Sami of Qusayr, by his own account an English lecturer, gave up teaching at his university to support Syria’s revolution. When government forces began to vacate local schools they had seized he agreed to resume teaching, not to university students but to 11th-graders. Read his story below.
Middle East Voices’ “Syria Witness” series features personal accounts by citizen-journalists inside Syria about the grim challenges of survival in a war zone. These activists are often the only available street-level information source about life in a country whose government restricts independent reporting.
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Sami in Qusayr, April 2013
The students of Qusayr stopped having classes last year after many of their schools were taken over by regime forces. The military used the classrooms and compounds as staging grounds for troops and tanks, even setting up sniper positions on school rooftops.
As Assad regime forces were pushed to the city’s outskirts by the Free Syrian Army, local residents were able to reclaim these schools again. The school buildings were cleared of the debris that got left behind, and groups of activists prepped the basements and first floors of about 12 of the buildings to again serve as places of learning. The activists called them “revolutionary schools.”
One of the early organizers of the protests in Qusayr was a man by the name of Hassan. When rebel fighters forced Assad’s soldiers to leave the city, he took it upon himself to found one of the city’s “revolutionary schools.”
The motto of these schools is “With education, Assad will go away!”
Before the protests began, I was an English lecturer at Homs University. Then I became an activist. When Hassan asked me to teach English to high school students, I shared the fear of many fellow citizens that whenever students gathered in a school, they would become an easy target for government rockets and mortars.
But Hassan reassured me that “we have devised ways to protect the pupils by turning large underground rooms into classrooms and reducing the amount of time given to each class.”
He told me that children would be safer in such school buildings than anywhere else.
Teaching on the ground
Now I teach English to 11th graders in two schools: one for boys and another for girls. These schools are three stories tall but our classes are held on the ground floor because most classrooms on the floors above were destroyed by shelling. Staying on the lower floors also protects us from regime sniper fire from the city’s outskirts.
“Some teachers have been shot by snipers; most survived but stopped coming to school” – Sami of Qusayr
I hold classes between 8:00 and 11:30 am. If there is shelling in the morning, we don’t go to school. If bombings become intense during mid-morning, we send our students home. I’ve sent my students home under intense bombardment two times.
Besides, most airstrikes are carried out just before noon, when my classes are over and I am safe at home.
Some teachers have been shot by snipers; most survived but stopped coming to school. A teacher by the name of Tamam was killed when a regime sniper shot him dead on his way home from school. Other teachers left town for a safer place, leaving many classes without teachers. So university faculty and some graduate students volunteered to take their places.
I used to think that teaching high school students would be boring because I would have to speak about English in Arabic most of the time and students would be noisy and careless. I found out, however, that teaching these students is as enjoyable as teaching adults.
Burning Ba’athist books
However, we don’t have much to work with.
The windows of our classrooms are broken as a result of sniper fire and shelling by tanks. Old nylon drapes cover some of the windows, giving us at least an imagined sense of warmth and security.
Surviving the cold winter without oil for heating meant that students had to wear the heaviest clothes they owned. Sometimes, in an attempt stay warm, they would light a fire in the classroom using dried pieces of wood. But often the smoke was so suffocating that we had no other option than to get used to the cold.
Another heating source we tried were the regime’s books on nationalism, once mandatory reading materials which depicted the Assad regime as the savior of “Arab dignity.”
Not too long ago no one would have dared to think that there will come a time when we will burn such books to produce heat; and my students and I actually learned that second-hand books from city bookstores burn better and generate more heat than the government propaganda.
Listening to Barack Obama
Teaching English is difficult because my students don’t have enough audio resources to understand native speakers. When I take my laptop to class to let them hear some recordings, they say they know most of the words used in any conversation, but the way words are pronounced and connected by native speakers is very hard to follow.
One day, I played some recordings of America’s president, Barack Obama, talking about Syria. The language he used proved difficult but they understood enough to argue about with what he said.
Not everyone agreed with what Obama was saying. To those critical of him I said that I take their point, but I also asked them whether the did not think they could learn from his way of speaking? Obama’s oratory skills are excellent and we can learn a lot from that, – I insisted.
Politics is an everyday topic in our English class. Back in the old days, politics was taboo. Teachers had to choose their words carefully in their classes. But now Syrians, young and old, talk about political opinions all the time. We make jokes about anybody or anything in our discussions, even the Free Syrian Army.
During a classroom conversation about the FSA and our frequently failing power system, one girl asked, “When will the FSA launch another attack?” “Once the power is back up again!” another replied dryly.
Nobody is above criticism nowadays and students now have the freedom to express their views about anything they want. The benefit of this - it allowed teachers to discover that students actually have excellent argumentative and analytical skills, even at their young age.
‘Why study if we’re going to die?’
Every once in a while, a student will ask me, “What’s the point of learning, if we might all die at any moment?”
I replied that I believed is was better to die doing something useful for our country than to hide. If we die while learning, our strong will to survive and to build will serve as an example for others. And if we do not die, then we will be ready to rebuild our Qusayr when the Assad regime falls.
When I asked my students to write a paragraph about the best or worst day in their lives, or to describe a normal day in the revolution, here is what some of them had to say:
“I will never forget the day when my two elder brothers Ahmad and Ali were killed by security forces in one of the regime’s raids on the city.”
“One day on my way home, I saw a fighter jet dropping bombs onto houses full of innocent people.”
One of the girls wrote that the best day of her life was when the security forces released her brother from jail.
It is really painful when you see the impact this war has had on students’ lives. They have matured ahead of their time, but they have taken different directions: girls seem more interested in learning, while boys tend to think that this is the time to carry weapons and fight.
But they have also taught me one thing – that their will to live and make progress is stronger than Assad’s big shells and piercing bullets.
Students do not flinch anymore
I was amazed to see how many students were filled with enthusiasm about learning. At first, I thought they would be scared of being killed or wounded but they struck me as very courageous.
During classes when a fighter jet roars overhead, I pause in my thoughts and marvel how they sit there quietly at their desks, fully focused on their work. Actually, I think I am the only one who pays any attention to the sound of the jets.
But after the class, when I start thinking about it, I realize how oblivious and careless this conflict has made us: Shelling and the deafening sounds of fighter jets have become the norm here.
Sometimes, I do not get to leave my house for over a week at a time when shelling intensifies. The thing I miss the most during such times is teaching. Now I look forward to every class. My students smiles wipe away all my worries in life. The privilege of being with them is more than enough to keep alive my hopes for a bright free Syria.
NOTE: To become a Syria Witness and tell your own inside-Syria story, contact David Arnold, coordinator of our Syria Witness project at syriawitness(at)gmail.com. For safety reasons, we strongly urge you to use a browser-based e-mail (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) and be sure “https” appears in the URL. You can also invite Arnold to Skype at davidarnold70.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.