“I am proud of being a Syrian youth” Lolo Mohmoud* (names changed to protect identity), 22, posted on her Facebook page, re-sharing a photo before going to bed on Tuesday night. The photograph shows Mohammad, a 16-year-old-boy selling snacks on one of the central sidewalks of Damascus city. Over the past week, the image, together with Mohammad’s story have gone viral and triggered a youth movement in a matter of days.
Mohammad lives with his stepmother and four younger siblings in an impoverished area near the city. He dropped out of school three years ago in order to help care for them. He commutes every day to Abu Rummaneh Street, a famously rich neighborhood in central Damascus. Along with a box filled with snacks to sell around the area, Mohammad also carries his textbooks and spends his time reading while waiting for customers. “I would like to take the ninth grade exams next June,” Mohammad told UNICEF.
Mohammad’s poignant image was first published on Instagram and Facebook by another young Syrian in Damascus, “Mohammad: A Syrian young man studying for his ninth grade tests under the rain while he sells gum and biscuits to help out his family. When asked which school he attends, he replied saying he’s studying independently without attending school,” said the Facebook post that went viral.
Within 24 hours of his photo being published, more than 1,800 people joined Together to help Mohammad, the Facebook group created to coordinate support for Mohammad and others like him. Suggestions of help flooded in ranging from providing remedial classes to a safe shelter to offering financial support or simply a hot meal.
“What is striking for me is that Mohammad isn’t negative and hasn’t surrendered to his reality. Instead he has insisted on studying regardless of his difficult circumstances,” explains Aida, 26, as she describes why she wants to help him.
Joumana Mahfouz*, an arts graduate aged 23, is one of many young people inspired by the Facebook group to take more direct action. “I’m fed up with online solidarity campaigns and wanted to do something on the ground,” she tells us. “That’s why I went to the area and took some homemade cookies to him and offered to give him English and Arabic tutoring sessions.”
“I tried to help him with his studies but it was challenging as I was just sitting next to him on the sidewalk,” adds Laila*, 19. “I also managed to raise funds from my family and circle of friends to help him with stationary and clothing.”
Others from the Syrian diaspora have also stepped in to provide remote support, advocating Mohammad’s case with a local NGO that has agreed to collect donations and provide support to him and his family.
In addition to helping Mohammad, the campaign also appears to have created a renewed sense of togetherness for young Syrians who can easily identify with his situation. “After years of war, I too experience the injustice of being deprived of good higher education and career opportunities. Helping Mohammad and seeing friends and young people I don’t know stepping in and combining efforts provides me with a sense of satisfaction” Jounama continues. ‘It’s just a great feeling.”
Despite the success of Together to help Mohammad, young people like Aida question if social media campaigns can deliver any long-term benefits as followers often jump quickly from one issue to another. “If we don’t provide sustainable solutions, our solidarity and one-off help will not change Mohammad’s future. Neither will we create any change for similar cases. We need to find ways of keeping our unity alive that take us beyond being flavour of the day,” she cautions
Alongside Mohammed, many other children are out of school or at risk of dropping out across Syria. UNICEF and the Ministry of Education have designed, for the first time, this year, an accelerated learning programme – Curriculum B – to help children catch up on missed education enabling them to reintegrate into formal schools. This will help them to avoid repeating grades and dropping out of school.
Another innovative initiative is a self-learning programme which targets out-of-school children, particularly in hard-to-reach parts of the country. The course aims to give children in Syria a chance to continue learning, and has been designed to be done at home, in places of worship or other community learning spaces with the support of an adult, caregivers, community volunteers or family members.
Razan Rashidi is a communication officer in UNICEF Syria office since 2010. A graduate of University of London, Goldsmiths in Global Media and Transnational Communications, Razan is an expert in social media, mobilization and development. She is based in Damascus and traveling frequently across the country to support communication and advocacy efforts around the situation of children in Syria.