Civil war keeps many Syrian children from school
TEL RIFAAT, Syria (AP) — Nine-year-old Rawan Mustafa knew she would miss school this year.
Her primary school is in ruins, blown apart two months ago by an airstrike in rebel-controlled northern Syria.
"I come here to find books to take them home and read — my sister helps me," Rawan said yesterday, picking her way through the rubble of shattered walls, half-burned work books and smashed glass.
Yesterday was the official first day of school in Syria, a country of 23 million people, but the country's agonizing civil war is keeping thousands of students like Rawan out of classrooms nationwide.
Many schools have been destroyed or occupied by refugees. Some parents are simply too afraid to send their children to school due over fears of violence. Still others are living in refugee camps outside the country with only limited access to an education.
The UN children's agency says it is difficult to know precisely how many Syrian children have been out of school for an extended period due to the conflict, which started 18 months ago and has killed at least 23,000 people.
Dina Craissati, UNICEF's regional education adviser, said at least 200,000 Syrian children who have been displaced from their homes within the country are having difficulty accessing education. Outside Syria's borders, the UN has registered more than 250,000 refugees — including children —- but tens of thousands more have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq without registering.
Some 2,000 schools have been damaged in the conflict and 759 are being used as sanctuaries for those displaced, Syrian Education Minister Hazwan al-Wazz said. Still, the government says 22,000 schools are operating and handling any overflow by having students attend classes in shifts.
The government said more than five million students attended school on yesterday.
Mohammed Rakani, a 10-year-old from the Damascus suburb of Sbeineh, was not among them. He is staying with his family at the Somayya al-Makhzomiya School in Damascus, which is sheltering more 300 people, or 65 families.
"I want to return to my school, which I love so much. I am now in the fourth grade," Mohammed said during a government-escorted trip to the school yesterday.
In the north, where the opposition wields much more control, rebel officials say they are too focused on getting enough food and medical supplies into the country to concentrate on schools. There are also fears that any makeshift schools set up may attract airstrikes.
"Our main focus is food, shelter and medical care right now," said Seif al-Haq, a rebel with the Tawhid Brigade that is responsible for civilian affairs in the northern city of Aleppo and the surrounding countryside.