One woman’s quest to support children’s education in Aleppo

Nisreen, 35, is a mother of three girls. Like many women across Syria, she has lived through years of violence, displacement and loss.

Nisreen
teacher with students
UNICEF/ Syria 2019/ Khudr Al- Issa
08 March 2019

- My story started when I was 15. Living in a small conservative community, it was not uncommon for girls to be denied their right to education after middle school. I still remember my last day in school; I cried my eyes out saying goodbye to my friends and teachers. At age 22, I got married and had three beautiful daughters; Dalaa, 11, Alma, 8, and Tala, 4.

As violence escalated in our neighbourhood of Assukari in east Aleppo, we had no choice but to flee. We moved from one neighbourhood to another, eventually seeking safety in Damascus. We spent our savings on high rent and were barely able to provide our most basic needs, but I made sure Dalaa, my eldest, went to school wherever we moved, and no matter how many times she had to change schools. I knew that education is the only thing that will save her future.

Almost two years ago, following a respite in violence in Aleppo, the girls and I returned to live with my parents while my husband traveled to live and work in Lebanon to provide for us. I was back in my same neighbourhood, but suddenly I had a different life.

I started attending sessions for mothers supported by UNICEF at a community centre near my house. We talked about everything from health and breast cancer to child rights, early marriage and child labour. I felt empowered just attending those sessions; I had knowledge I could share with other women and mothers for their benefit and that of their children.

I also immediately enrolled Dalaa and Alma in the only school operating in the area. One day as I picked them up, I was shocked to see classrooms with over 150 children, huddled together in a tiny space. Most of the children, including my own, were sitting on the floor, barely able to see the blackboard. The teachers told me that many of the children had missed years of education and were falling behind their peers. Some were to drop out of school altogether. As a mother, and someone who had to give up on her dream of higher education, I knew I had to do something, especially that parents are unable to pay for private remedial classes for their children.

And that is how the idea of establishing a centre offering free remedial classes to children at risk of dropping out came to me. I encouraged four young people in my community to join this cause, using myself as a living example of a person who had to miss out on education. Together we attended entrepreneurship training also supported by UNICEF, by the end of which we received seed-funding to start our centre. Six teachers from the neighbourhood volunteered to teach children. Together we cleaned the place and painted the walls with colorful drawings.

From the first week, we welcomed 300 children aged 7-14 in two shifts after school hours, offering them classes in English and Arabic to help them catch up on lost learning. I was so impressed with how determined the children were to continue their education despite everything they had been through. One 10-year-old boy, Mohammad, would come to the centre during his breaks from working in a tailoring workshop. He is forced to work to provide for his family after his father died. Even though he is unable to go to school, he learned reading and writing at our centre.

The centre still needs a lot of work and funding to ensure its sustainability, but we’re doing everything we can to keep it running, including buying lottery tickets every now and then hoping that our luck strikes! This centre revived my lost dream of continuing my education; I now relive it every day through the children benefiting of the centre.

child in a classroom
UNICEF/ Syria 2019/ Khudr Al- Issa
One of the children attending remedial education sessions at the centre started by Nisreen.