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.

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Trying to Fit in (Muslims in Denmark)

In 1971, Syrian writer Fahmy al-Majid moved to Denmark. Today, he is a published author, with several books and articles about Islam and Muslim integration in Denmark.

He now lives in a comfortable home in Copenhagen with his Danish wife. Inside, the décor is a mix of Bedouin tent carpets and IKEA-style Western furniture. On the walls hang a mixture of religious symbols, ranging from an adorned crescent to a smiling Buddha. Majid said he emphasises a variety of religions because he wanted his children to learn tolerance at an early age and be familiar with both their parents’ cultures.

“I’m Muslim and my wife is Christian,” Majid said. “All my children speak Arabic and are familiar with their origins. Religion and nationality have never been an issue in this house.”

Turn of events
Majid said he regrets that the same is not true throughout Denmark since the September 11 attacks on the US. After the event, Majid said he collected news reports on attacks on Muslims in Denmark and counted more than 70 incidents. When compared to the population of Denmark, this is a higher percentage than the attacks against Muslims in the US, he said.

Muslims in Denmark comprise about 4 percent of the country. The number of Syrians among them – or in the country’s Christian and other communities – totals 4,000 according to Christina Markus Lassen, Danish ambassador to Syria. Most arrived in the 1970s, in hope of better living conditions, and in the early 1980s and 1990s, seeking political asylum, Bilal Asaad, financial manager of the Scandinavian Waqf (an Islamic trust), said.
According to Naser Khader, a Syrian-Palestinian member of the Danish parliament, assaults on his community were exascerbated because it is small and insular.

“There are only 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, which has a population of 5m. Some Danes have never seen a Muslim,” Khader, who was the first Danish of Arab descent to join the parliament, explained. “They only see Muslims in the news. They see Muslim terrorists taking hostages and this causes Islamophobia.”

Latifa, a 26-year-old woman who wears the hijab and studied economics at university said she faced seclusion in both social and employment settings.

“Danes are open with you as long as you are not a practicing Muslim,” she said. “But if you are religious, as I am, then you feel excluded.”

A meeting held following September 11 by Hizb al-Tahrir (The Liberation Party) – an Islamic political organization that seeks to unite all Muslims in a caliphate whose Denmark branch was legally established in the Middle of the 1990s– to announce its support for Osama bin Laden only further strengthened the image of Muslims as terrorist. The group is considered radical and fringe and most Muslims take pains to distance themselves from it.

Propaganda against Islam
Majid said the Danish media helps to perpetuate misinformation and prejudice against the country’s Muslims. He said the press blames Muslim immigrants for economic problems and disproportionately covers extremist Islamic groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly supports Osama bin Laden.

Danish journalist and writer Kare Bluitgen disputed this claim, saying that the media distinguish between Muslim extremists and ordinary people.

“Most people say that’s ok. We know terrorists from Western Europe too. We used to have them, we have them. I don’t think the media is as bad as it’s common to say,” Bluitgen said. “You always find mistakes. I think in general they do a good job. You have to tell your audience that we are not talking about Muslims, we are talking about a very little minority inside the minority of Muslims in Denmark.”

According to Soren Espersen, a member of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei and supporter of Denmark’s current conservative government, it is political Islam that he and his allies consider threatening, not all Muslims. But his party holds some of its own extreme views. It has called for a ban on all Arab satellite channels, which he claimed call for viewers to “hate the Western world”. It also voted to ban the niqab face veil in Denmark. Most extreme was his party’s proposal that Muslim immigrants be shown video footage of women’s bare breasts before allowing them into the country to make sure they are “moderate”.

Such prejudicial proposals have a deep effect on second-generation Muslim children, Asaad, the Waqf financial manager, said. “[Children] feel they are refused by the only society they know.”

To help the children better adapt, the organisation has created integration courses for 7- to 12-year-old children.

“Many Muslim immigrant children in Denmark feel torn and don’t know whether they are Danish, Syrian or Muslim,” He explained. “We are trying to help them work out that they are all three.”

Cartoon controversy
Any discussion about relations between Muslims and the wider Danish community must address the notorious cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.

I interviewed Kare Bluitgen, whose failed search for an illustrator to draw the prophet for his children’s book The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Mohammad prompted the newspaper to publish the cartoons.

He said that Muslims in Denmark used peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the images’ publication. The event also prompted debate and better understanding of Islam, he added.

“The majority of Muslims were very calm,” Bluitgen said. “They just said don’t buy that stupid paper.”

Likewise, he added, other than some rogue politicians and journalists, average Danes are not prejudiced towards the country’s Muslim community. “”In Copenhagen every third of the pupils is Muslim. My daughter has almost only Muslim friends today. Daily life is different from politics,” he said.

Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council also believes people’s approach to Muslims is changing. “Statistics  show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down,” Kamm said. “It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes do not care.”

Further, the cartoon crisis helped increase employment from 47 percent to 70 percent among Danes of Muslim origin, Syrian-Danish MP Khader said.

“I know an employer who before the cartoons never hired Muslims. For him a Muslim equals trouble. But after the crisis he realised that Muslims here are democratic people who respect freedom,” Khader said. “After the cartoon crisis Danish people realized that there are different types of Muslims. Before the cartoon crisis they only knew one type, the extremist one.”

In Syria, however, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were burned down by angry protestors, and the governments of both countries condemned Syria for what they called “failing its international obligations” to stop the arsen. According to Espersen from the right-wing party, however, the Syrian government was “a great help” at the time of the crisis.

“The government in Syria was not engaged in the boycotting of Danish products as they were in Saudi Arabia, for example,” Espersen said. “They [the Syrians] realized this is something that the Danish government or the parliament can do nothing about. That was a very difficult task to explain to many governments in the Muslim world but never to Syria. They knew if our prime minister had said these cartoons are now forbidden he’d be finished.”

While Syria restored calm towards Denmark internally, Asaad from Waqf said that it should do more to change the view of Syria and Islam abroad.

“A country like Syria should direct its cultural office in the embassy to organise lectures to try to bring points-of-view closer to each other and explain why Muslims reacted this way,” Asaad said, referring to the burning of the embassies. “All Arab countries neglected their duty to change the stereotype of our countries as a big desert filled with terrorists. Denmark is the one that made a move to change its image and better understand Muslims.”

Today, Denmark and Syria collaborate mainly on environmental and humanitarian issues. Denmark provides important support for Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria and the Danish Red Cross and Refugee Council are active throughout the country.

Though Majid said he feels second-generation immigrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria still face discrimination, he believes Denmark is his children’s home country.

“I’m Syrian and no matter how long I live in Denmark I’ll still be primarily Syrian and then Danish,” Majid said. “But my children were born in Denmark and they will always be Danish first and Syrian second.”

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

Sverige med andra ögon

Journalisten Nadia Muhanna från Syria Today Magazine är på Sydsvenskan för att studera opinionsbildning i sociala medier. Och ser på Sverige utifrån – med lite häpen blick.

Här är hennes intryck:
Nadia Muhanna_Sydsvenskan

It´s 25° in Damascus and I’m packing the warmest clothes I have, happy to get away from this hot weather to cold Scandinavian Stockholm. Getting there however, I’m all in sweat again and I meet Arabs all over the city. Syrians smile at me in the shops, Iraqi waiters greet me with “marhaba”, and a Lebanese couple, who I randomly meet in an Arab restaurant serving falafel and Kebab, invites me for lunch. I almost feel home.

I quickly discover that the Swedish-Arab population’s presence in Sweden is more than loud Arab greetings and delicious falafel. They are present in the country’s political scene. Photos of Abir Sahlani, an Iraqi Swedish candidate running for the European Parliamentary elections fill the streets of Stockholm as well as small posters reading “Boycott Israel”.

An exhibition by a Swedish Arab artist in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet also touches upon important Arab issues such as the Palestinians’ right of return and movement within Palestine. In her exhibition, the artist tells how she visited houses in Israel and paid bills on behalf of Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and some Arab countries because they are not allowed into Israel to do so.

Sweden’s cultural scene is no different. Museums like the Vasa Museet have flyers in Arabic, Arab artists give regular concerts and Swedish discos’ DJs remix Arab songs.

But despite of the Arab population’s presence in Sweden’s daily political, social and cultural scene, to what extent are they actually integrated into the Swedish society?

The growing popularity of the Sweden Democrats political party that calls for the restriction of immigration and encourages the repatriation of immigrants means immigrants are not that welcomed. In fact, many immigrants suffer unemployment and segregation in Sweden.

According to Quick Response, an independent part of the Swedish Red Cross that investigates how the Swedish newsmedia report on immigration and integration issues, even those immigrants who actually have the Swedish nationality are often perceived as “others” rather than Swedes. The best way to bridge this gap between immigrants and Swedes is by a better presentation of immigrants in the Swedish media. According to Quick Response, following the Caricature Crisis, only a small percentage of people interviewed by the Swedish media were actually Muslims or Arabs.

To achieve a better understanding between the two cultures, the best way is probably for the Swedish media not to talk about the immigrants. Rather, talk to them.

Published in Sydsvenskan morning newspaper’s blog on 4 June 2009. You can see a screenshot of it here.