After Braving Effects Of War, Syrian Children Return To Schools Amidst Destruction Of Infrastructure

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By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI—Lakhs of children have returned to their schools in the government-controlled areas in Syria recently after braving the effects of a prolonged war amidst the destruction of infrastructure and the lack of educational facilities. The Syrian children have also endured the impact of the earthquake in February this year as well as a deep economic crisis.

With 90% of people living under the poverty line, the Syrian government faces an uphill task of maintaining educational standards for young students. More than 37 lakh students have started the 2023-2024 academic year last week in over 14,500 schools situated in the areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad. Large regions in seven of the country’s 14 provinces still remain outside his control.

There are a large number of schools in which there are no classrooms for imparting education, as they have been extensively damaged or completely destroyed. The Ministry of Education has asked the schools not to enforce strict school uniforms and to reduce the necessary supplies for students. Steps are also being taken to deal with the difficult economic conditions facing Syria and reduce the financial burden on the population while continuing with school education.

The conflict in Syria, which started in 2011, has so far claimed about 5 lakh lives, displaced lakhs of people, and caused an unprecedented economic crisis in the country. The widespread destruction of infrastructure caused by the war has in particular affected educational facilities, as several schools were destroyed and others were turned into shelters.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) stated in a report recently that even before the February 2023 earthquake, around one in three schools remained out of service. The natural disaster caused an estimated additional 277 million U.S. dollars in losses and damage to the education sector. The UNICEF also said that at the current rate of funding, the educational agencies will need another 30 years to rehabilitate all the damaged schools.

A third of all school-age children – nearly 24 lakh – did not attend schools and another 16 lakh children were at the risk of dropping out, according to the UNICEF report. A large number of children have been forced to leave school to work and support their families who have struggled to meet their basic needs due to the drastic reduction in their purchasing power over the years of war and Western-imposed sanctions.

Though the government forces have regained control of most of the country after several years of fighting, there are several regions where the writ of the state does not prevail. The academic year 2023-24 has also started in the areas controlled by the semi-autonomous Kurdish-led administration in the north-east of Syria.

Meanwhile, the opening of Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey has led to the supply of humanitarian assistance through the rebel-held north-west Idlib region. More than 40 lakh Syrians live in areas outside the government’s control and the United Nations says that it reaches 27 lakh of them every month with life-saving aid via Bab al-Hawa. The distribution of aid across the internal front lines cannot adequately substitute for the volume of supplies through cross-border operations.

The U.N. has recently announced that it has reached an agreement with the Syrian government on the use of border crossing from Turkey for the next six months. For the last nine years, the use of Bab al-Hawa was authorized under a U.N. Security Council resolution, which did not require the Syrian government’s permission. In July this year, Russia vetoed the renewal of the crossing, after which Syria imposed some conditions on the distribution of humanitarian aid.

The agreement now allows the U.N. and its partners to lawfully continue providing cross-border humanitarian assistance at the necessary scale and in a principled manner which allows engagement with all parties for the purposes of seeking humanitarian access and safeguarding the UN’s operational independence. The U.N. moves about 85% of aid, comprising food, medicine, water, and other critical resources, to northwest Syria through Bab al-Hawa.

According to the political observers in the Middle East, the six-month extension may come to an abrupt end if Syria cuts off access in February 2024. While the government wants more cross-line aid delivery, it has been slow to give the consent necessary to expand it. The Syrian government has extended its permission for the U.N. to use two other crossing points from Turkey into Opposition-held areas for an additional three months.

All three crossings were originally authorized by the U.N. Security Council, overriding any need for the Bashar al-Assad government to give its permission. But since 2021, Russia has thrown its support behind the Assad government, which wants to internally control aid distribution, and gradually sought to permanently shut down the Security Council-authorized operations.

The U.N. and aid organizations have repeatedly called for border crossing extensions of at least one year. A six-month agreement raises challenges for hiring and retaining staff, procuring supplies, and delivering services which require much longer than a six-month guarantee to implement. However, the extension of an agreement for two additional crossings has offered some more security to the aid distribution staff.

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