Syria: Kfar Nabl Schools Reopen Despite Shelling

For those who brave risks and attend, space is limited as many schools are occupied by refugees and soldiers.

Syria: Kfar Nabl Schools Reopen Despite Shelling

For those who brave risks and attend, space is limited as many schools are occupied by refugees and soldiers.

The autumn start to the school year in Kfar Nabl, a town of 30,000 people in northwest Syria, was accompanied by deep divisions between those parents who were in favour of reopening the schools and others who opposed the idea.

The latter’s hesitation stems from fears about security and the risks to children attending school in the shadow of ongoing battles.

“I heard they were going to start shelling Wadi al-Daif,” the principal of one of Kfar Nabl’s schools said, referring to an eastern area of Maarat al-Numan, a town near Kfar Nabl, where regime forces have been massing for over a year. 

“If they shell there, we’ll shut down the schools immediately, but it hasn’t actually begun yet,” he said.

The school head’s concerns were countered by a member of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, an umbrella group of local grassroots activists, who emphasised that education was sacrosanct and compulsory.

“The war might last many years,” said Mohammad, 29. “Are we to leave our children without schooling for that long?”

Many parents take a different view.

“What’s the use of sending my children to school?” asked a shopkeeper, who asked to remain anonymous. “Why would I send them to school under bombardment, when I already know they’ll be sent home because of the shelling? I’d much rather leave them ignorant than send them off to die on the way to school.”

Ahmad Abboud al-Qassem, 38, a policeman who has defected from the government side, agreed, saying, “We have to protect the schools from bombardment. I can’t send my children off to school because they’re terrified of the shelling.”

There are ten state schools in Kfar Nabl, which used to be run by the education ministry. Six of them are now full of displaced people, three are occupied by the local military council, the town council and a number of combat battalions. The tenth, called Thi Qar, was damaged over a year ago during a battle between regime and opposition forces.

Ahead of the beginning of the school year, the local council, along with the military council and some other organisational institutions, the city, made an attempt to resolve the position of refugees now living in schools.

“The local council, in collaboration with the military council, issued a decision to remove the refugees from the schools,” said Khalid al-Khatib, the head of Kfar Nabl’s local council. “We allocated 20,000 pounds [117 US dollars] for repairs to the Thi Qar school in order to be able to move the refugees there.”

The decision was not well received by most of the refugees, who saw it as unfair.

“If Thi Qar isn’t fit to receive pupils, how are we supposed to live there?” asked Abu Ahmad al-Mirawi, 50, who was displaced from Maarat al-Numan.

Despite the derelict condition of the Thi Qar school and the small amount of funding allocated for repairs, families did move there from three other schools. Classes have now begun in those schools, despite the continued presence of some displaced families.

The schools are still run by government-paid teachers and administrators, even though they are located in an opposition-controlled area.

Other schools are still being used by the local council, the military council and the “Hawks of Islam” brigade. Local council head Khatib said an empty section of the Computing School had been made available for teaching.

The head of the Military Council, Colonel Ahmad al-Issa, said it had offered to vacate four classrooms at the Guidance School. However, he said, school administrators decided to use another building to take pupils because they feared for their safety in what they saw as “military zone”.

The vocational Industrial School has been taken over by the “Hawks of Islam” brigade.

“The Industrial School consists of three buildings,” explains Colonel Jamal al-Aloush, 43, the brigade’s commander. “We are stationed in the applied learning department, from which all the equipment was stolen during the battle to liberate Kfar Nabl. The students don’t have much use for that department, but regardless, we’ll support any decision [to evacuate schools] as long as it applies to everyone.”

The other six schools suffer from a variety of problems. Abu Yazan, principal of the Rif school, accuses displaced people of causing vandalism and damage.

“Most of the refugees in the schools smashed up wooden desks and burned them for heat; they stole the aluminium from the radiators so they could sell it, and they also destroyed all the locks,” said Abu Yazan. “The military council needs to appoint night guards or set up night patrols in order to protect the schools from vandals.”

The student population has swelled because of the displaced families, as well as those pupils transferred from schools occupied by councils and armed factions.

“The school once served as our home,” said Abou Akram, 55, a refugee from the village of Kafrouma. “We have lost our home. I don’t want to lose my children’s future as well.”

There are often five students to a desk meant for two, because so many have been smashed up and burned. Some schools do not even have a chair for teachers, who have to remain standing for the duration of the lesson.

In addition to regular bombardments that interrupt the school schedule, there is also the problem of schoolbooks being unavailable. An illicit trade in textbooks has grown up.

“The delay doesn’t come from the central [government] bookstore in Idlib, because the books are in fact abundantly available,” explained an official in charge of providing books, who declined to be named. “It actually comes from the school bookstore administrators, who have been late in checking their lists.”

The official also suggested that administrators made an illicit profit from selling the books.

“The price of a book for a secondary-school third-year is around 3,000 pounds [17 dollars], but it sells for 10,000 pounds in Kfar Nabl. They don’t have a problem in trading in our children’s futures,” he said.

Further problems are created by government schools refusing to accept pupils who have sat exams under the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s examination board. This particularly particularly affects those in the third year of secondary school. State school administrators say they cannot allow these pupils in, as they could be dismissed or have their salaries docked.

“We are only allowed to accept pupils with qualifications issued by the SNC in to ‘audit’ the classes, not to formally attend,” said Abu Shakib, a secondary school head. “They can’t sit our exams, because the results are handed over to the exam board in Idlib, which is affiliated with the government in Damascus.… How are our students going to sit for their final exams?”

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.

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