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Tabqa Children Return to School, But Support for Syria is Uncertain

Syrian children in the city of Tabqa return to school on Friday, many to buildings that were only a few months ago used by Islamic State fighters or, more recently, housing people displaced from the area. The extent of international support for Syria’s future remains unclear, and many of the schools require rehabilitation and even help to get the basic supplies for learning.

The fifty-day operation to liberate Tabqa from ISIS ended in May, nearly four years after the terrorists overran the city. Formerly home to about 80,000 people, Tabqa now houses about 70,000 and another 200,000 who were displaced from other parts of Syria.

In part one of the story, The Globe Post explored the importance of education for children recovering from conflict, as well as the necessity of an inclusive school system and curriculum that does not lead to future conflicts.

Local nongovernmental organizations and international charities are working together to facilitate the return of Syrian students in Tabqa. One local NGO is Better Hope for al-Tabqa, established a few months ago by a group of volunteers from the city. It’s small – the organisation has only six staff, each with a specific role – and it focuses on the issues faced by local people. It works with other civil society groups in the city including the Tabqa council.

Mohannad Alahmad, BHT’s spokesperson, told The Globe Post that BHT campaigns for the provision of a “fair life for children who suffered five years of bombing, hijacking, and blood-shedding. We want to return childhood to every child because we know the huge damage they suffered.”

“Teaching was banned during the ISIS period. That’s why we want promote the importance of going back to school,”he said.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. Special Envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, and other representatives from the U.S., France and the U.K. visited BHT after they met with Tabqa council on August 18.

Mr. Alahmad said BHT received funding from the U.S. State Department a month after the group was formed, that Mr. McGurk is a “great support” for BHT, and that he promised additional support in the future.

The State Department did not confirm that it was funding BHT, but an official told The Globe Post: “Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk visited Better Hope for Al Tabqa on August 18. He was struck by the inspiring work BHT does every day to support some of the most vulnerable populations in the wake of ISIS’ defeat in Tabqa and to offer hope for the future.”

“The United States, along with our international partners, continues to support the efforts of organizations like BHT which provide essential services, assess the critical, ongoing humanitarian needs throughout Syria and facilitate delivery of vitally needed supplies.  These efforts will be critical to the lasting defeat of ISIS in Syria.”

BHT is finalising a new project, a Center for Safe Childhood, funded by Injaz group. Alahmad said the project aims to give children psychological and social support in addition combating illiteracy.

The center will give BHT a stable location in Tabqa and offer four months of support to 60 children at a time. “Every afternoon we’ll make a tour of the villages around Tabqa to give some psychological, educational, and social support with drama scenes and tournaments done in the open air,” Mr. Alahmad said.

The flexibility that the small group has allows them to take advantage of events as they happen. In one video posted in Twitter, Abdul Khaliq al Mathhoul, who specialises in teaching English and teaching methods for BHT, gave a lesson to refugee children who were being taught in a tent.

“They were refugees from around Al-Tabqa and some live in miserable conditions. Despite this, they insist that they should go to ‘school,'” Mr. Alahmad said.

The group also works to return the war-damaged city to some form of normality, repainting walls, covering ISIS murals with others promoting mine and IED awareness, and the importance of education. They painted kerbstones in the city blue and white, their original colours.

“We wanted people to see life before ISIS in even the smallest details,” Mr. Alahmad said, noting that BHT launched a cleaning project on September 1 in cooperation with city hall.

External Influence on Education

Dr. Alexandra Lewis, Fellow in Education, Conflict and International Development at University College London’s Institute of Education, cautioned that external actors can have outsized influence on education during a conflict.

“No outside external education funding in conflict exists in isolation, and we know that countries invest in education for political purposes,” she told The Globe Post, using the example of the USSR and the United States during the Cold War.

“One of the tools for fighting that war was investing in education. So we saw a lot of Russian investment in Latin American education at that time, and we see a lot of American investment in some European schools to this day. That was deliberate, the whole point was that they wanted to win hearts and minds.”

American investment in education is also the official policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S. is not the only country engaging in it.

“In the neighbourhood of Syria, two of the big investors in education are Saudi Arabia and Iran, and they’re going to be very different types of schooling than those the United Nations might be funding,” Dr. Lewis said.

International Funding for Tabqa’s Future

Funding for projects in Tabqa is difficult to assess. Teachers in the city’s volunteer schools have bemoaned lack of basics like stationery, furniture and even water.

Dr. Lewis stressed that providing an appropriate, safe physical space for education, including adequate heating and access to water and sanitation, is particularly important for girls’ participation in education.

Monica Awad, Communication Specialist for UNICEF Syria, said that recent interventions by the agency included the delivery of 1,475 family hygiene kits, nutrition supplies for 6,265 children, summer clothes for 2,400 children, malnutrition screening for 250 children under age 5. UNICEF also provided 4 metric tons of sodium hypochlorite to treat water at Tabqa’s water station.

“To support children in need in Raqqa, Tabqa and surrounding areas, UNICEF urgently needs a minimum of US$17 million for the coming three months,” Ms. Awad told The Globe Post.

According to financial summaries provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 35 percent of the $3.4 billion requested for the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan 2017 has been received, with around half of that allocated to World Food Programme efforts to supply food.

Only $92.5 million of the $249.9 million requested for education projects has been made available. Last year, 45 percent of the funding requested for a similar plan remained unfulfilled. To compare, the $1.2 billion pledged for the Syria response plan is significantly less than the $1.8 billion spent this summer on footballers for the English Premier League.

Ahmad Sulaiman, one of the deputy heads of Tabqa Civil Council, was scathing when he spoke about help for the city.

“All those who have passed through this country have destroyed it, but we on the contrary, we are building, reforming, restructuring and rehabilitating schools,” Mr. Sulaiman told The Globe Post.

“The Americans come here and hold meetings, and we have not received any help from them,” he said. “The international community must bear its responsibilities to the Syrian people … The world should stand by the Syrian people and provide them with assistance.”

Mr. Sulaiman acknowledged that the city has received some help from the international community for health services and drinking water, but said the services have not yet reached the level the city needs.

“What we want from the international organizations is to rebuild the infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, power stations and drinking water plants … We accept assistance from organizations provided that they do not harm the Syrian people or participate in the shedding of Syrian blood,” he said.

Despite promises made by U.S. officials in early July that they would support education projects, the lack of basic school supplies is repeatedly discussed in local media, and was prominent during an August 18 meeting between Tabqa Civil Council the Tribes Conciliation Council, and representatives of the Coalition, the US State Department’s START-Forward team, the U.K. and France, led by Mr. McGurk.

According to the Kurd-led People’s Defence Forces (YPG), the international group again pledged support in the provision of water and electricity from the town’s damaged dam, the renovation of the hospital, delivering aid to refugees and the construction of schools.

While not confirming attendance at the meeting, a French diplomatic source told The Globe Post that the country maintains relations with appropriate contacts. The source said the long-term stability of areas freed from ISIS is a strategic priority for France, and the country “supports the installation of representative and effective governance capable of meeting the populations’ needs.”

“France has a specific budget for humanitarian and stabilization work in the liberated areas, with priority given to displaced populations, as well as in the areas of mine clearance and facilitating the re-establishment of basic services for populations (water, electricity, healthcare),” the source said.

Similarly, a U.K. government spokesman did not confirm attendance at the August 18 meeting, but told The Globe Post: “We regularly engage with the U.S., the Coalition and other partners in Syria to better understand the political and humanitarian situation in Eastern Syria as areas become liberated from Daesh. U.K. humanitarian partners on the ground are working to ensure that humanitarian assistance is provided.”

The U.K. government says its humanitarian partners are working in Tabqa to provide urgent health and protection assistance, including surgical support to war injured civilians and the provision of primary and reproductive health care.

The Globe Post asked the U.S. State Department about the recent meeting and support for Syria and Tabqa, but did not receive a reply.

That Tabqa needs significant help from the international community is clear, but where that help will come from and what form it will take is as clear as mud.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last month that the U.S. aimed to stabilise Syria, and that Mr. McGurk was one of the people on the ground “checking to see if this aid is showing up the way it’s supposed to and are we meeting our commitments to restore some of the basic needs of the communities.”

A few days later, Mr. McGurk reiterated Mr. Tillerson’s remark, saying “We are committed to stabilisation, and that word is very important. This is not reconstruction; it’s not nation building.”

Mr. McGurk said that stabilisation means demining, rubble removal, and the rehabilitation of power, water and sewage infrastructure to allow people to return to their homes. Speaking specifically about schools he said that, if asked by the local councils, the U.S. would help remove IEDs and mines, and that “if they need desks or chairs or chalkboards or something, we can usually help find contractors from the local area to do that.”

“And we’re going to do all we possibly can to have as many schools as ready in Tabqa for the opening of the school year on September 15th. But again, in terms of school curriculums, teachers, all this, this is the responsibility of the Syrians on the ground … not us.”

Wladimir van Wilgenburg contributed reporting from Tabqa.

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