Local officials face numerous challenges as they struggle to get students back into the education system while the war continues, but several Tabqa schools are set to reopen for Syrian children this week, just months after the city was liberated from ISIS.
On March 22, in a unique and daring nighttime operation, several hundred Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and U.S. Special Forces personnel were airlifted by Coalition helicopters across the Euphrates river and dropped on the Shurfa peninsula, just a few miles west of the city of Tabqa.
Fifty days of fierce fighting later, the city and its nearby dam were finally captured from Islamic State, its last fighters escaping to the southeast in their ubiquitous four-wheel drive “technical” trucks, which were bombed and strafed by Coalition jets as they fled.
It was an important victory and a deadly dress rehearsal for the current battle for ISIS’s Syrian capital Raqqa, just 48 kilometers (30 miles) away.
But victory did not come without cost. Before the Syrian war, the strategically important city was home to as many as 80,000 people. They first felt the ravages of war in 2013, when opposition fighters took control, only to be later displaced by ISIS.
Important ISIS leaders and many foreign fighters lived in the city, attempting to evade airstrikes in Raqqa. Operatives responsible for planning both local operations and attacks abroad were also based there. Rami Faraj, a teacher from Safsafa village, located a few miles east of Tabqa, told The Globe Post that jihadis from Europe, Asia and Africa lived in the city, and that “the most prominent people among them were from Tunisia, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Chechnya and Saudi Arabia.”
Hundreds of civilians were killed in the fighting, and all but 15,000 of the city’s residents were forced to flee while the battle against ISIS raged. By some estimates, 40 percent of Tabqa’s buildings were damaged or destroyed in the Coalition operation. The nearby Tabqa dam, a crucial source of water to the city and power for much of eastern Syria, is effectively inoperable. The main hospital remains so extensively damaged that the World Health Organisation has recommended deploying a field hospital.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says an estimated 70,000 people are currently living in Tabqa, and the area is now home to 200,000 or more displaced people from Syria’s conflict hotspots: Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, and Homs.
Meanwhile, the war continues just 30 miles away in Raqqa. Coalition, Russian, Iranian, Syrian opposition, and government forces are all nearby, and the long-term future of the Coalition-backed local government remains uncertain.
But there are glimmers of hope. U.N. agencies have been scaling up deliveries of aid to the town since the opening of a land route in late June. UNICEF says rehabilitation of the water station – in collaboration with Syria’s Water Authority and Ministry of Water Resources – will begin soon. Engineers are working to salvage some of the hydro-power plant’s Soviet-era turbines to produce electricity.
Perhaps most importantly, the Tabqa Civil Council established by the SDF just a few days after the city’s capture said that it will begin to reopen schools this week.
Children in the city haven’t seen the inside of a classroom for between three and six years. Monica Awad, UNICEF Syria Communication Specialist, told The Globe Post there were no schools or alternative learning opportunities available to children while ISIS occupied Tabqa – teachers were prohibited from teaching at home, and textbooks and other learning materials were unavailable.
“The resumption of formal education will definitely give hope for a better future, not only to children themselves but also to families and communities,” Ms. Awad said.
By August 24, UNICEF distributed school bags and stationery kits to 1,700 children as part of an ongoing campaign to get them back into learning. Other activities, including school rehabilitation and teacher training are planned, but Ms. Awad stressed that additional funding is needed and will impact the timing of critical interventions.
— UNICEF MENA (@UNICEFmena) August 22, 2017
Tabqa Schools to Reopen for Thousands
The Civil Council’s education committee aims to open Tabqa schools on September 15, the pro-SDF ANHA news agency reported last month.
Mr. Faraj told The Globe Post: “We are now facing difficulties in returning the child to his previous thinking, and are trying to solve this problem through schools by teaching the child new ideas. Schools are very important to get rid of the thought of Daesh.”
The education committee has been documenting damage to school buildings. ISIS used schools as military facilities, making them targets for Coalition bombs, and in a tactic seen increasingly often in Syria, ISIS booby-trapped and mined the buildings.
Education committee director Ghanim al-Faraj said 33 schools in Tabqa and nearby towns were assessed for damage. Four were “completely destroyed.”
Through partners and contractors, UNICEF conducted an education assessment in Tabqa in late July. As a result, the agency plans to support the resumption of formal education for around 30,000 school age children in the city, out of a total of 52,500 it hopes to reach under the current response plan.
Ms. Awad said UNICEF’s assessment determined that there are 47 schools in Tabqa city and surrounding villages, of which 22 could function with light rehabilitation. “The rest need larger scale of rehabilitation due to heavy damage or mine risks,” Ms. Awad said.
Earlier this month, 30-year old Omar Hussein Hussein, the head of the education committee under the umbrella of the Raqqa Civil Council, was killed while visiting a local school undergoing rehabilitation. On September 10, the SDF reported that Mr. Hussein stepped on a mine that ISIS left inside the building.
American demining expert Murf McCloy said in July that disposal teams were still working in the city and at the dam, as well as in other areas of northern Syria.
Damaged infrastructure and the threat of IEDs are not the only issues that make reopening schools problematic. Mr. al-Faraj said that many of the Tabqa schools are being used to house refugees, a situation seen routinely across Raqqa governorate. The committee is monitoring building use to determine which schools can reopen for the new academic year.
Five schools were already rehabilitated in Tabqa and others are being readied in nearby towns for Syrian children. The committee plans to gradually reopen school buildings as housing is provided to the displaced families currently residing in them. Rehabilitation work includes repairs to water, sanitation and electrics, painting, and securing classroom furniture and writing materials.
One of the deputy heads of Tabqa Civil Council, Ahmad Sulaiman, told The Globe Post that most of the schools are concrete structures and all the materials are missing. “Five schools have been rebuilt according to our potential and with the help of UNICEF,” he said. “We are ready to open schools until the children return to their previous life.”
Ms. Awad said UNICEF has not yet started any rehabilitation work, but the agency remains ready to begin as soon as the situation on the ground permits.
Teachers Line Up to Volunteer
Hundreds of people have reportedly registered to be teachers in Tabqa and the surrounding area. Some reports put registrations as low as 50 and as high as 700. Ms. Awad said that UNICEF is also receiving conflicting data, and is unable to confirm the number of available teachers. However, she said that “there were approximately 800 teachers in Tabqa city prior to the closure of public schools,” according to Syria’s education ministry.
Some teachers have begun voluntary training courses in preparation for the new academic year. One is run at the Omar Mukhtar school, south of Tabqa. The course covers general education for one hour per week and aims to train people to teach first grade-level classes.
Dr. Alexandra Lewis, Fellow in Education, Conflict and International Development at University College London’s Institute of Education, told The Globe Post that after a conflict like the Syrian war, education is key to fostering stability and national development.
“In those kind of situations getting children back into school, even when children are separated from their home, from their normal home environment or separated from their parents, can give this illusion of normalcy which is very important for coping with the trauma and stress of being in war,” Dr. Lewis said.
Dr. Lewis urged caution in the training of new teachers, explaining that at the most basic level, not everyone who may want to be a teacher is suited to the job – personalities and personal dynamics are important, but so is motivation.
“If someone is doing the best that they can in order to give children the education that they are missing out on and giving their personal time, I have difficulty seeing that in a negative way,” she noted.
She cautioned that poor teachers and a poor quality of education can lead to students disengaging from schooling. Worse, they can start to radicalise students.
Dr. Lewis explained that education has positive long-term impacts on children’s health and wellbeing, including their ability to earn an income in the future, and “is very important in terms of having a normalising impact on the child’s social circumstances.” School is also a place for children to more easily receive meals, medicine and other support, she added.
Many of the schools slated for reopening in Tabqa are lacking materials to provide that crucial support for children. Twenty-seven volunteer teachers reopened al-Jahez School in the al-Masher neighborhood of Tabqa. They teach reading, writing and maths to around 1,000 students from first to sixth grade. However, Mohammed al-Ani, a teacher at the school, said they do not have enough chairs for students and the building has no water.
Another group of volunteer teachers opened the “16 October” school. One teacher at that school said there are around 35 teachers and more than 1,000 elementary school-level pupils who are taught reading, writing and simple arithmetic, but also lamented the lack of basic supplies including stationery.
Dr. Lewis said voluntary initiatives can be incredibly important because of the normalising impact education has on children after conflict. Teachers understand this positive impact, and many seek to cushion students from the effects of missing years of school work.
She stressed the need for secondary and higher education in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic, particularly for Syrian children in refugee camps who are especially vulnerable to radicalization.
“There’s going to be young people of secondary school age who, if they are not at school, are much, much more liable to recruitment into combatant groups. We see that happening time and time again because they don’t necessarily have employment opportunities in those situations or any capacity to fill their days in other ways, so it becomes easier to radicalise that population,” Dr. Lewis said.
Even if students are not able to earn money while in school, education gives people a sense of hope for the future, “that something else will come after this conflict phase is finished,” she added.
Furthermore, she said that secondary education is essential after the war for restoring the capacity lost during the conflict. New doctors, engineers and other people must be trained, and the skills required to rebuild the country after the conflict must be taught.
Mr. al-Faraj said elementary, preparatory and secondary educational stages will be included, but it is unclear how this will be managed. The education committee in Tabqa has secured textbooks for grades one to six.
“Schools would need to operate multiple shifts for the time being, in order to accommodate all school age children with the number of schools that would be possibly available soon,” UNICEF’s Ms. Awad said.
Curriculum is Vital for Syrian Children
Despite attempts to establish which curriculum will be used in Tabqa’s schools by The Globe Post’s reporter on the ground and via agencies working there, it is unclear whether the council will use the Syrian government syllabus or the new curriculum developed by the Democratic Self Administration of the Federation of Northern Syria, the body striving for autonomy in the territory controlled by the SDF.
Reportedly, some people in mainly-Arab Hasakah demonstrated against a perceived ideological emphasis in the DSA curriculum, developed in areas in the region’s north that are mainly Kurdish. Some teachers in Hasakah have reportedly refused to adopt it.
Dr. Lewis has seen similar issues in Somalia. “Often, it’s not just that curriculums can vary from school to school, leading to radically different ideologies which will produce students that will fight each other when they graduate, we actually see that happening in one school – different students supporting different philosophies who fight over these philosophies in the playground,” she said.
Curriculum is not just a political consideration. Dr. Lewis noted that one subject that is particularly important to cover in a religiously, politically and ethnically divided society is history. If teachers don’t agree with what’s in the curriculum, they may take teaching Syrian history into their own hands. “That means the history that students get will be history taught from that teacher’s political perspective,” she explained.
Similar problems can occur when teachers return to a conflict-affected country from overseas. Teachers educated in the U.S., Canada, Saudi Arabia and Iran could be imparting different philosophies to their students, who may then fight over them at school.
Dr. Lewis noted that the issue of who gets to go to school is an important one for the country’s future. She said when privileged groups or those with money get access to education while those without do not, “that can feed into and aggravate the causes of fighting again.”
Perhaps providing some reassurance, Tabqa council’s Mr. Sulaiman told The Globe Post that all education in the city will be free and without coercion, and Mr. al-Hussein said that displaced Syrian children will be catered for.
What happens in SDF-held territory after ISIS is defeated on the battlefield is already being discussed.
Mr. Sulaiman said that the council rejects the return of the regime to the area. “We have met with the tribes. There is no one compatible with the regime and there is no role for the regime in Tabqa,” he said.
However, Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad recently said the government would assert control over the areas aiming for autonomy, branding elections there as “a joke.”
“The territorial integrity of Syria will never be under dispute,” Mr. Mekdad said, adding that the international community has a responsibility to maintain the borders.
Others agree that President Bashar al-Assad will want to assert control over all of Syria, given time, and this process may have already begun at a practical level in Tabqa – the government is reportedly working with international agencies to restore Tabqa’s water supply.
The last American ambassador in Syria, Robert Ford, said last month that he believes the Syrian government, backed by Iranian militias, will begin an offensive against the SDF, and that Washington will not intervene on the SDF’s behalf.
“There is no appetite for this among the American public. Donald Trump – similar to Barack Obama – wants to avoid involvement in foreign civil wars,” Mr. Ford said in an interview with The National. He added that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be happy to see an Assad offensive against the Syrian Kurds, who Turkey views as an extension of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
During a recent trip to northern Syria, Noah Bonsey, Senior Analyst for Syria at the International Crisis Group, wrote that the likelihood of future U.S. support for the federal project led by Syria’s Kurds was a repeated topic of discussion, one no doubt more-recently fueled by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said last month that Washington’s preferred “end state” is a unified Syria, albeit one where the Syrian people “put in place a new constitution, have free and fair elections, and select a new leadership.
Whether the government of Syria will ultimately accept the qualifications attained by Syrian children in Tabqa is uncertain.
Dr. Lewis sees the local promotion of education as crucial for legitimacy. “You need to have local NGOs promoting education as long as they are reputable [and] trustworthy,” she said. “If the education sector is not seen as legitimate, if it is seen as an external pathway for shaping hearts and minds, then education becomes an ideological battleground.”
She explained that local NGOs are better positioned to understand the situation on the ground than incoming international organizations, which may also lack legitimacy with the local population.
Dr. Lewis said: “If you don’t get support for reopening schools from local communities then the danger is that you create the circumstances that are necessary for any schools that reopen to become targets.”
One such local group working to promote education is Better Hope for al-Tabqa, established on June 6 by a group of Tabqa-born volunteers that works alongside other local civil society groups and the Tabqa council. In part 2, The Globe Post will look at the organization, funding for education in Tabqa, and international involvement in Syrian children’s future.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg contributed reporting from Tabqa.