An inclusive learning space for all

Published: Nov 22, 2019 Reading time: 6 minutes
An inclusive learning space for all
© People in Need

For any child who has lost their home and is forced to live in a tent, going to school is not an easy process. But six-year-old Azzam from Syria is determined to learn. 

“I go to school here in the camp,” he told us. “I am learning the numbers and letters. I love school.”

This determination is even more remarkable because of something else about Azzam: he is attending school despite being in a wheelchair. Azzam’s spinal cord was injured as a result of an attack on his village, which killed his father. In the panic that followed, a car hit Azzam, causing paralysis in his lower body.

“Azzam was three years old at the time,” his uncle explained. The remaining family members fled to a neighbouring village, only to be bombed again, before finally arriving at this camp. The injury has altered Azzam’s life, affecting his ability to do even simple tasks. “He cannot walk or serve himself, somebody has to help him do these things,” his uncle told us.

But despite these challenges, Azzam has started going to a new self-learning centre opened in his camp in Syria. It is one of 16 set up this year by People in Need and UNICEF, with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. Children take classes in maths, Arabic, English and science, and are given free learning materials to use at home.

These centres also allow many displaced teachers to continue working. Hussein is one of those teachers forced to leave his home, fleeing more than a year ago because of the war. When his family arrived in the camp, he said “it took us some time to cope and settle.” Teaching at the centre provided Hussein with an important sense of purpose, as he says it gives him the opportunity to help the students cope with their experiences and “move forward.”

“Knowledge will be his weapon”

Hussein reports that Azzam is doing well in class, and says that support from both teachers and family members has made this possible. “His [family’s] motivation and their interest in letting him learn helped a lot; we appreciate their enthusiasm.”

Most of the children here have spent long periods out of school, but the centre has allowed them to begin learning again. In addition, Hussein has noticed a huge improvement in how the children behave, in a camp environment that has thrown together families from varied backgrounds.

“It is the only learning centre in the area that provides teaching to displaced children,” explains Ahmed, the head of Azzam’s centre, which 300 students now attend. “The closest school is at least three kilometres away from the camp.”

Navigating the camp in a wheelchair is not easy for Azzam, something the centre staff have alerted the other children to. “Lately, they have started competing to help him do things like getting to class and going out!” Ahmed told us. “We tried to explain to them it is very normal to have children in wheelchairs, especially during wartime.”

Ahmed believes that an education is important for all children, but perhaps particularly for Azzam. “Knowledge and science will be his weapon in future.”

“My friends help me walk to school”

In addition to Arabic, English, maths and science classes, the self-learning centres also provide psychosocial support from trained facilitators. This is because most children here have experienced highly traumatic events, as well as the continued upheaval of being away from home.

Bashar, aged eleven, is one example. He had been playing in his village when it was attacked. He was taken to hospital and a metal rod inserted into his foot.

Bashar’s family left soon after, afraid for their lives, but the next village they fled to was also attacked. By the time they settled in their current camp, Bashar had missed out on a lot of schooling. A placement test showed that despite being 11 years old, his learning is only at second grade level.

Though he lives not far from the learning centre, even that short distance is difficult for him. But that has not stopped him from attending. “My friends help me walk to school every day,” he explained.

His injury also means that despite a love of football, he must be careful about playing. “The other children invite me to play with them but I cannot, in case they hurt my foot.”

“Education is the air we breathe”

Before the conflict, 41-year old Fayzeh used to be a teacher in Deir Ez Zor city before she too fled the violence. “War has changed everything,” she told us. She has witnessed the psychological effects: children clearly distressed, fearful, aggressive, or withdrawn. “Many children lost their relatives. Many lost one or both parents and many lost a brother or a sister or a loved one.”

It was to help these children that Fayzeh applied to be a psychosocial support facilitator at the centre. Education, Fayzeh believes, “is like the air we breathe… An illiterate society is like a sick and weak body; there will be no pillars to support it.”

Encouragingly, there has been a noticeable improvement in the behaviour of the children at the centre. Some children initially found it hard to sit still or concentre, or they acted out. “Now the pupils interact and listen well to their teachers and respond appropriately.” Their levels of aggressiveness have also dropped, Fayzeh says.

“His love for school pushes him to continue”

Fayzeh has been particularly observing one student: Bashar. Though the walk to and from school is not easy for Bashar, Fayzeh says, “His love for school and learning really pushes him to withstand the pain and suffering and continue learning.”

And Bashar has a specific dream for his future, which has been shaped by the difficulties he has experienced. “I would like to be a doctor when I grow up,” he told us. “If someone is sick, I can give him medicines and syrups so that he improves and feels better.”

Since 2012, People in Need has been helping to repair and re-open schools and reach vulnerable, out-of-school children in Syria. Our current work on self-learning centres in camps is funded by UNICEF and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. Find out more about our work in Syria here. 

Author: Omar Khattab and Riona Judge McCormack

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