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Coronavirus: Syria’s displaced children struggle to keep up as classes move online

Published: Updated:

In a makeshift tent, five children sprawl out on a red carpet, gathering around Arabic workbooks to practice their writing skills.

Next to them on the floor is a mobile phone propped up on a fraying vinyl case, displaying a video lesson from one of their teachers. Later, a chain of WhatsApp voice notes sent in by a teacher helps explain one of the grammar lessons.

The phone is now their only link to the temporary school set up in their displacement camp in this corner of northwestern Syria, after fears that the deadly novel coronavirus pandemic spreading worldwide could infect people here as well. The children can no longer attend class in person.

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Instead, the five of them all share one cell phone belonging to Umm Yazan, who is raising her own three children alongside her sister’s two orphaned children in their tent in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. Umm Yazan cannot afford another phone, so the students take turns watching live-streamed teaching sessions run by the local aid group in charge of their school.

Teachers film and stream an Arabic language lesson in Kahatein camp in Harbanoush, Syria. (Muhammad Al Hosse)
Teachers film and stream an Arabic language lesson in Kahatein camp in Harbanoush, Syria. (Muhammad Al Hosse)

Physical schools and universities have shut down for millions of people globally to prevent the spread of the deadly virus, instead turning to remote online teaching.

But in northwestern Syria’s crowded, informal displacement camps, the internet is often weak, residents there say, and children like Umm Yazan’s often have just one phone between them as they keep up with classes.

Read more: Only one coronavirus testing machine for millions in Syria’s war-torn Idlib

Outside of lessons, thousands of displaced families are fighting simply to secure food and water. Crowded camps and tents often flooded by rain and also lacking in latrines make proper hygiene and social distancing a challenge.

“It’s really difficult for my children, to be honest,” Umm Yazan told Al Arabiya one Friday, as her children take a break from their classes to play.

She sits at a friend’s rented home just outside the camp after obtaining a vaccine nearby for one of her children. It’s one of the few reasons she’s left her makeshift tent at all in recent weeks as she tries to keep herself safe from the virus.

“Unless it’s something urgent, an emergency,” I don’t go outside, she said.

“Below zero”

The long days spent inside her tent helping her children, nieces, and nephews with schoolwork are wearing 26-year-old Umm Yazan thin.

“The children still aren’t used to the remote lessons, and sometimes they ask me questions that I just don’t know how to help with,” she said.

At times, the slow internet in their camp means the video feeds simply don’t load for the children to watch their teachers.

“I feel they’d be doing better with face-to-face learning,” she said.

Umm Yazan’s husband died one year ago in an airstrike on their hometown in rural southern Idlib province. Shortly after, the surviving family members sought safety in the displacement camp further north, near the town of Harbanoush.

Alone, she helps the five children with their lessons while feeding them with aid deliveries and her small income from odd day jobs. The pay is as low as 1,000 Syrian lira, or about $2 per day, she said.

More than 1 million Syrians now live in displacement in the country’s opposition-held northwestern Idlib and rural Aleppo provinces. It is the last major opposition-held area in the country after several years of government victories have seen pocket after pocket of territory come back under regime control.

Read more: If coronavirus reaches NW Syria, it will complicate catastrophic situation: MSF

There are not yet any confirmed cases of coronavirus in this corner of Syria despite the latest UN count of 19 confirmed cases in the country. But conditions are ripe for a potentially devastating outbreak should the virus reach Syria’s northwest.

There, displaced Syrians live crammed into poorly serviced rental homes, makeshift tents, and sometimes simply out in the open, displaced by a devastating bombardment campaign launched by Syrian and Russian forces nearly one year ago. More than half of them are children. After months of bombings that targeted medical facilities, there are few hospital beds, and even fewer ventilators needed to treat patients with serious coronavirus symptoms. Some 201 intensive care unit beds and around 150 ventilators are available, Safout Seikhouni, a spokesperson of Idlib’s opposition-run health directorate tells Al Arabiya.

Teachers film and stream an Arabic language lesson in Kahatein camp in Harbanoush, Syria. (Muhammad Al Hosse)
Teachers film and stream an Arabic language lesson in Kahatein camp in Harbanoush, Syria. (Muhammad Al Hosse)

Some 90 more ventilators promised by the World Health Organization have yet to arrive, according to Dr. Fadi Hakim, a spokesperson for the Syrian American Medical Society, an organization that funds hospitals and clinics in opposition-held areas.

“The best we can do”

Children who are still enrolled in some form of school now must study from home in their family’s tents or rented apartments. Unknown numbers of them have simply stopped their studies since the coronavirus closures forced schools to shut down last month, Ahmad Arafat, local director for Syrian aid group Hurras Network, said.

“Their families don’t have phones, or the areas where they live don’t receive good internet coverage,” he said. Despite the challenges, Arafat admits the mobile lessons are “the best we can do right now, within our capabilities.”

Near Umm Yazan’s tent in the northern Idlib camp, Rula, her friend from home, tells Al Arabiya the remote learning is putting too much of the burden on her. Like Umm Yazan, Rula also lost her husband to the war and is raising her children alone in displacement.

“I’m already suffering from psychological trauma – how am I supposed to help my children study?” she said.

She has little choice. All three of Rula’s children, ages seven to 12, are now studying from home using a shared mobile phone.

“When the teacher sends them voice notes, or videos, it takes ages for it to reach us because of the weak internet,” Rula said as her children play just outside.

Though COVID-19 has, seemingly, yet to reach the area, she keeps a watchful eye to make sure they don’t get too close to other children playing nearby. “With this war, and now this virus, it’s hard to say what dreams I have for my children,” Rula said.

“I want them to learn, to understand the world, to have a good education.”

Read more:

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