In Syria, Schools Become Homes and Support Centers
Razan Rashidi, UNICEF
DAMASCUS, Syria (August 16, 2012) — In Damascus, Aleppo and other cities in Syria, schools are hosting internally displaced persons who had to flee neighborhoods affected by shelling and violence. According to the Ministry of Education, 307 schools today are hosting internally displaced persons. Residents vary from 50 in a small school to more than 400 in big schools.
Despite the dangerous and complex operating environment, humanitarian agencies have managed to significantly scale up assistance in the last month. A huge burden is on local charity organizations, especially with the dietary requirements of the month of Ramadan.
When 11-year-old Amal took refuge in one of Masaken Barzeh’s schools, she felt awkward sleeping in a classroom. “I never thought we could sleep at school,” she said. “I thought schools were only for education.” The first night, she wondered whether schools were equipped with night lights or not; especially for the playground where they had to sleep for the first night as there was no room for them inside the classrooms.
Despite the security situation that limited the access to many areas in Damascus and Rif Damascus, during the month of July UNICEF and its partners were able to expand their activities to reach 74,000 internally displaced persons, including more than 50,000 children, with first aid kits, recreational kits, family and baby hygiene kits, stoves, mattresses, blankets and food for children.
In August 2011, Amal’s family lost their breadwinner as a result of the ongoing political instability, and her 16-year-old brother Ahmad dropped out of school. “After my dad died, I had to leave school and support my mother in providing income for our family,” Ahmad said.
“Paying the rent was the hardest part of our monthly struggle,” their mother Oum Ahmad said. “We have left our rented house and are living here in the school with no privacy.” Small families have to share classrooms with each other. “I’d prefer having my own space, especially as a single mother, even if it was very small without many services,” she explained.
The father was a carpenter, but according to the family he refused to teach his son the craft. “My husband wanted Ahmad to continue higher education and become an engineer,” Oum Ahmad said. “But then we were left with nothing.”
Until a few days before they left their house and took refuge in the school, Ahmad was working as a delivery boy for a restaurant which is now closed. “I wish he taught me how to become a carpenter, at least I would have been better in providing income,” said Ahmad.
UNICEF has been training local partners and community volunteers on recreational activities and basic psychosocial support for displaced children. “By July 2012, UNICEF provided recreational and psychosocial assistance to about 26,000 children in Damascus, Rural Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Daraa and Lattakia,” UNICEF Syria Deputy Representative Eric Durpaire said.
“This school looks exactly like mine”
Issam, a 7-year-old boy from Hai Tishreen in northeast Damascus, also took refuge with seven other members of his and his uncle’s family in the same school. Issam sees similarities to his own school, which is comforting. “We arrived late and it was dark. The following day I woke up early, sneaked outside the classroom and took a tour of the school,” he shared. “I thought, ‘It’s very similar to my school in Barzeh Balad but now it is filled with people,’” he said with a smile.
Isaam’s father commented, “I thought we are the only family who took refuge in a school. Now I realize that a lot of people share our destiny and difficult circumstances.” In early July, UNHCR estimated that one million people in Syria had to leave their houses since the beginning of the political instability. The numbers are higher now, after a month of heavy and intense military operations across Syria. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are estimating that some 200,000 people fled Aleppo and the surrounding areas just last week.