22 March 2018: For days, Hanin*, begged her mother to take her to school. Since the bombing of Eastern Ghouta intensified on February 18, the seven year-old had been living in an underground shelter in Kafr Batna.
Even when her mother explained that school had been cancelled, the child insisted. When she finally got her way, she returned to find her classmates gone and the windows of her classroom shattered in rocket attacks.
Since the end of December, all schools in Eastern Ghouta have been closed with unsuccessful trails to briefly open them to carry out exams. Relentless bombing has made it unsafe for school-age children and their teachers to go. Since the start of the year 44 attacks on 38 schools in eastern Ghouta were registered by the Education Cluster, a Gaziantep-based group of over a hundred humanitarian NGOs working on providing education assistance to Syria.
“In this situation, all the students say, ‘We want our teacher. Where is my teacher?” Ghada*, Hanin’s teacher, said. “Some come, and they start crying.”
This is what happened to Hanin. Knowing the war won’t stop children from trying to attend school, the teacher, 32, has resolved to take on the risk of travelling aboveground herself.
“Now, I am going to the basements. I want to say, I’m with you,” she said of her 600 students and the cohort of teachers that refuse to stop teaching them. “We want the smiles to return to their faces.”
Some teachers have started using internet messaging systems, like Whats App, to send lessons and homework to children. They ask their students to share the lessons they receive with friends who don’t have access to a smartphone.
Conditions in the underground bunkers however are not conducive to learning. They house between 20 and 30 families, often have no windows and no natural light. Some lack latrines, meaning residents are forced to defecate in the open, with no clean water for sanitation. Electricity is scarce and more fuel is required to keep generators running.
Some education NGOs working in Eastern Ghouta say they have supplies but no safe way to deliver them to the students due to constant bombardment.
The other problem is hunger. Eastern Ghouta has been under siege since 2013. Teachers have reported that families of six sometimes have to share one meal between them per day.
“If a child is not eating, it’s very difficult to educate them,” Ghada teacher said.
Zeina, 10, who has been living in a basement in Saqba, said she wants to return to school. She recently lost her best friend and asked for everything to return to normal.
“I want to leave the basement and play like other children,” she said.
Until that day comes, Ghada is determined to keep teaching, even if the best she can do is distract children from the war for an hour or two each day. “We are trying to do our best,” she said. “Education will not stop.”
*Hanin and Ghada did not want to give their full names because of concerns for their safety.