The service taxi – a kind of small minibus used throughout Syria in place of public transport – was not being driven in a way its designers intended. The dirt road through Aleppo provence in northern Syria was, itself, dangerous enough for me to look at my white knuckles on the back of the driver’s seat and let out a barely stifled scream.
I had already trusted the driver with my life while being illegally smuggled into the country. Now I felt my life was once again in his hands as he drove as if escaping an invisible threat – too quickly for the road, too quickly for the vehicle, driving like a man afraid.
Perhaps the threat was invisible only to my stranger’s eyes. I’m told attacks in this area are commonplace, so too are kidnappings and there is are occasionally firefights between rebel factions. Hence the stunt-man driving style.
It was more than a mild relief when we pulled up at what looked like school gates. A well groomed Free Syrian Army fighter kept guard. I can’t imagine he could stop an attack from the regime single handedly and, anyway, government troops are miles away. He may be there to deter kidnappers or looters. There might have been more fighters nearby, sat somewhere more sensibly shaded from the sun’s heat.
He slid back a bolt on the metal door and let us in. We entered The Freedom Generation school.
Since the official government education system is in tatters, and non existent in rebel held areas, the opposition activists have set up their own schools, desperate that a generation of Syrian children should not lose out on their chance at learning.
It’s mend-and-make-do stuff, using volunteer staff and scrounging materials where they can.
I walked into a sparse concrete playground baked in the sun, a handful of kids were running around, playing, chasing one another. The rusted stands for basketball ball hoops stood like sentinels, hoopless and skeletal. In the distance the Qah refugee camp overlooked us from a hill. Home for many of these pupils.
I was told that the 1100 pupils age 6 to 15 years attend the school, mentored by 30 members of staff. I didn’t see any toys, equipment or even a ball. They had stones and plastic bottles.
Following the sound of singing, I arrived in a classroom filled beyond capacity. It was a simple room with a large chalk board at one end, packed with colourful kids. It was obviously overcrowded. Five children were squeezed onto a bench where two would be comfortable.
I told the teacher I was from England and asked if I could take some photos to share their school with people back home. The teacher relayed something to the kids and I was hit with a yelled chorus of ‘GOOD MORNING!”
I took that as a yes and they giggled as I moved about the classroom, taking photos and sometimes giving them a glimpse of the image. I felt less like a thief here. This was play and I was something interesting. Different. These kids looked smart, full of hope and I fed off their energy. I had no idea what they had seen and experienced. They looked really pleased to be getting an education.
The volunteer teachers attempt to deliver as normal a curriculum as possible. This means the ordinary Syrian set up with revolutionary messages replacing the old Baathist, Assad-as -president-for-eternity propaganda.
“We try to make them think of other things than the war. But it’s hard. They sing protest songs as soon as they can talk. If the oldest boy in the family dies fighting the next oldest boy takes his place. I fear many of these children will end up armed. They have forgotten about their childhood,” she said.
There was a shout from outside that we had to leave. I have learned not to question these commands.
As I left the compound filled with screaming playful children. I could see the goodie-verses-baddie war games and knew I was looking at real life reenacted.
I have no idea how many of these kids will be able to enjoy any kind of childhood. Or how many will survive the revolution.These are children born into protest, born into a war. But they are also inquisitive, hopeful children, no longer indoctrinated and suffocated by the old police state system as their fathers and mothers were.
I hope that’s enough.
My trip into Syria was an independent self funded project.
I gained access with assistance from the Hayat Convoy for Syria