IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria — Fatima Harmadi doesn’t seem very different from most children.
The 8-year-old with dark curly hair and a sweet smile laughs and jokes with her friends as they begin their walk to school at 7 a.m. in the rain, excited to be returning after two weeks away.
“I love my school,” she says, skipping through her village’s streets. “But when the planes come, it’s scary and we all have to stay at home.”
Fatima lives on the edge of Idlib city, which is controlled by government forces. Their bombs and artillery have bombarded her village for the past fortnight, forcing her to stay home.
It’s a wonder her school, one of only a handful still operating in Idlib province, is open at all.
Since the Syrian revolution that began in March 2011 developed into an all-out civil war, many areas under opposition control have struggled to re-establish the most basic services. Education has taken a heavy blow.
Many schools have been damaged by shelling and air raids. Others have closed for lack of security or teacher shortages. Most school buildings still standing have been converted into rebel army bases, hospitals or housing for displaced families fleeing the fighting in other areas.
Keeping open Fatima’s school, with its 500 students, is a constant struggle.
The school principal says the staff is driven to keep working. “Many families want to stay,” he says. He and others among the school’s 32 teachers declined to be named for fear the government may target them if they know it’s still operating.
“We close some classes for a few days now and then to house refugees until we find them local families to stay with,” he adds. “But we must keep this school open. It’s important for the children.”
Fighting isn’t the sole obstacle. The principal says he also faces opposition from residents who believe the school spreads government propaganda. They argue that no school should operate until the establishment of a new curriculum under a new education agency.
To appease them, he says, teachers have ripped pages mentioning the government from the children’s textbooks.
“We use the paper to roll up sandwiches for school lunches,” he laughs.
As he chimes the school bell to signal the end of recess, children run across the schoolyard to line up.
Inside, the dark classrooms are overcrowded. Children sharing a limited number of schoolbooks scramble to look over each other’s shoulders.
As refugees stream to the village, many new students are joining every day.
“We have so many problems,” says one teacher, a refugee from the district of Jabal al-Zawiya to the north, where fierce clashes have taken place. She is staying at Fatima’s house with her husband and 2-year-old daughter.
“There’s no telephone, no power, no fuel for heating,” she says. “The classrooms are very dark and cold for the children.”
The 28-year-old teacher says the children’s grades are steadily slipping as the situation in their village worsens.
“We concentrate only on the necessary subjects to get through to the next year,” she says. “We’ve found it particularly hard to get the students to concentrate this year. They’re in another world, especially when there’s bombing.”
Despite the shortcomings, the school provides a routine for the schoolchildren and classes offer at least some mental escape from the horrors of war raging around them.
But as the fighting progresses in other areas, more schools continue to close.
In the Jish al-Shugur district near the Turkish border to the west, fighting for the past two months has forced many families to flee to neighboring villages, including 17-year-old Nejwa’s.
“Study was my life,” she says in the house she now shares with her sisters and three other families in Darkush, a town in northern Idlib Province. “Now there is emptiness. There’s nothing else for us girls. In the villages, this is the only place you can go. Study means freedom.”
Further along the border in the village of Atmeh, one of three schools that closed in late 2011 has just reopened. One is now a rebel base, another a hospital and the third housed refugees until three weeks ago.
A 50-year-old former French teacher, Abu Abdo is the new principal in charge of reconverting the refugee camp back into a functioning school. He says the community’s anticipation is overwhelming.
“The parents are so excited, many have volunteered to work at the school without salary,” he said. “We have no electricity or water, so many families donated diesel fuel to run pumps for the well and money to keep the school running.”
The school is accepting not only children from the other schools that remain closed, but also hundreds of refugees living in the village.
To accommodate 600 primary school and 400 high-school students, the school runs two shifts a day and operates even on Fridays, the Muslim holy day.
“The children are so excited to be back and it shows in their grades,” Abdo says. “Many of them who didn’t like to study before never miss a class now.”
They include 9-year-old Abdullah.
“When they said they would open the school again, I was so happy,” he said. “I was so bored! I missed studying and I missed my friends.”
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Back at Fatima’s school, the principal rings the final bell. Heading home through the village streets, Fatima breaks into a frantic wave when her father drives past on a motorcycle, armed with a handgun and an AK-47. He stops briefly to give her a hug before continuing to the nearby Free Syrian Army base.
“The situation for them is so difficult at home, there’s so much fear,” her teacher says as she walks home beside Fatima and her siblings. “They need routine. This is a crucial time in their education. It’s difficult, but we won’t give up the fight to keep the school running.”