Syrian war spills into classrooms, splitting curriculum over ideology

Syrian-war-spills-into-classrooms-splitting-curriculum-over-ideology. GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Syria’s war is waged largely with bullets and bombs. But there are more subtle battles going on, too — in in the classrooms.

A fourth-grade class studies in a classroom in the Al Karnak camp in the city of Tartous, Syria, on March 6. Photo courtesy of UNICEF














Across the country, the groups that have wrested territory from the government have imposed, or have tried to impose their own curriculum in schools – but have sometimes tried to work out compromise agreements and often ended up simply messing up the entire system.

It would be impossible to catalog all these educational battles, but the northwestern province of Idlib offers a compelling case study.

When opposition forces first took over and the government’s Ministry of Education lost control of the area, a number of teachers, academics and political opposition figures based in nearby Turkey decided to form a National Commission for Education to administer schools in opposition-controlled areas of the country.

According to Mohmad Saleh Ahmado, director of examinations for the ministry of education of the Syrian National Coalition’s interim government, the commission quickly picked up the slack left by the absent ministry of education in Idlib.

It hired local teachers and staff and coordinated an alternative curriculum – one that left out pro-Assad and pro-Ba’ath party material and, in some areas, included additional courses on safety and first aid.

But as Islamist factions rose to power across Idlib, they also seized control of schools.

When Jaish al-Fatah – a powerful coalition of Islamist hardliners, including the al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate al-Nusra Front – took control of Idlib in late March 2015, it demanded full control over the educational system in the cities of Idlib, Ariha and Jisr al-Shughour.

The group quickly formed its own directorate of education but did not have the money fully to fund the entire area’s school systems.

“In order to control education, one needs money,” Ahmado said.

Since Jaish al-Fatah was unable able to provide salaries to all teachers within its newly conquered areas of control, it left the management of schools in rural Idlib to the SNC.

It also reportedly signed an agreement with the Syrian government in which Jaish al-Fatah would continue to use the regime’s curriculum in the city of Idlib and teachers there would continue to receive government salaries from the Ministry of Education in government-controlled city of Hama.

For teachers in the schools that have continued to use the regime’s curriculum, collecting their government salary can be an expensive, and often dangerous ordeal, as they pass from opposition-held Idlib into government-controlled Hama to the south.

They face regular harassment and potential detention by army officers at checkpoints along the way.

Despite the risks it “is still better than watching our kids die of hunger,” said one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.

Many government-salaried teachers in Idlib have quit their jobs over fears they might be arrested or forced to join the reserve military service while they are being processed at checkpoints.

Officers also regularly extort teachers passing through some of 50 or so government-controlled checkpoints between the provincial capitals of Idlib and Hama, sometimes demanding bribes of up to $115 – nearly half their monthly salary.

Coordination between the different curriculum hasn’t gone smoothly, either.

Jaish al-Fatah’s first move was to eliminate all philosophy and history courses, labeling them “infidel” subjects. Later on, the Islamist coalition was forced to reintroduce history and philosophy into its program because the Ministry of Education included them in its examinations.

As for rural areas of Idlib, which the agreement with the Syrian regime did not cover, Jaish al-Fatah eliminated music, art and agriculture classes, placing a major emphasis on Islamic education and the theology of monotheism, or Tawheed, a key Islamic belief in the oneness of God, taken from the Saudi curriculum. Residents in the area often refer to the Islamist curriculum as the “Plus One Curriculum,” because of its additional religious component.

As Jaish al-Fatah tightened its grip across the province, it assigned school supervisors whose task was to preach Islamic values to students and to enforce Islamic dress codes.

Teachers who asked to remain anonymous said the Islamic coalition had appointed unqualified teachers to teach the Koran and Sharia (or Islamic) law, firing teachers who had graduated from university with a degree in Islamic jurisprudence, accusing them of being Sufis (followers of a mystical strain of Sunni Islam) and of teaching the SNC’s “infidel” curriculum.

These practices have severely weakened education curriculum across the province.

Many teachers have left their posts, and some schools rely on volunteers and university students to lead classes. According to Ahmado at the SNC’s Ministry of Education, there is a shortage of nearly 11,000 teachers across Idlib.

This steadily widening gap, said Ahmado, has been filled by jihadist-oriented programs.

Such changes and chaos have dramatically shifted the lives of the students.

Abdul Rahman, a 16-year-old from rural Idlib, had to quit school in ninth grade due to the war. When a private, donation-supported Islamic center opened one of 14 branches in his town, he enrolled.

“Personally, I was very excited to enroll, because I wanted to learn more about my religion. I hope that one day I will teach what I have been learning,” Abdul said.

“Students who graduate from our center are not extremists, since we follow the teachings of well-known and respected scholars, and the center does not follow any militant group, and therefore it does not have any agenda — the goal is to learn Islamic teachings and to qualify for issuing fatwas (Islamic legal opinions).”

Now, he said, many of the students at the center have become fighters, he said, alternating their days between fighting and studying.

By Samer Qatrib and Hadya Yahia, Syrian Independent Media Group