Aleppo, Asharq Al-Awsat—It’s Saturday morning, 9am, and the unmistakable sound of a school recess spills out onto the street. “Usually in Syria there’s no school on Fridays and Saturdays,” says Abu Kataiba, the school co-ordinator, “but we cancelled the day off on Saturday. The children come to school here six days a week.” But none of these pupils are complaining. “They asked if they could come in on Fridays too,” he laughs. “They want to catch up on what they have missed.”
The fighting in Aleppo destroyed more than mere buildings; it also tore apart the fabric of daily life. The schools were some of the first and worst hit casualties. Some were destroyed by shells and bombs. Others were turned into bases for Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades. Teachers in opposition areas stopped receiving their salaries, and the children they used to teach were left to fill their days by acting out role-play war games on the dangerous streets of the city.
The older students are suffering, too. Rawan was on a master’s program at Aleppo University, but the polarization of her city into regime and opposition areas has cut her off from her studies. She lives in an area held by the FSA, while her university remains under the control of the government. “I go back to my department sometimes, but it’s dangerous because I have to go through the regime check-points,” she says. “I cover my face when I go, and so far they haven’t asked me to uncover. But they have female officers, and they could ask me to take my veil off. If they realize who I am, I will be arrested.”
However, in abandoned buildings across Aleppo, students like Rawan and Abu Kataiba are fighting back against the enforced idleness that is one tragedy of this war. “All the teachers here are students who have been forced to stop their studies,” says Abu Kataiba as he shows us around the former fabric factory that has been divided up into six classrooms, each with a whiteboard and the children’s drawings tacked to the wall. “They all volunteer here, and they’re not trained teachers. But we hope that soon we can start training them.”
Clinging to the outskirts of the city, the district this school serves is populated almost entirely by refugees from other areas. Many of the children here, wrenched from their homes and their friends, had not been to school for a year when Abu Kataiba and his team of volunteers decided to start their project three months ago. “We posted leaflets about what we were doing around the area,” he says, “and so many people came. We have three hundred children here now, and we have to teach them in shifts because we don’t have the space for all of them.”
Half an hour’s drive away, through the traffic jams and dust of central Aleppo, another school day is well underway. “This was a school building before,” says Ayoub, one of the students who teaches here, “but it was abandoned when the fighting started. So six months ago, I came here with two of my friends, cleaned the building, and reopened it.” Now there are seven hundred children at the school, and Ayoub has plans to open a vocational training center on the second floor. “When the war started, no-one was doing these things,” he says. “We were the first. We’re sons of this city, and we have a duty to work for all the people of Aleppo.”
Unlike Abu Kataiba’s school in the quieter suburbs, this building lies right in the heart of Aleppo’s urban war. The teachers here know that the school they have worked so hard to rebuild could be closed again through accident or design. A month ago a shell landed on the sports area, leaving a rough-edged crater that makes games practice impossible for the time being. More recently, a nearby airstrike blew all of the windows out.
“We have a bunker here in case anything happens during school time,” says Ayoub. “But we try to make the children forget about the war while they are here.” He takes us to a downstairs room where Abdul, a local artist, is painting the walls with bright cartoon characters. “This is going to be a drama and activities area,” he says. “The children here need to forget about the weapons and destruction that they see on the streets.”
From their scattered and haphazard beginnings, these schools are now part of a new citizen movement in the city. In an abandoned bank Sohib Edress, a Syrian who suspended his studies in Malaysia to return to his devastated hometown, explains how a group of civilians are bringing order and normality back to the opposition areas of the city, even as Aleppo’s soundtrack of gunshots and shellfire plays on. In just two months, the new Aleppo Council has brought three hundred schools under its umbrella, and organised garbage collection and relief operations. “We want to have structures in place to take over the running of this city when the regime falls,” he says. “And we’ll use what we’re doing in Aleppo as a model for other cities in Syria.”
With an outsider’s perspective but an insider’s empathy, Sohib describes what has happened to Syria’s revolution. “Syrians now don’t know why they should stay here, or where they should go if they leave,” he says. “The regime is criminal, but the opposition is extreme. The revolution was meant to be for Syrians, not for Islamists. So through the Aleppo Council, we’re trying to create a new civilian society; that was the point of the protests in the first place.”
Rawan, the disenfranchised master’s student, shares Sohib’s ideals. In the offices of the Jana Foundation, the organisation she set up last November to help the children and women of Aleppo, drawings of the regime flag are pinned up next to those of the flag of the revolution. “We tell them that they can draw whatever they like,” she says, “because in the future we are all going to have to live together. Freedom means respect for other opinions.”
Rawan and her team were among the first people in Aleppo to start reopening schools, staffed by teachers who no longer receive a wage. “A lot of professional people in this area can no longer work,” she explains, “so we try to bring them to work with us, to give them some pride back and to use their experience.”
But at one of the Jana Foundation’s schools, even the name above the door is a reminder of the constant dangers facing students and teachers in this city. It is named after Fatima Al-Homsi, a school teacher who was shot dead by a sniper as she traveled into a regime area four months ago to pick up her salary. “Our students can’t leave this area, and the teachers are too scared to pick up their wages. So they work here for free,” says Rawan.
Upstairs, the secondary-level students are preparing for their Baccalaureate exams. Some of them will go back to sit them in the regime areas; but for others, who have brothers fighting with the opposition, that will be too dangerous. All say they want to go to university, but for many that will not be possible.
During school hours at least, these children can experience some kind of normality. But some things are very different to what came before. “Under the regime, there was a picture of Bashar at the front of every classroom,” says Abu Kataiba in his makeshift school. “But now we put pictures of Syria there. That’s the future we want to build.”