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Conversations: A Teacher Under Siege

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and an English teacher in eastern Ghouta, which is under a regime-imposed siege that prevents any goods or people from entering or exiting.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The 30-year-old educator asked to be known by his nickname, Tareq al-Dimasqui, for security reasons. He knows that one day, when he is able, he may have to leave.

I’ve been living in eastern Ghouta for 30 years. I have taught English at a secondary school here for the past two years, since I graduated with my Master’s in English Literature from Damascus University.

I’m at the school three days a week, and the rest of the time I work at a local field hospital as a media activist; there we have a diesel generator and Internet.

This is a very hard time to teach. Because of the war, most of the schools are closed. Some of them were destroyed by rockets; others are still standing but there are no students. A lot of villages and towns have been evacuated because of the shelling.

Because of the siege by government troops against the area, we have no electricity and no food. All the basic needs of life are lacking here in eastern Ghouta, but we are trying our best to teach the students.

Last year I was teaching in an ordinary school. But this year the situation is getting worse, so we converted apartments into schools. It is the safest way. When the government troops hear that a school is open, they will target it. I think it’s an intellectual war. They don’t want those students, the children of rebels, to be taught. They want people here to be ignorant. This is why apartments are safer.

I teach in the mornings and afternoons. There are sessions from 7:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 12 to 4 p.m., because there are so many students and so little space. For some schools we have 10 students in one class, and in other schools it can be up to 30. I would estimate  that there are over 10,000 students in this besieged area.

The Free Syrian Army support the schools financially, but they don’t intervene otherwise. The schools are run by a group of teachers. There was a need for finance, so the teachers asked the commanders of the rebels for support, and they agreed. That started about two years ago. I am helping to organize the schools, but I don’t have relations with the rebels myself. I heard about the [Syrian National] Coalition supplying some schools, but they do not reach all of them.

The biggest problem is getting school supplies. We are using the regular books from the Ministry of Education … [but] the Syrian minister of education does not supply the schools here in the area.

Most of the classes don’t have any books. We try our best to write everything on the boards. For electricity we try to get a diesel generator. It is so expensive for the fuel, but we are trying our best. We have no electricity, so there are no computers.

I have started a new way of teaching them by letting them watch an English movie in order to practice their listening and understanding the words and the right pronunciation.

We have started doing parent-teacher conferences one month ago. But they usually don’t have time for the appointments. They have to work and look for ways to support their children.

We hope that when we have a political solution, the government will recognize the certificates we give at each level. That way the students won’t lose the opportunity to progress in learning.

Staying for the Students

The qualified teachers are the minority. Most left eastern Ghouta, and many of those who remain don’t have any experience teaching. It is too hard to convince them [to stay or return] because the situation is awful here.

I am thinking of leaving the area because of the siege. We cannot bear it anymore. You don’t have food, fuel, electricity or transportation, so how can you live in such a situation?

But I stay here because I like my country. I want to die here, not abroad. I think it’s very important to stay here and teach … I enjoy being a teacher. When I enter a class and see those innocent students, I’m convinced that it’s very important to stay … to be patient.

But how long I can bear this situation, I don’t know. I am not married but I have my mother and sisters. That would be the most important factor in my decision.

I think [we will become like besieged Homs]. The regime is kind of conspiring against eastern Ghouta. They are going to do something. What? We don’t know what will happen next. No one is allowed to go in or out of eastern Ghouta.  Nowadays we can’t get out, but we know that someday it be possible to get out. We hope so.

Students Leaving to Fight

The war affected the psychology of the students; they aren’t like usual students. A lot of the symptoms appeared in their behavior. Their points of view on life, their purpose of life … most are depressed.

Unfortunately there is no specialist in the schools who can take care of them psychologically. Most of these specialists left the area.

Their future is so gloomy. They don’t know what will happen next. The government doesn’t accept their certificate. When we finish a grade, they should get a certificate, but it is not approved by the government. So they aren’t very motivated.

My students are teenagers so I am trying to treat them as friends. We talk a lot about every issue together. I try to advise them to be students, not fighters. But not all of them will be convinced. Unfortunately a lot of them are becoming fighters.

They take this path because they want to be liberated, to have a kind of stake in their future. That means to fight the regime and liberate the city. It’s the only way to decide for themselves.

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