of his audience members crying for the bees, and when after the screening he asked the audience his favourite question: “Now who wants to become a beekeeper?”, many hands were raised. But how many hands will be raised at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival? I doubt that people would be bothered, although according to expert consultant Gunther Hauk, they should be.

“We are seeing changes in climate but I think the Colony Collapse Disorder and the disappearance of the honey bee is a much more pressing, urgent problem to solve”, the expert says in Queen of the Sun,What are the bees telling us?.

For someone like me coming from a region that has been severely affected by climate change, this is rather shocking. Let’s face it though, with the growing political tension and economic concerns, environmental issues aren’t a priority for Arab audiences. So even if the film has a full house for its first international film premiere in Abu Dhabi, I doubt that there will be any “would-be beekeepers” crying.

This article was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin by NISI MASA.

Download pdf version here.

Q&A with Journalist and Photographer Doha Hassan

I sat down with journalist Doha Hassan to discuss what motivated her to create an exhibition on drought victims at Cham Mahel art café in the Old City of Damascus.

How did the idea of the exhibition come about?

According to UN statistics, 60,000 families from the north-east have been forced [since 2006] by the ongoing drought to migrate to urban areas. A journalist friend from the Jazeera area suggested that I and two other journalists go and teach the children of this area to read and write. So we went. It was an individual initiative by us, so families there were sceptical at first. They didn’t allow their children near us because they thought we wanted to kidnap them and sell their organs. After going there several times and accepting cups of coffee in their tents, they finally began to trust us. We’ve been giving weekly classes to the children for four months now. They wait for us and run to greet us every week. I took a lot of photos and put them on Facebook. The owner of Cham Mahal art café saw the photos and suggested I make an exhibition in his café. My instinct was to refuse. I’m a journalist and not a professional photographer. But as we were planning to start a media campaign to raise awareness about drought victims in Syria, the exhibition seemed like an appropriate starting point.

Your exhibition, Temporary, aims to support the victims of drought and raise public awareness of the issue. Has it achieved its goal?

The exhibition attracted considerable media attention. In addition to all major Syrian media outlets, regional publications like Lebanon’s daily Al-Hayat and international ones like the BBC covered the exhibition. I sold enough photographs to cover the exhibition’s basic expenses and I will spend any profits to support the drought victims. I also printed postcards of my photos that were sold during the exhibition. I’ll continue to sell the postcards at Cham Mahal and Itana library after the exhibition.

How are you supporting the drought victims?

We are buying them basic food elements and notebooks and colors for the children. Apart from the exhibition, we also organized a facebook campaign and asked people to donate clothes. The response was huge and we got tons of second-hand clothes.

Why have you called your exhibition temporary?

Because I hope that the drought victims’ current refuge is only temporary. It simply can’t go on for long. Each of the drought affected families has 5 to 6 children. If these grow in poverty without proper education and a safe home, they’ll end up as criminals and thieves.

When attending an exhibition about drought victims stuck in the desert, you’d imagine photos that reflect the blazing sun and the hot colors of the desert. Instead you chose to print your photos in black and white giving a rather cold and old feeling to your works. Why is that?

I wanted my photos to resemble raw footage rather than art works. By that, I wanted to give a sense of documentation. I also believe that black and white brings out the details in a photo.

What is your next step?

We want to  provide greater media exposure to drought victims. We hope that the campaign will encourage more people to help. In the long run, we hope that government organisations will help us because, after all, we are only individuals. It’s not easy to achieve change alone.

How will you ensure the continuity of your campaign?

We’ve developed a moral commitment to these children. These four and five year olds run to greet us every week. They overwhelm us with affection. They haven’t seen anything in their lives other than tents, water barrels and scorpions. They regard us as their window to the world. Once you see that hope in their eyes, you simply can’t step back.

This is a modified version of the Q&A published in Syria Today magazine.

Green Shoots, Pesticide Free

There is a growing global demand for organic products. So why are Syrian farmers who grow their food organically not bothering to register it as such?

Hundreds of olive trees dot the road to Ahmad al-Masalmeh’s organic farm in the Dera’a governorate south of Damascus, forming a thick, green barrier. With its beautiful swimming pool and friendly dogs, Masalmeh’s property looks more like a summer house than a farm producing organic olives and grapes. Masalmeh proudly shows off his estate to visitors and explains in detail how each of the different insect traps dangling from his prized olive trees work to keep the bugs away.

“I worked with expatriate engineers and investors and they introduced the concept of organic farming to me,” Masalmeh, an agriculture engineer who first learned about organic farming in 1985, said. “It seemed well worth it. No need for expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s enough to make organic insect traps and raise farm animals to use their compost as fertilizers. Organic farming seemed a healthy, cheap and profitable endeavour.”

Masalmeh contacted an organic farming certification body located outside Syria – the country does not have such an institution – and applied for accreditation. The process was not as straightforward as he thought. Inspectors visited the farm to test the soil and water. Annual inspections, sometimes surprise ones, followed to ensure that Masalmeh’s produce was free of chemicals.

“Organic farming isn’t only about not using chemicals,” he said. “I had to prove that the area where my farm is located isn’t polluted, gather the crops manually, squeeze them on the same day and have all this documented.”

The accreditation process was far from cheap. With Syria lacking an organic certification body, farmers who wish to acquire the label have to obtain it through an international body. In addition to the high registration fees, they must pay the full cost of an inspector’s trip. While the price of accreditation varies according to the size of the farm, for Masalmeh’s 500-square-metre property, the entire process cost him around SYP 500,000 (USD 10,638).

Few Syrian farmers can afford such an outlay. As a result, most local farmers abiding by organic principles do not apply for accreditation. Rather, they sell their produce as regular, non-organic food.

“Although organic products are cheaper to produce and can be sold for higher prices than non-organic ones, the high cost of accreditation makes it more profitable to sell it as non-organic,” Masalmeh, who only applied for accreditation in 2002 after 17 years of organic farming, said.

Increases in the prices of diesel and natural fertilizer over the past two years have also taken a financial toll on Masalmeh, so much so that this year he could not afford to renew his accreditation.

“I grow organic grapes, but I didn’t apply for accreditation,” he said. “It’s only worth it if I can export my production. But with the intense competition in the Syrian market and with the small-scale production I have, this is close to impossible.”

Cotton is key

Syria’s chief organic crop is cotton. Indeed, Syria was the world’s third-largest producer of organic cotton last year, according to industry research house Organic Exchange. According to Souhel Makhoul, director of the Horticulture Research Administration at the General Commission for Scientific Agricultural Research (GCSAR), organic cotton was produced on only 373 hectares just five years ago, but that has increased to around 28,000 hectares.

A growing number of Syrian textile companies are also moving to make use of this local, green resource. These include Bawdiqji Company in Aleppo and the Cotton Spinning Company and Manaa Brothers Company in Hama. According to a recent report by Syria’s state-owned news agency SANA, the country will soon export its first batch of clothes manufactured from organic cotton. While the EU looms as the primary market, shipments will also go to China and Mexico.

Syria also produces organic olive oil, laurel soap, medical herbs and grapes which are generally exported to the EU. Compiling an accurate picture of these organic exports is all but an impossible task, however, as organic products have not been issued with a separate customs number and as such are simply recorded as agricultural exports.

Planting the seed

Interest in organic products is spiking throughout the world, particularly in industrialised economies. Globally, organic food sales have jumped from SYP 47bn (USD 1bn) in 1990 to SYP 2.44trn (USD 52bn) in 2008, according to figures from the international research house Datamonitor. Market research also shows that organic foods represent one of the fastest-growing food segments in the EU and US. Syria, however, still lacks a dedicated local market.

“When convincing local farmers to go organic, the first thing they ask is: “Where are we going to sell our products?'” Makhoul said. “Unfortunately, there’s no local market for organic products as few Syrians are aware of their importance.”

This is, however, slowly changing. Market research carried out in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Lattakia by the GCSAR, in collaboration with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Damascus, found that growing numbers of Syrians are willing to pay more to eat organic. And while still few, foreign organic products can be found in some malls in major cities. Yet despite growing interest in ‘green food’, Makhoul said that, at the moment, the only profitable market for local organic products is a foreign one.

The Institutional Development of Organic Agriculture in Syria (IDOAS), a four-year initiative between the GCSAR, the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform and FAO, was set up in 2006 to develop the organic sector. The initiative was tasked with developing legal, institutional and scientific platforms for organic agriculture in the country. Its main achievement to date has been drafting a law to govern and promote organic agriculture which is presently awaiting approval from Syria’s parliament.

“The law will regulate organic farming in Syria so that it adheres to international standards,” Mohammad al-Abdallah, director of agricultural counselling at the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, said. “It will also regulate the relationship between the farmer and the certification body. Today, farmers contact the companies individually, but after issuing the law, companies will have to get permission to work inside Syria.”

Early this year, the second part of the IDOAS initiative started. It aims to establish a dedicated organic department in the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform. The initiative will also continue to carry out several capacity-building workshops to encourage farmers to go organic. Eggs, dairy, fruits, cereals, grains and vegetables are all potential areas of organic expansion. The IDOAS is also compiling market research on potential local, regional and international markets.

“Syria has potential for organic farming because of its weather and because Syrian farmers prefer natural insect traps to pesticides, many of which are available locally,” Makhoul said. “Furthermore, there are many virgin fields in Syria that could be easily converted to organic fields and many products, like olive oil for example, that don’t require pesticides. In fact, the ministry is already using chemical-free pesticides in citrus, cotton and vegetables.”

Masalmeh, the organic farmer from Dera’a, said that without serious government support, organic farming in Syria is doomed to remain an individual and costly endeavour. At present, local organic fruit and vegetable producers lack the economies of scale or experience to tap into lucrative foreign markets.

“It’s hard to make a profit out of organic farming,” Masalmeh said. “We need a non-profit organic farmers’ association and a fund for organic agriculture that would cover the accreditation costs or the establishment of a local certifying body.”

This article was  published in Syria Today magazine.Issue no. 64

Sustainable Living (Sustainable Architecture in Syria)

While far from widespread, eco-friendly architecture is beginning to pop up around Syria. It can play an important role in covering the country’s skyrocketing demand for energy.

As Syria runs out of oil and faces ever-mounting pressure on its water and electricity supplies, its growing interest in energy-efficient architecture comes as no surprise. Indeed, experts argue that pursuing eco-friendly buildings that consume less energy and water and reduce pollution is no longer a luxury for Syria. Rather, it is a must.

“Efforts to promote sustainable architecture are very important on a global scale, but they are particularly significant in Syria where natural resources are scarce, energy is expensive to produce and consume and pollution is a major health hazard,” Manaf Hammami, a Syrian architect based in Dubai, said.

While today’s ubiquitous concrete apartment block – along with the country’s building code – pays little attention to energy efficiency or the natural environment, this was not always the case. Syria’s Islamic architectural heritage is a green one, with traditional construction methods and materials carefully selected to work with the natural environment instead of against it, producing houses which were naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

“Islamic architecture in Syria used to be green, paying close attention to the orientation of the house, insulation and natural ventilation, among other things,” Firas Shuman, director of the small grants programme at the UN Global Environment Facility, said.

Individual endeavours

For Syria’s architecture to be green again, large-scale investment in sustainable architecture is needed. Apart from a few large projects, however, eco-friendly buildings in Syria are mostly individual endeavours that depend on expensive renewable-energy sources such as solar power for heating water and generating electricity and grey water recycling systems. Fully incorporating green-building standards into the design of a building is still rare.

At present, the high costs associated with sustainable architecture scares investors away, Houssam Hamwi, head of the project management unit at Massar, an eco-friendly Children’s Discovery Center under construction in the centre of Damascus, said.

“While sustainable buildings are more expensive than concrete-block buildings currently used in Syria, in the long run they pay off,” Hamwi said. “Investors, however, want a quick profit. They aren’t interested in the long-term financial benefits of sustainable buildings or their effect on the environment.”

The lack of local experience and professionals in the field of eco-design is yet another cause of concern among those trying to promote eco-friendly architecture in the country.

“Syrian expertise in sustainable architecture is based on individual initiatives,” Hamwi said. “We need governmental support to develop and encourage eco-design and push investors to finance eco-friendly projects.”

Furthermore, subsidised energy prices and the lack of public environmental awareness mean few people feel the need to save energy, making public demand for sustainable housing in Syria low. Individual efforts are, however, taking shape.

“While visiting Syria I’ve been commissioned to design two houses on a large plot of land outside the city of Aleppo,” Hammami said. “My client is very interested in building a home that not only satisfies his comforts and needs, but is also based on the principles of sustainable design. He wants his house to serve as a prototype for future developments in the area.”

Sustainable architecture

In an attempt to promote sustainable architecture in Syria, the General Company for Engineering Studies and Consulting (GCEC), the General Institute for Housing (GIH) and the National Energy Research Centre (NERC) partnered with the EU to build 18 eco-friendly apartment blocks in the Damascus suburb of Qudssia. The five-storey blocks are part of the New Youth Residential Complex, consisting of some 12,600 flats in total. The complex is due to be finished by 2013.

To make the residential complex eco-friendly, architects used double glazing, thermal insulation, glazed stairwells to enhance natural cross ventilation, solar water and space heating and energy-efficient lighting technology. As a result, residents are expected to reduce their energy bills by 80 percent for hot-water heating and 50 percent for heating and cooling their apartments. No wonder then that up to 1,200 young, low-income Syrians have already applied for apartments.

“Reducing energy consumption is a significant economic benefit to our country, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from heating or cooling devices,” Safwan al-Assaf, general director of the GCEC, said.

Assaf said the project was first presented to the EU after studies were carried out comparing comfort levels in traditional Arabic houses in the Old City of Damascus with modern houses.

“The results persuaded the team to promote the advantages of traditional building methods in old Damascus and to rediscover design measures from the past,” Assaf said. “The overall energy concept is based on passive building design measures combined with new energy-efficient technologies and the use of renewable energies.”

Other initiatives being undertaken include the opening of an eco-friendly park in Damascus complete with exhibition space and a conference room by the local NGO Friends of Damascus, together with the Fije Water Directorate and the small grants programme at the UN Global Environment Facility. The park incorporates a grey water recycling system for watering its spaces. Erfan el-Bezreh, head of the park’s executive committee, said similar projects are planned for other spaces throughout the capital.

Change is also being mandated from the top. Last month the government held the country’s first national conference on green architecture. It is also reviewing the country’s national building codes to regulate and enforce stricter standards on design and the use of insulation. While still a work in progress, the aim is to introduce and enforce codes which help reduce the consumption of energy by keeping houses and buildings warmer during the winter and cooler in the summer.

“Syria is heading in the right direction, but it’s not fast enough,” Hamwi said. “With the international economic crisis at our heads, sustainable architecture in no longer a need, it’s a must.”

Sustainable architecture focuses on using environmentally-conscious design techniques in the field of architecture. Broadly speaking, sustainable architecture seeks to minimise the negative environmental impact of buildings by enhancing efficiency and moderation in the use of materials, energy and development space.From a design point of view, sustainable architecture takes into account the climate a building is being constructed in and its orientation, seeking to produce a naturally cool space in the warmer months and a naturally warm space in the cooler months. From a materials point of view, an energy-efficient building needs to be well constructed, sealed and insulated, with energy-efficient doors and windows. Solar hot water heating systems and energy-efficient lightbulbs and appliances can also greatly reduce a building’s energy consumption.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.