The students used deceptive means and WhatsApp to circumvent Islamic State’s restrictions on schooling
Roula, 16, and Fatima, 14, lived in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp located on the outskirts of Damascus. The two friends were preparing for their ninth grade exams when Islamic State invaded their area in 2013. The terrorist group—intent on establishing a caliphate in Iraq, Syria and beyond—quickly set up strict rules governing education.
Members of the group separated males from females, forcing the latter to wear long, black robes. They also mandated that any teaching contrary to their strict interpretation of Islam would be banned. To ensure these rules, the group severely punished, and in some cases beheaded, anyone who resisted them.
Despite these harsh conditions, some twenty girls from the camp continued their education in ways that ran counter to the ISIS dictates; they wanted to pursue a secularized education that prepared them for the university.
Their school, set up and administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was destroyed by mortars after ISIS seized power. Another facility was established around the town of Yalda on the southern outskirts of Damascus. The new location meant that Roula and her friends had to walk 30 minutes from Yarmouk to get there.
The trek required the girls to cross an ISIS-controlled “checkpoint of death” on a strategic thoroughfare. When questioned by ISIS fighters, they would lie about their reasons for traveling, saying they were going to shop.
“On seven or eight occasions we were forced to watch beheadings as we went to school in the morning. When we returned in the afternoon, headless bodies would be hanging from crosses at the checkpoint,” Roula said. “I still have nightmares about it.”
Only a few made it through per week, smuggling little pieces of paper hidden in their hair or under their robes at great risk of being detected, a UNRWA representative told The Media Line.
“The person who made it to school would take pictures of what she learned on the blackboard or in books,” Fatima said. “And then we would share these pictures with each other through WhatsApp.”
The girls tried to send the information they gathered via their cellphones to others in the group, but spotty reception often complicated this plan. They had to send the information by the Internet and then erase it because ISIS often searched cellphones. Fatima explained that they had to crawl onto roofs and aim their phones in the sky to gain a signal and send images. “There were bombings and snipers shooting at us. I would shake with fear as I sent photos to my classmates,” she said.
Once the images were sent, those on the receiving end back in Yarmouk memorized and copied the information, so that their classmates returning from Yalda could delete the photos and safely cross the checkpoint.
Nevertheless, the operation did not always go smoothly. “Once, they [ISIS fighters] found a picture of a schoolbook on my phone,” Roula said. “I was sent to jail for four days, and my father for five.”
Yarmouk, at one point the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, has seen a decrease in the numbers of refugees living there in recent years. Before the fighting began, inhabitants had access to health care and educational services.
Earlier this year, fighting between ISIS jihadists (including its al-Qaida affiliate called Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Syrian regime left Yarmouk in rubble. Hundreds of Palestinian families, including Roula’s, resettled in Yalda.
UNRWA, which initially provided for schooling facilities and supplies in Yarmouk, ensured the girls that they would be able to take their exams in Damascus. Roula, along with 81.7 percent of students across Syria in UNRWA-administered schools, passed these exams.
Depending on how well students perform on their ninth grade exams, they can either continue their studies in a university, which most Palestinian refugees do, or they can learn a profession at the Damascus Training Center, which offers the refugees 17 different trades, a UNRWA representative told The Media Line.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 5.3 million people were registered as refugees in countries neighboring Syria last year; approximately 48 percent of them are under the age of 18. Inside Syria, 6.5 million people have been displaced, including 2.8 million children. There also were 4.5 million people living in besieged and hard-to-reach areas of the war-torn country.
UNRWA estimates that 47,000 students remain from the 76,000 before ISIS’s brutal reign began. During the conflict with the jihadist group, thousands fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Europe.
An UNRWA representative explained that while the younger generation has been traumatized by the war in Syria, many, like these girls, have become more determined than ever to attain a higher education. They have seen deaths and watched their homes get destroyed, yet they believe that gaining an education is vital because it can’t be taken away from them.
ISIS has been defeated, but the Syrian conflict is entering its eighth year as fighting continues in several parts of the country, notably in the Damascus suburbs, where the government has been making inroads against rebel-held areas.
With nearly half a million dead and in the throes of a humanitarian disaster, few Syrians say they foresee being able to return to their homes. A UNRWA spokesperson said the country’s university-educated professionals, such as engineers, architects and physicians, have already fled the country.
The conflict has already prevented some 2.8 million Syrian children from continuing their studies. “Some of these children have never been to school, while others have missed out on at least seven years of learning, making it extremely difficult for them to catch up,” Joe English, a UNICEF spokesman, told The Media Line.
“It is difficult to overstate the importance of education for Syrian children, for it is young people who hold out hope for a better future. If they cannot receive an education, there is little chance of rebuilding the country.”
(Nola Z. Valente is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)