Mardin, Turkey. 8am. Almost 300 students from first to ninth grade are entering a newly constructed building, set up by the Turkish and Kuwaiti Ngo Uluslararasi Şefkat Derneği (The International Association of Compassion). In the director’s office, the flag adopted by the Syrian National Coalition and the Turkish Al bayrak (the red flag) with its white crescent moon are lying on the desk.
“The curriculum is the same as the old Syrian one,” explains Khaled Abu Tarek, the school director and former Imam of Omar Alfaruk mosque in Aleppo. “But we have introduced some changes.”
Like, for example, the introduction of Syrian historical figures long banned from the books studied under the Baath regime, who took power with a coup in 1968.
Changes, however, are not just concerning the didactics, but especially the teaching methods. The school has a welcome policy that aims to integrate Syrians from all different ethnicities and beliefs. Even if the Friday prayer is respected, the management does not force children of other religions to follow it.
“This is not a school for Sunni or a single faction, all Syrians here are welcome and none should feel discriminated against,” explains Yusuf, the English language teacher.
Another innovation is the introduction of a weekly hour where student give suggestions or express complaints to the school management.
“All Syrians here are welcome and none should feel discriminated”“It is important that kids exchange ideas with their teachers,” adds Khaled, himself arrested during his studies for being an activist against the regime. “We do not want that this could ever happen again, we are trying to build a new Syria.”
While based in Turkey, the school keeps its eyes firmly on the future of Syria. Although they are following Turkish educational guidelines, this school aims to prepare children to pursue their studies back in Syria.
“As soon as Assad Bashar leaves, we will all be back to our homes and city, ready to reconstruct what the war has destroyed,” says Khaled.
This perception does not just come from the school manager’s office, but is spread all around the school halls, from the cold white classrooms to the empty amphitheater on the second floor, where the new Syrian flag covers the wall. Here, children are excited, busy preparing the final arrangement for a performance about the revolution.
The play is in Arabic, but its message surpasses any language barrier. It recalls the happenings in Daraa, south Syria, where young teenagers were arrested for writing the slogan on the walls: ‘the people want to overthrow the regime’.
Zaynab, a young girl wearing the new Syrian flag as a hijab, plays the desperate mother whose children have been taken away by the authorities. When the kind voice of Hasan, a 13 year old boy with large, dark eyes start singing, the heart wrenching pain of torture and oppression flies across the room and enters strongly in the hearts of all spectators; children, teachers and foreign visitors alike.
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The play continues with a poem, interpreted by Yusra, a 15-year-old girl who covers the dead bodies of Zaynab’s sons with the Syrian flag. When it ends, there is no more space for laments and tears, just anger against any, and all, brutality and the absurd reality of witnessing children majestically acting out their real lives.
The performance has a strong political meaning. It reminds us of how the Syrians have moved towards the revolution and that there is more behind the dualistic narrative, which involves just the Assad regime and Al-Qaeda terrorist cells.
The Western fear of terrorist infiltration among the rebels is seen here as an excuse to not adopt any resolution to the conflict, and after the failure of the Geneva I and II talks, also international actors have lost their credibility.
“We don’t recognize ourselves in the violent statements made by some individuals or groups, the reality is different from what media reports,” says the Khaled. “We don’t need foreign armies to fight our battles, but we do need a humanitarian corridor and a no fly zone that give a rest to our civilians, still struggling under the siege of the war.”
The thoughts about relatives and friends living the difficulties of the war are permanently in these children’s minds, with their home TV satellites positioned toward Syria in order to get news and updates from the war.
“This is why we are trying not to talk about politics in classes,” says Amina, the primary school teacher. “They need at least few hours rest from this daily struggle.”
“The play is in Arabic, but its message surpasses any language barrier”Even if easier, life is indeed still tough for the 600.000 registered refugees who are displaced all around Turkey. Like those here in Mardin, they live in extremely poor conditions, with job hunting difficult due to the language barrier. Around 80 per cent of Syrian children cannot go to school because they are forced to help their families or cannot afford bus transportation.
Those who can make it, are all extremely grateful to Turkey and the local activists who are helping the school.
“We want to thank the Turkish government and all citizens of Mardin for what they are doing for us,” says Fatima, a little blonde girl in the second grade.
It is in Fatima and the other 2.5 million refugees displaced on the borders of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon that the future of Syria lies.
All names except for the school director Khaled Abu Tarek have been altered to protect the identities of those mentioned in the article.