I recently visited a UNICEF-supported school housed in a former Sports Centre – now used as a shelter for internally displaced persons – in the Syrian coastal city of Lattakia.
The school operates in two shifts to keep up with the rapidly increasing number of students. Around 700 children enrolled in the school are displaced from other locations. I arrived in the afternoon for the second shift where grades five to nine or “the big ones,” as they call themselves, are taught.
As the children quizzed me on which names I remembered from my last visit, I saw Abdullah holding a heavy-seeming, pink plastic bag close to his chest.
Like many other children I have met in the school, Abdullah and his family fled violence in Aleppo two years ago. His family has taken refuge at the Sports Center which is now home to over 6,500 people, including 3,500 children.
Abdullah proudly showed me what he had in his plastic bag: books that were distributed to him the day before, and a UNICEF pencil case he had saved from the past school year. I remembered when my brother was Abdullah’s age and how he got a new pencil case every year.
At the age of 12, Abdullah should be in seventh grade. However, as violence continued to escalate in Aleppo he and Nagham, his 9-year old sister, could not make it to school. They both missed a year of education before they came to Lattakia, where they are excited to be back in school.
Abdullah was carrying his belongings in a plastic bag, which he and Nagham shared, because she did not have a school bag, either. “She gets it from 8 to 12 (in the morning) and I take it from 12 to 4 (in the afternoon)” he explained. “It’s good that we have different shifts at school, otherwise I would’ve given it to her.”
A symbol of determination and resilience
After touring the classes, I realized that most children were sharing school bags with their younger siblings, as their parents could not afford more than one bag. It was then that I realized what the power of a school bag is in Syria. From the time it leaves the factory and gets to our warehouse, it’s a mere school bag. When it reaches a child in Syria, it becomes so much more: it becomes a symbol of determination.
I woke up the next morning as excited as if I was the one getting a new school bag! Abdullah’s maturity and pink plastic bag had stayed with me. I arranged with an Education colleague to accompany her to the distribution of school bags at the Sports City School.
We entered his classroom and told Abdullah and his classmates that they would be receiving new bags. While everyone clapped, giggled and asked me to take their pictures, Abdullah continued copying notes from the white board then looked up at me and said: “Could we do it after class? I don’t want to miss my science lesson for today.”
At his wish, we waited until the class was over and distributed the bags to the students. I noticed that most of the girls wanted the bag in red and most of the boys preferred black. After my colleague handed Abdullah a red bag I asked if he wanted a black one but he did not seem to care about the colour; he cared about what was inside the school bag.
It is what’s on the inside that counts. It’s the ambition and determination of Syrian children amidst the war. It’s their will to go back to learning and refusing to allow violence to get in the way of their future. It’s the love in their hearts, evident in Abdullah not letting us leave before he made sure his sister Nagham would receive a similar bag.
School bags help children of Syria to keep on learning
This school year, UNICEF is distributing 1 million school bags to children like Abdullah across the country as part of the ‘Back to Learning’ campaign. Each bag has notebooks, a pencil case, pens, crayons and other stationery.
The campaign also includes a community-led social mobilization to promote the importance of education in protecting the future of the children of Syria. I cannot think of a better example of the success of this campaign than Abdullah and I knowing that he will make an excellent English teacher one day.
A field diary by Yasmine Saker