SYRIA: Where the children of Syria learn to forget

Summary: For years they were taught that Assad is the son of a god. But as they begin new lives as refugees in Turkey, their teacher is helping to give them a new start.

 [5 May 2012] - Mustafa Shakir looks like a good headmaster. He's friendly, conscientious and cares deeply about the children he teaches. But, back in Syria, once he'd crammed and coached his Year 9 history pupils through their end of year examinations, he would have one last task for them: "Please forget everything I taught you."

Today, he no longer needs to ask his pupils to forget his lessons. One of the few unexpected benefits of being forced to flee his home in Damascus is that he can teach the young Syrian children at the temporary free school he now runs in a green valley on Turkey's border with Syria exactly what he wants.

The certificates awarded at the end of term no longer bear a picture of former Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar. There are no more classes on the evils of English colonialism or the oppression of Ottoman rule under the Turks. "I no longer have to teach the history of Assad's family," he says. "I can tell them Hafez al-Assad is not your God. He is a murderer and his son is a murderer too."

But while the 200 children studying at rows of wooden desks in this low-slung Ottoman house in Antakya may now receive the education their teacher always wanted to give them, there are precious few other consolations to life as refugees in Turkey.

"Lots of them can't engage," Mr Shakir says, explaining the difficulties he faces trying to educate the children. "They are still thinking. Their mind is with the regime."

Suhail Darwish is one of his older pupils. He is the 16-year-old son of a prominent army officer who defected from the regime, but looks years younger. He arrived in Turkey three weeks ago after the security forces came to his home in Lattakia, harassing him and his mother. One of his uncles is in prison. Another has disappeared.

In the headmaster's office, he gnaws his fingers and gazes anxiously into the middle distance. He says he struggles to concentrate during lessons, distracted by anxieties about friends and family still inside Syria and haunted by the recent deaths of two close friends.

Four weeks ago, Suhail explains, the children in his class decided to hold a protest. They went out into the streets and started chanting anti-Assad slogans. Others joined them, mainly children and women. He thinks the crowd grew to around 500 or 600 people.

It was then that snipers started shooting at them. Two of his friends were hit. He took them to hospital but the staff refused to admit them so he brought them home to their parents who were able to get them to an underground hospital where they could be treated. Within days both had died from their injuries. They were 16 years old. Another of Suhail's friends, who is 14, is still missing after the demonstration. "I miss them a lot. I'm confused. Sometimes I accidentally call my brother by their names."

Suhail is not the only child struggling to shake off violent memories from Syria. A storeroom at the school was filled with pictures drawn by the children. One had carefully sketched out the bodies of a family – mother, child and baby – laid out for burial. Another had drawn a tank firing at a small family home, with a corpse lying outside in a crayon-scrawled pool of blood. There was a poster of red sugar paper with "Idlib will never fall" sketched out in red flower petals. "Why do they choose this colour – the colour of blood?" Mr Shakir asked, not waiting for an answer.

Inside Syria, the bloodshed continues. Despite a United Nations-mediated ceasefire there are widespread reports of violence. Activists say at least 500 people have died since the truce came into effect on 12 April. Earlier this week, the UN special envoy for children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said 34 children had allegedly been killed since the ceasefire began.

International observers have noted what appears to be a deliberate targeting of children. "They've gone for the children – for whatever purposes – in large numbers. Hundreds detained and tortured... it's just horrendous," said UN human rights chief Navi Pillay in a recent BBC interview.

For the 25,000 Syrians who have fled this violence for the sanctuary of neighbouring Turkey, it's a life in limbo, trapped between a burgeoning civil war with no end in sight and an uncertain future in Turkey, where as visa-less foreigners they cannot get jobs or their children attend school. A lucky few have Turkish citizenship but thousands are stranded in refugee camps near the border.

The Yayladagi camp is hemmed in by barbed wire. Loudspeakers on the top of poles announce in Turkish to the Arabic-speaking inhabitants when food is ready. About 3,000 people live here on the border between Syria and Turkey.

Some are giving up hope. "They've lost their futures," said Sahir Dwayri, a furious woman dressed in black robes and headscarf, who lives at the camp.

She lost half her family during the assault on Homs but was able to escape across the border with her three daughters and son. When she arrived, she was able to retain some optimism. Her 18- year-old daughter had been in her first year at university, studying literature. She was told if she learned Turkish, she would be able to study at the university there next year. "It was a lie," spits the mother. "It didn't happen." Today her daughter spends her days sitting indoors in a deep depression.

Sahir Dwayri sees no future for her family here and no end to the fighting in her home. "I've lost faith," she says, "I've lost hope in the international community. Where is Kofi Annan? Where is the Arab League?"

For Mustafa Shakir, there is little help either. He says he's received no support or visits from aid organisations. The funds that pay for the children's food and books and the bus that takes them to school come from Syrian expatriates who make occasional donations. He says he'd like the Turkish government to donate some toys or playthings, "so that the children feel that they are welcomed here".


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