War is raging in Aleppo but in a classroom 40km away, there are grounds for hope

Luke Harding writes: I had come in search of families displaced by Syria’s war. But when I entered Qabbasin secondary school I was surprised to discover lessons were going on. Two months ago head Nasar Mamar decided to reopen.

There was fighting going on down the road in Aleppo. But Qabbasin, some 40km away, was comparatively safe – safe, if you ignored the regime jets flying overhead. “We need Syria to be an educated country. We should not be afraid,” Mamar explained, taking me on a tour of his classrooms.

Downstairs I found 30 boys in the middle of an English lesson. Written on the blackboard was some useful vocabulary: “library” and “explorer”, and examples of the present continuous tense – “I am eating. I am reading” – with a neat translation in Arabic. Their teacher was 30-year-old Abu Hassan. Hassan said he had fled from Aleppo. He was now working as an unsalaried volunteer. “I want to teach. It’s my job,” he said.

Hassan was melancholic when I asked him about the destruction of Aleppo – “my lovely city”, as he put it. Much of it is now a smouldering ruin: the medieval souks dating back to the 14th century part-destroyed; the old citadel the frontline between embattled government troops, the Free Syrian Army and jihadist militias.

Syria’s war reached Aleppo nearly six months ago. Since then the city’s cosmopolitan charm has been snuffed out; it is a place of hunger, cold, misery and death from the sky, he said.

I asked Hassan whom he thought was responsible for his Syria’s collapse, moral and social. He thought for a moment, then replied: “For me, all of us. All of us have wrong actions. I wish everything would be back how it was.” Hassan said he was an English graduate from Aleppo University. He declined to give me his full family name. “I’d rather not,” he said. I left Hassan’s classroom – lit only by a weak winter sun – urging the boys to study hard.

Many of the pupils now back at school had fled with their families from Aleppo. Syria’s uprising began in March 2011; since then the town’s population has swollen from 18,000 to 30,000.

It’s a similar story across rebel-controlled northern Syria: millions are displaced, staying with relatives, renting private rooms, or crammed into dismal border camps. Qabbasin has a mixed population of Arabs and Kurds, and despite tensions elsewhere is a model of inter-ethnic co-operation. Mamar, the head, is a Kurd; most of his staff are Arabs; the headteacher at the girls’ school next door is a Turkman. [Continue reading…]

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