In Syria’s Idlib, education a casualty of war

A displaced Syrian girl carries books on her head near a bus converted into a classroom in the village of Hazano in northwestern Syria. (AFP)
Updated 21 September 2019

In Syria’s Idlib, education a casualty of war

  • The conditions are dire however, with camp manager Hammud Al-Sayah explaining initial planning was done for 50 children, yet attendees now top 375

HAZANO, SYRIA: Near the village of Hazano in northwestern Syria, children come running through the olive groves every morning to meet the bus that brings school to their improvised tented camp.
Years of fighting and displacement in Idlib province have wrought chaos for the education of children, destroying schools and scattering families into homelessness across the countryside.
More than 400,000 people have been displaced since April alone, when the Russian-backed regime upped its deadly bombardment of the opposition-dominated enclave.
“These children can’t go to school, it’s too far from where they are,” said Farid Bakir, a local program manager with Syria Relief, the charity that launched the bus project.
In Hazano camp, the children get in line and hope to be among those who squeeze into the bus for a few hours.
A whiteboard is installed in the back, a thick carpet laid on the floor and a few dozen small desks, also used as chairs, are rearranged depending on the activity.
The ceiling is too low for the teacher to stand fully upright but Hussein Ali Azkour, a young boy wearing a yellow T-shirt, is enthusiastic about his classroom-on-wheels.
“The difference between a normal school and the bus, is that the bus is air-conditioned. It’s better than a thousand schools,” he said.
“When we fled here, there was no school and they started bringing the buses. If these buses were to stop coming, we would have no education and learn nothing.”
The buses cater only for ages ranging from five to 12 and include classes in Arabic, mathematics, science and sometimes English, as well as singing and drawing.
Since the project was launched in May, around 1,000 children have benefitted from the bus program, Bakir said.
That is a drop in the ocean of problems children, who represent more than half of the Idlib region’s 3 million inhabitants, are facing. According to Save the Children, the heavy bombardment since late April has damaged or otherwise impacted 87 educational facilities, while a further 200 are being used as shelters for those the violence displaced.
The UK-based NGO says some parents have been pleading with them to shut down schools for fear they would be targeted in regime air strikes.
“As the new school year starts, the remaining functional schools can only accommodate up to 300,000 of the 650,000 school-age children,” it said.
Ragheb Hassoun’s children are among the few who have been fortunate enough to receive a few hours a week of lessons through the bus project, but he says the situation is not tenable.
“We want something permanent — a school on the land where we live,” the 28-year-old said.
He and his family have been displaced several times since the start of the conflict in Syria eight years ago.

NUMBER 300K

schoolchildren out of the 650,000 can be accommodated in the remaining functional schools as the new school year starts, according to Save the Children.

Hassoun said he would be happy if his children could at least go to school during normal hours in a tent at the camp.
This is what children have in a larger camp near Dana, north of the city of Idlib, where the local school is housed under two large UN tents.
The conditions are dire however, with camp manager Hammud Al-Sayah explaining initial planning was done for 50 children, yet attendees now top 375.
Books underarm — or with bags strapped to backs — pupils are squeezed around black desks, while those unable to find a seat perch cross-legged on the floor.
Children who are four or five years apart attend the same classes.
“The pressure is huge,” Sayah said, admitting that the schooling conditions have a serious impact on the quality of education.
At 10 years of age, Abdel Razaq knows that his education is being compromised.
Standing in front of the white tent he has come to call his school, he said he dreams of a big building “where the number of children in each class is lower.”
“And where we could sit comfortably and hear what the teachers are saying.”


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 28 min 47 sec ago

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.