Several months ago I happened upon an article examining the lives of refugees living in a primary school in Northern Iraq. The impending start of the school year threatened their newfound security. This caught my attention. I thought simply that this perceived lack of permanence, the anticipation of movement or disruption of the school space had the potential to destroy the natural process of learning.
The soil that Syrian children’s lives are built on is one of violence, uncertainty, and fear. Acts of violence have the potential to shatter not only the physical school space but also a student’s ability to learn, a teacher’s ability to teach. From a psychological perspective, disruption of normal cognitive development by the normalization of violence puts young people at risk for continued cycles of violent behaviour. Deprivation, trauma, fear, and displacement lead to emotional responses and regression. In the event of long-term trauma, a child begins to normalise themselves in ‘unimaginable’ situations, seeing war as the only option. On top of this anxiety, fear, and insecurity come a host of physical symptoms such as headaches, weakness, and dizziness, according to School Psychology International. In other words, overwhelmingly devastating mental conditions under which to attend school.
But during war, at what point does school get cast aside completely? While investigating the landscape of education in a crisis, I have come across the term ‘Lost Generation’ to describe the children of Syria many times. There is even an initiative using the same language, No Lost Generation, aiming to ensure that Syria’s children receive a proper education. I find it problematic that we are so quick to assign the term Lost Generation, even with this preventative language: No. ‘Lost’ implies gone, invisible, an empty space that cannot be filled. What I have found, more pressing than schools doubling as shelters, is that the extremist group ISIS has begun to use Syrian children’s vulnerability as an opportunity for expansion. They are taking this generation that we fear will somehow be lost and using them as tools to ensure the survival of their group.
The relevant basics: Syria is now a war zone with three violent groups in conflict. Sitting in a classroom or even travelling to obtain the necessary certification to continue school is life threatening for most children, yet the lack of certification brings formal education to a screeching halt. Whether they are living in refugee camps, in besieged areas, or remote hard-to-reach locations, school spaces fall into the context of violence and have been detached from their original purpose. Children are killed in targeted bombings of their schools, to name one of the countless atrocities against children taking place every day. The UN Secretary General’s Report on Children in Armed Conflict in Syria cites schools as bases, detention centres, homes to snipers, and the sites of the execution of teachers in the presence of children.
A recent report from the organisation Save the Children thoroughly summarises the scope of this education crisis both inside Syria and for refugees. Save the Children directly supports nine schools in Syria and, with the help of local organisations, implements protocol to limit physical risk to teachers and students. Saving lives is, dare I say, the most important objective, but the terror bred by proximity to this violence and the destruction of the educational spaces (both mental and physical) cannot be eliminated with protocol.
I associate school with a feeling of utmost safety and comfort. School was a comfort zone, where I could venture to the nurse’s station to get a band-aid for a paper cut before a fire drill and listen to teachers whose purpose in speaking was to enhance my life and broaden my horizons. The geographic breakdown of educational spaces in Syria, the destruction of classrooms, is a powerful method of ensuring that children will feel insecure and seek comfort and routine where they can find it. It calls for a rebuild, and ISIS is doing just that by providing their own formal education system.
ISIS was initially able to gain a strong foothold in Syria because of the ongoing crisis, and holds territory there that acts as a safe zone. The acquisition of territory comes with the creation of a mini-state. They give people in besieged towns tiny snippets of hope by allowing in just enough aid to help a tiny amount of people, according to Valerie Amos, the UN Chief for Humanitarian Affairs.
In the Syrian town of Manbej, ISIS has cancelled classes altogether and modified curricula in Eastern Syria. They stated that the new curriculum will include only religion and some mathematics. There are even reports of weapons classes being taught in extremist-held parts of Iraq. Love of country is considered blasphemy. Pictures are ripped from textbooks that have not been burned.
In a war zone, this stability is attractive. The Syrian Human Rights Committee states perfectly,
In order to recruit children soldiers, ISIS depends on the enticing programmes which provide children with activities, entertainment and an atmosphere which is missing for children in Syria due to the difficult circumstances they are living in. Adolescents are given a chance to express themselves through identifying with a strong military organisation, giving them a sense of power and self-fulfilment.
The same can apply to attending schools under ISIS control.
This ventures into the almost indescribable territory of personal geography as weapon. It has happened many times before. To manipulate a geographic identity is to create an incredibly vulnerable person or group of people. In this case, the people are Syrian children and their personal geography is in large part their educational space. This is so much more dangerous than missed years of school or missed certifications.
Education is crucial to the recovery of a society, economic development, and peace. Many parents in these areas are finding ways to continue educating their children at home or in refugee camps when teachers in Syria are understandably afraid to fight back. And most hopeful of all is the fact that these children want to go to school and understand the importance of their education. In a moving piece by Khaled Hosseini, we meet Payman, a Syrian refugee whose eyes well up with tears at the word education.
Here come the feelings. As always in a situation like this, the question remains, what can I do? These violations are not secrets. ISIS is uniquely vocal about their use of children both in war and in future plans for the growth of their organisation. There is no uncertainty or debate.
We cannot open our personal borders to let these people in. Organisations such as Save the Children are doing their jobs and we can donate, we can think about these children and teachers when we switch on the news or see a group of kids crossing the street hand in hand—but is that enough?
All I can think is that perhaps what we can do is help develop a parallel generation of children who will fight hard for a better world, who will make sure we never need to use the word Lost when talking about a group of children in plain sight.