Firewood As A Crucial School Supply In Syria

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.

Schoolchildren studying without electricity in Aleppo, Syria
Schoolchildren studying without electricity in Aleppo, Syria
Kinda Jayoush

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.

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."

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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