Back to school

Just a few minutes after I had written the text below, I got the following news: Rasha-SyriaTwo car bombs had exploded in the city of Homs – 45 children killed. Their right to go to school? Their right to life? Disintegrated. Sometimes I ask myself what effect we as SOS co-workers can have in the face of such madness. And yet we persevere. We can’t allow terror to prevail. Every child counts!

It is time to go back to school in Syria. Children are always excited to meet with their friends again, to see their teachers and to check if the ‘love notes’ they once engraved on the old wooden desks are still there.

Far too many Syrian children are not returning to their old schools this year, nor are they meeting up with their old friends. They have had to leave their homes, seeking safety and shelter in other places. They have had to change schools, and for most no replacement schools are available.

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Displaced children are happy to receive their new school bags.

Today there are 4.8 million Syrian children of school age. More than three million of them are out of school, either internally displaced or refugees in neighbouring countries. The main reasons for the dropping out are forced displacement and the lack of financial means. Even though education is free of charge in Syria from the first grade all the way to obtaining a graduate degree, parents are facing hard a time sending their children to school, while feeding the family becomes more of a main concern. With their sources of income continuing to diminish, they are trying to focus on surviving and unfortunately education becomes a lower priority.

Since it launched its emergency relief program in 2013, SOS Children’s Villages Syria has tried to protect children’s rights with a variety of means, so we started the “My right to Education” campaign together with other main partners in Syria, with the aim of bringing 16,000 children back to school by providing them with school bags and stationary, and registering them in schools in the communities where they have newly settled after being displaced – in some cases more than once.

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Yamen and his friend at the under-construction community school.

The war in Syria does not take into account the vulnerability of children nor does it respect their rights. On the contrary, they have often been used as human shields. Children’s schools have been targeted on several occasions with horrific consequences. “Sinar left me alone and decided to join the white angles in Heaven,” said Sami, who lost his six-year-old twin brother in a mortar attack on a children’s school in the ‘old city’ district of Damascus. Lauren has lost her both legs, above knee level. She’s 10 years old and had just started to feel her beauty and act as a pretty girl. “When will I get to dance ballet again,” she screamed when she learned about her legs. After all, a school bag can’t bring back Sinar’s brother nor will it bring back Lauren’s ability to dance ballet again but it can make millions of other children smile and feel proud on their way to school.

This year, our school bag distribution has been reduced to 6,000 because we have shifted our focus to providing homes for unaccompanied children, who are currently the most vulnerable and are exposed to all kinds of abuse. Even if the number is less, it means a lot to see a wide smile on Laila’s face after receiving her new Little kitty pink bag: “I don’t have to carry this blue plastic bag my mum gave to me anymore, I am carrying books, not groceries!” says the seven-year-old little girl.

Seven-year-old Yamen should normally be in second grade for the school year 2014/2015. He doesn’t want to go to school anymore: “No, I don’t like going to school anymore because I get thirsty, the water we have there is not drinkable,” he said. “I have two more brothers; one travelled to heaven, and another to Lebanon to work.” He added: “I also want to grow up faster to work and help my father and brother in bringing in money to the family.” A wide smile on his on his face faded as tears rippled in his clear bright blue eyes.

The school Yamen is talking about is a black under-construction building in the Sehnaya suburbs of Damascus, more than 40 kms from city centre, in the middle of nowhere, where Yamen’s parents and 500 other families found shelter fleeing the ongoing fighting in Darayya (a southern suburb in Rural Damascus). The local community tried to establish a small school there to make sure children could receive some sort of education. The place had no doors, no windows, no sanitation, it was simply not the perfect place, yet children call it ‘our school’.

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At the SOS Children’s Village in Damascus, children studying with their SOS mother.

One of the children said: “We are happy, but I liked my old school more. It didn’t have black walls. It was colourful, warm during winter and cool during the summer.” More than 4,000 schools are “out of service” now, either because of damage or because they are being used as collective shelters for displaced people. Schools rehabilitation is an ongoing initiative that has been carried out by several humanitarian actors and the ministry of education in Syria as part of the “My Right to Education” campaign, yet it is not meeting 10% of the need.

Today, more than 250 children and youth in SOS Syria are pursuing their education, and receiving all possible support to excel in their studies and guarantee themselves a bright future. Ten youths have successfully finished their high school and are now getting ready to enrol in different faculties, each according to their own choice and interest, joining another 30 youths, and increasing the number to 40 university students.

The war in Syria is brutal and the level of violence has only increased since the beginning with a death toll of over 200,000 people. There is a lot to do to save and protect children, yet it is not enough if the war doesn’t stop.

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