At a makeshift school here, Abdel Nasser, an Arabic teacher in his 30s, nervously recalls a gruesome Sunday last October. It was the first day of school following the Eid al-Adha vacation when the Syrian army raided two schools, killing five students and two teachers.
Before Syria’s uprising, Abdel Nasser was a teacher at a school in Deir Ezzor. Now, he says, “there have been no classes over the past two years due to random shelling. We tried to fix the buildings as best we could, but the regime didn’t like that. It targeted schools [here] and did the same thing in the city of Raqqa.”
Abdel Nasser says that since the beginning of the year, the government cut the payroll of all teachers who remained at state-sponsored schools in the city.
Nevertheless, his desire to provide an education to Syrian children has not dampened. Regular shelling, he says, “forced us to quickly come up with alternatives. Despite everything, parents insisted that their children go to school, which is why we found ourselves forced to use these cellars.”
He and others worked hard to turn cellars, safe from air raids, into usable classrooms. “One of the cellars was previously a café. We were able to transform it into a classroom but it’s hasn’t been as easy as some people think. Most cellars are an open space and it’s difficult to teach different classes in the same area, which is why we tried to [put up dividers]. With the lack of electricity, we use candles and lamps to provide proper lighting. But our main issue is the lack of sanitary facilities, which must be addressed given the large number of students here.”
There are 10 classroom cellars in Deir Ezzor, and many function under the same dismal conditions described by Abdel Nasser. There is a shortage of specialized tutors, which is why teachers usually end up teaching more than one class.
He says the daily journey taken by both teachers and students includes dodging shelling. Not long ago, the same streets were the epicenter of clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
In the Deir Ezzor countryside, most schools have been bombed, turned into headquarters for armed brigades or used as shelter by internally displaced families fleeing clashes elsewhere.
Like their counterparts in the city, teachers in the countryside have tried to keep classes open for students. Maha is one such teacher. “At the beginning of the revolution, many promoted the wrong idea that education must stop until the regime is toppled because the curricula had been designed by the state,” she says.
“The regime also targeted schools in the countryside, which in itself forced classes to stop for a year and a half. It was only after that that the dangers of [keeping kids outside of school] became apparent. That’s when some teachers – who had become fighters and who had been wanted by the regime security apparatuses – decided to return to teaching, but only after ridding all school books and curricula of [pro-government] material.”
Maha says that keeping schools open has been a community effort. “Parents and teachers had to find an alternative: some donated their homes to be turned into schools while keeping in mind that the place is away from brigade headquarters and from targeted areas. They even turned one mall into a school. But one case stands out: one teacher turned an empty room in her house into a classroom as part of a nearby school. This incentivized her relatives and neighbors to do the same, turning their empty rooms into classrooms too.”
With time and space limited, teachers here did away with government-mandated classes like those on Syrian nationalism; they decided on Arabic and the sciences as top priority. Electives like sports, drawing and music were cancelled for lack of specialized instructors. Students took on staggered class schedules, ensuring they travelled in smaller groups for their own safety.
Some of the students come to school despite trying ordeals; Mona, a young student who was hit by rocket shrapnel in her legs, attends classes daily in a wheelchair.
“The psychological state of these young students has been altered. They come to school saturated with fear, but they come all the same,” says Mahmoud, a teacher at one of the makeshift schools in the countryside.
“They’ve become used to the status quo, even when their parents rush to take them out of school when shelling hits nearby. However, our biggest problem is with high school students. They think as adults do and they are overcome with the desire to carry arms and join the FSA.”
Deir Ezzor’s teachers are adamant that they must continue their work, keeping their makeshift schools in operation. “Whoever thinks we will allow a whole generation to lose out on its education is mistaken,” says Abdel Rahman. “We will [never] allow that to happen.”