Despite lacking basic amenities, residents of a small Syrian village persist in their quest for education. But to keep the children warm in shelled-out buildings, they must bring wood to school.
MAARBA — When 11-year-old Omar and his younger sister Zahra go to school every morning, they each bring a piece of wood. Every student needs to bring one these days, their contribution to keeping the classrooms warm.
The windows and doors of their school have been blown out, so to stay warm in the winter, the teachers light fires inside the classrooms, using the firewood the students bring with them.
Maarba, a town of roughly 10,000 people near Syria's southern border, has just two elementary schools, one middle and one high school. Residents say they won't let wartime conditions keep them from educating their children. After all, the village always prided itself on producing robust numbers of doctors and engineers.
But of course, things are different these days. Maarba is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist fighting force affiliated with al-Qaeda. That makes it a target for rockets and barrel-bomb attacks from the Syrian government. The town itself is effectively held hostage by Jabhat al-Nusra. The group controls and limits the entry of food, fuel and all other basic supplies into the village.
But despite the danger, Omar and Zahra's parents send them out to school each day.
"Education is a sacred right and matter to the people of our village," says their father Hamed. "It's always been the most important thing in our lives in this village. We are trying to provide our children with tools for success in the future, despite the daily war that we live."
In Maarba, there is scarcely any working electricity and no phone service. Residents rely on generators to produce power at an almost untenable cost.
At school, Omar and Zahra don't eat at snack time because they can't afford it. They wait until they return home, later in the afternoon.
"We are a bit OK compared to other people in the village," Hamed says. "My siblings who live abroad send me some support, but there is extreme poverty around us. People are really starving." He says some relief organizations distribute food in the village, but it is never enough. And the cost of food in the market has tripled.
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Aleppo market — Photo: Luigi Guarino
"People cann't afford anything anymore," he says. "Sometimes food supplies are distributed, but they are about two bags of rice or sugar. For families with children, this doesn't help a lot." An influx of internally displaced people fleeing more violent areas has also increased the strain.
Teaching amid shelling
Eman, a schoolteacher for more than 30 years, says the education system and its teachers are struggling. She is still receiving a government salary of roughly $100 per month, but there are complications in getting paid.
"The problem is we have to go to receive our salaries in Daraa city," she says. "When we travel, we suffer abuse crossing over between the regime and Jabhat al-Nusra, but we have to do it. We need to survive." As she speaks, the conversation is interrupted by nearby shelling. She runs to a neighbor's home for refuge.
"A good day is when we can teach a class in peace, but so often fighting starts nearby," she says. "Then we send the children home. There are days when schools close because of intense fighting, and the school uniform, it has been long forgotten now."
Roads in the village have been destroyed. Transportation is difficult and expensive, while communications have become extremely unreliable. Some desperate and hopeless high school students have dropped out to join Jabhat al-Nusra.
"It's out of need for protection, fear or financial need," says Maryam, a mother of four grown children. "The average villagers and families mistrust the extremist group and their intentions."
Last month members of Jabhat al-Nusra told female teachers to start wearing long coats to cover their bodies for the sake of Islamic modesty. "The teachers refused, and villagers supported them," Maryam says.
"We have been living in conditions that we would have never imagined," says Eman, the teacher. "At school, we make tea on a fire that has been started using torn elastic shoes and slippers. Can you imagine the fumes? Can you imagine the trees we lose when we cut them down to warm our classrooms?
"We feel like we have been sent to the Stone Age. I see the children shiver as they walk to school in the morning. My heart breaks for them. Brave young children."