Maarba, Daraa – When 11-year-old Omar and his younger sister Zahra go to school each morning, they each bring a piece of wood. Every student needs to bring one these days – it’s their contribution to keeping the classrooms warm.
The windows and doors of their schoolhouse have been blown out, so to stay warm in the winter, the teachers light fires inside the classrooms, using the firewood the students bring with them.
Maarba, a town of roughly 10,000 people near Syria’s southern border, has just two elementary schools, one middle and one high school. Residents say they won’t let wartime conditions keep them from educating their children; after all, the village always prided itself on producing robust numbers of doctors and engineers.
But of course, things are different these days. Maarba is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist fighting force affiliated with al-Qaida. That makes it a target for rockets and barrel-bomb attacks by the Syrian government. The town itself is effectively held hostage by Jabhat al-Nusra. The group controls and limits the entry of food, fuel and all other basic supplies into the village.
Yet despite the danger, Omar and Zahra’s parents send them out to school each day.
“Education is a sacred right and matter to the people of our village,” said their father, Hamed.
“It’s always been the most important thing in our lives in this village. We are trying to provide our children with tools for success in the future, despite the daily war that we live,” he said.
In Maarba, there is hardly any working electricity and no phone service. Residents rely on generators to produce power at an untenably high cost.
At school, Omar and Zahra don’t eat at snack time because they can’t afford it. They wait until they reach home to eat, later in the afternoon.
“We are a bit OK compared to other people in the village,” said Hamed. “My siblings who live abroad send me some support, but there is extreme poverty around us. People are really starving.” He says some relief organizations distributed food in the village, but it is never enough. The cost of food in the market has tripled in price.
“People can not afford anything anymore. Sometimes food supplies are distributed, but they are about two bags of rice or sugar. For families with children this does not help a lot,” he said. An influx of internally displaced people fleeing more violent areas has increased the strain.
Eman, a schoolteacher for more than 30 years, said the education system and its workers are struggling. She is still receiving a government salary of roughly $100 per month, but there are complications around getting paid.
“The problem is we have to go to receive our salaries in Daraa city. When we travel, we suffer abuse [crossing over] between the regime and Jabhat al-Nusra … but we have to do it. We need to survive,” Eman told Syria Deeply. As she spoke the conversation was interrupted because shelling began nearby; she ran to a neighbor’s home for refuge.
“A good day is when we can teach a class in peace … but so often fighting starts nearby. Then we send the children home,” she said. “There are days when schools close because of intense fighting, and the school uniform, it has been long forgotten now.”
Roads in the village have been destroyed. Transportation is difficult and expensive, while communications have become extremely unreliable.
Some desperate and hopeless high school students have dropped out to join Jabhat al-Nusra.
“[It’s] out of need for protection, fear or financial need,” said Maryam, a mother of four grown children. “The average villagers and families mistrust the extremist group and their intentions.”
Last month members of Jabhat al-Nusra told female teachers to start wearing long coats to cover their bodies in a show of Islamic modesty. “The teachers refused and villagers supported them,” Maryam said.
“We have been living in conditions that we would have never imagined,” said Eman, the teacher. “At school, we make tea on a fire that has been started using torn elastic shoes and slippers. Can you imagine the fumes? Can you imagine the trees we lose when we cut them down to warm our classrooms?
“We feel like we have been sent to the stone age. I see the children shiver as the walk to school in the morning. My heart breaks for them. Brave young children.”