A life calling: supporting Syrian children and youth to reach their full potential

“When I received the books, I could not believe my eyes!”

Osama Antabi
UNICEF education officer talking to children
UNICEF/ Syria 2018/ Khudr Al-Issa
06 June 2018

It was right after I graduated from university that I was lucky enough to find my calling in life: helping children wherever they are to access education and continue their learning. I have dedicated the past 12 years of my life for this mission, starting as an English teacher and moving across other roles - all pertaining to children’s education. But nothing compares to the satisfaction I felt this year, helping children from hard-to-reach areas to sit their national Grade 9 exams in Aleppo.

Long hours of meetings, discussions and coordination for approvals were the theme of the days leading up to the students’ arrival. I could not sleep the night before; I was overwhelmed with excitement and my phone would not stop ringing. Working with partners, UNICEF turned 16 schools across Aleppo governorate were into accommodation centres to welcome over 3,000 children and provide them with sleeping quarters, meals, hygiene supplies and running water. Thanks to funding from Norway, UNICEF also provided these children with bursaries to help them pay for transportation costs from and to their hometowns as well as remedial education sessions to help them catch up on learning and prepare for the tests.

As they started arriving, I could see how valuable my year-long efforts to support them were.. I thought of my own four children and how there isn’t anything I would not do for them continue their learning. These 3,000 boys and girls were also my children.

I could relate so much to Bisher*, a former school teacher like me who accompanied his two sons to Aleppo, to take their national exams. He told me about the difficult journey they made from Manbij, almost 100 kilometres away from Aleppo city. “I brought my sons on my motorbike while the rest of the group drove behind us,” recalled Bisher. “We had to drive through a deep valley on rough tracks,” he added. For Bisher too, nothing would stop him from helping his children learn and reach their full potential in life. He has had to work day and night in the fields over the past year so he could support his children with extra classes in an institute. “I deprived myself of so many things, hoping that I can help them achieve their dreams,” he told me.

I also met Kamal*, a 15-year-old boy, nicknamed “doctor” by his peers. “He is never without a book!” one of his friends told me. Kamal was wearing glasses with one lens. The other one broke months ago, but his family could not afford to replace it. His friend Omran* had lost almost six years of education as schools closed down in his town. He could only study at home after his father smuggled books for him.

When I received the books, I could not believe my eyes! I had hope again.

15 year-old Kamal

Once again, I thought back to my children who wake up to their nutritious breakfast ready every day. They have access to the best quality of education both at school and at home. On exam days , my wife and I hug them to calm their stress and soothe them with words of encouragement. And then there are these children, who have to endure harsh circumstances and make difficult journeys to get the education that is rightfully theirs. You cannot but have the utmost respect for these courageous children. While students elsewhere in the world worry about grades, children in Syria are worrying about returning home safely to their families.

We have a responsibility to support these children any way we can. We must help Kamal become an optician and Omran an engineer, just the way they have dreamed.


Osama Antabi is an education officer with UNICEF, working in Aleppo field office.