Syria strike threats cast shadow over new school term

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With one week left before school starts in Damascus, parents hoping it might bring a bit of normalcy to their youngsters have yet another headache with the threat of U.S. military strikes.

The civil war has seriously disrupted education in Syria. More than 40 percent of children aged between six and 15 no longer attend school, says the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF), after 30 months of bloody conflict that has killed more than 110,000 people.

In the capital, schools have fared comparatively well, even though many are used as shelters for those displaced by fighting on the outskirts of Damascus.

But the military action being mulled by Washington and its allies has heightened the stress for parents already coping with supply shortages and rising costs, not to mention concern about long-term trauma war may cause their children.

Like many families, Muwaffaq, his wife, daughter and son headed to the historic Hamidieh souk in the heart of Damascus to buy supplies before the term starts September 15.

"With the war drums beating in the United States, who knows what will happen? The schools could very well close," he says.

On Monday, the U.S. Congress is due to begin debating whether to approve President Barack Obama's calls for military intervention against Damascus over alleged chemical weapons attacks on August 21 said to have killed hundreds.

"Of course we are worried for the schools," says Nuhad, a 30-something mother of three wearing a white headscarf.

"It depends on the areas. For example, we live near a possible target in Damascus, so it's not very reassuring."

"Many parents are waiting for a strike. Others are already saying they won't send their children to school if things get worse," says Ahmed, a shopkeeper on Meskiya Street, as he arranges packets of felt-tip pens.

Since the war came to the suburbs around the capital, residents say they have been signing their children up for schools closer to their homes.

"Damascus has been on the edges of the war for two years now, but the fear is that the war spreads and the schools close," says Mahmud Subhiya, buying a packet of pencils for his son.

UNICEF says more than 3,000 schools (2,000 according to the Syrian authorities) have been destroyed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, and another 900 are occupied by families displaced by the fighting.

"In my class, there are now three people to every bench instead of two," says Lamis, a seven-year-old who has come to Hamidieh to buy a new pencil case.

"And the teachers who come from far away are late sometimes," she adds mischievously.

Deputy Education Minister Farah al-Motlaq told AFP that orders have been given to "welcome all displaced children in the schools of Damascus".

Stressing the need to "distance education from the crisis", he said no special measures had been taken for schools in the face of possible US air strikes.

The ministry has also told teachers not to be too harsh with pupils about school uniforms and supplies because of price hikes.

In the souk's maze of shop-lined alleyways, families flock in search of bargains after a year that has seen the cost of many goods skyrocket.

Salma, browsing for school supplies, admits she is struggling. "I still haven't bought anything for my daughter. I am just looking, it's unaffordable," she says, glaring at a vendor who remains unmoved.

"Not our fault," he snaps.

"It's robbery," adds another shopper.

"Prices have quadrupled," says Ahmed, the Meskiya Street shopkeeper.

"There's been the devaluation of the Syrian pound against the dollar, but the factories that make the notebooks have also been destroyed in the provinces.

"Because the roads are dangerous, drivers transporting the goods ask for five times the rate as before."

Ahmed says that the numbers of people coming to his shop are down 20 percent compared with 2012.

Many people at the souk told AFP they were buying only what was absolutely necessary.

"Before, I used to buy notebooks by the dozen. But now, I'm going to wait until the teacher asks us to," says Farah, a mother of two boys.

But Maha, also a housewife, says she is determined to spoil her children.

"They hear the bombing and they can't go out like before. I can't refuse them anything," she says.

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