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Mobile Schools Keep Pace With Nomadic Tribes

Dozens of kilometers away from the nearest village school, a group of children file into a rusty caravan parked amidst a sea of Bedouin tents.

This is a mobile school, designed to follow groups of Arab nomads as they move across the desert. The current encampment where this school has stopped is 130 kilometers from the city of Al-Raqqah in northern Syria.

“Please, teacher, let me answer this question,” says one of the children, Sultan Muhammed al-Ijl. “I can tell you where the Arab homeland is on the map.”

At this, fellow-pupil Yousif Muhammed al-Sahil stands up angrily to complain, “Sultan has answered most of your questions. Why don’t you give me a chance, teacher?”

After the class was over, the teacher, 25-year-old Mazin al-Khidhri, said he continued to be surprised by how passionate his students were about learning.

“Most people think the Bedouins are a backward people uninterested in participating in modern society,” he said. “But what is happening in this school and others like it is evidence that such stereotypes are unfounded.”

Khidhri is among over 100 teachers assigned to travel with the Bedouin tribes, as part of a project dating from 1981 to address what were then sky-high illiteracy rates among then nomads.

Primary school education is mandatory and free of charge in Syria for elementary-aged children, but Bedouin children used to miss out because they were never in one place long ago to be brought into the conventional system

There are now 101 mobile schools throughout the deserts of Syria, providing education for over 1,100 children. The vehicle-drawn caravans are divided into three sections – the classroom itself, a separate room for the teachers, and a storage space.

“Al-Raqqah province still tops the list in Syria for the number of [Bedouin] tents and mobile caravans,” said Abdul Salam, director of planning at Syria’s education ministry.

Teachers at the mobile schools complain that many Bedouin parents do not see the benefit of getting an education.

“Why didn’t you review the lesson at home last night?” 30-year-old Mahmoud al-Khalil asks one of his pupils in frustration.

Khalil says most children are eager to learn, but lack encouragement from their families.

“Their parents are illiterate and wait impatiently for their children get home and tend the animals so that they can relax,” he told IWPR. “That makes pupils unwilling to study because they are stuck between two contradictory forces – a teacher who wants them to learn and parents who want them to work.”

One father, Mubarak al-Mhawish, said openly that he would rather his children did not attend the school.

“If education wasn’t mandatory, we wouldn’t allow our children to go,” he said. “We care about our livelihoods more than anything else, and that’s what our children need to focus on, because that is what awaits them in the future.”

Another challenge facing teachers is the sense of being underpaid and isolated.

“I initially came here for the challenge and to earn a good income,” said Khidhri, adding that he was dismayed to learn his salary was too small for him to afford to go back to his home in the city to visit his family.

Khadija Mansour, who teaches at the same school as Khalil, said she suffered from loneliness out in the deserts.

“I am so isolated out here,” she said. “I miss the chirping of the sparrows and the bustle of the city.”

Teachers like Khidhri and Mansour have asked their superior to recognise that they face far more hardship than those working in more populated parts of the country.

“Even the kerosene we get isn’t enough,” said Khalil said. “But when we ask education officials for a better salary or even just a bonus, they won’t budge.”

One unusual problem facing the mobile teachers is what to do when the tribe’s migration route takes them into another country.

“We can’t always accompany them because the education ministry requires us to stick to certain routes,” said Khidhri. “Sometimes they cross into Jordan, Iraq or somewhere else. We hate abandoning the children in the middle of teaching, but we have to wait for them to cross back into Syria.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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