Supported by UNICEF, children cross conflict lines to sit for exams in Hama

In early June, more than 9,000 boys and girls arrived in the city of Hama to sit for their national Grade 9 and 12 exams, coming from war-ravaged and hard-to-reach areas in Idlib and Ar- Raqqa.

Lina Alqassab and Yasmine Saker
Girl sitting for an exam
UNICEF/Syria 2019/ Abdulaziz Aldroubi

04 July 2019

In early June, more than 9,000 boys and girls arrived in the city of Hama to sit for their national Grade 9 and 12 exams, coming from war-ravaged and hard-to-reach areas in Idlib and Ar- Raqqa. For many, the arduous journey meant spending days on the road and walking for hours under the scorching sun just to reach exam centres. Children travelled in groups, often accompanied by their relatives or teachers.

Thanks to generous contributions from Education Cannot Wait (ECW) and Norway, UNICEF provided accommodation centres with proper sanitation facilities, lighting and sufficient water supply, supported students through cash bursaries to help cover costs of transportation, and provided them with meals, stationary and remedial classes to help them revise for exams. Moreover, thanks to a generous contribution from Canada, UNICEF provided children and accompanying caregivers with psychosocial support and awareness sessions on time management and dealing with exam stress, as well as mine risk education to protect themselves against explosive ordnance when back home.

Imagine having to make a two-day long journey through mountainous routes and several checkpoints, switching vehicles and walking long distances only to sit for exams. This is what brave 21-year-old Rayan* did, not once but twice.

Escalating violence in Idlib meant that Rayan could only attend school intermittently, finally dropping out over six years ago.

“Even when there was a lull in violence and we could make it to school safely, the quality of learning was deteriorating because teachers were fleeing,” recalls Rayan who eventually had to flee several times with her family, forced to sleep out in the open for days at a time.

Despite these challenges, Rayan was determined to get the education that is rightfully hers and prepared for Grade 12 exams on her own. Last year, she made the difficult journey from Idlib to Hama to sit for the exams hoping to be able to continue to university, but unfortunately did not pass.

“This year, I decided not to give up; I studied harder and came back to try again because I know that education is my only way out”


Together with a group of her peers, Rayan embarked on the arduous journey to one of the UNICEF-supported accommodation centres in Hama where she got to recover from the long road and revise for her exams.

Rayan is ambitious and determined to become a teacher in the future, to help students like herself reach their full potential.

Girl studying for an exam
UNICEF/ Syria 2019/ Abdulaziz Aldroubi

Ever since she was a little girl, 15-year-old Ghada* has dreamt of studying journalism and become a TV presenter. This year, she’s one step closer to achieving her dream, despite everything she has been through.

As violence escalated in Idlib, Ghada and her family were forced to flee several times over the past few years, interrupting her education.

“Being on the move meant that I missed entire semesters at a time,” recalls Ghada who signed up for expensive private classes to be able to catch up with her peers. “But even then, classes were often cancelled due to fighting,” she explains.

Being frustrated with the challenges facing her education, Ghada dropped out of school last year. However, her hopes were revived when she heard about a group of brave students planning to travel from Idlib to Hama to sit for the exams.

“I immediately started preparing for the tests, I was intrigued but also scared,” explains Ghada who ended up joining the group.

“It took us two days on the road, with barely enough food or water. We had to switch cars multiple times, huddled together in the back of pickup vans.”


Despite these challenges, Ghada and her peers made it to the UNICEF-supported accommodation centre in the city of Hama.

“I’m so grateful to have been able to come and sit for the exams. How are we supposed to rebuild our country without education?” she asks.

UNICEF/Syria 2019/ Abdulaziz Aldroubi

Only three years ago, Nour*, then 11, was living with her family in the most basic living conditions at a refugee camp near the Turkish boarders, having been forced to flee Idlib due to escalating violence.

“We were 13 people in one small tent, with barely enough water or food,” she recalls.

Despite challenges, Nour enrolled at the camp’s makeshift school where she was able to continue her learning.

Last year, following a short lull in violence in their village, the family returned amidst a severe lack of services, before fighting intensified again.

“I often skipped school due to fighting and even when we made it, our school-day was barely 2-hours long as we did not have enough teachers,”


As final Grade 9 exams approached, Nour’s family encouraged her to travel with a group of students to Hama to sit for the exams. “My mother sold her last gold bracelet to help pay for the long and expensive trip,” Nour explains.

Manoeuvring difficult roads and manned checkpoints, the journey took over 24 hours before the group arrived safely to the UNICEF-supported accommodation centre.

“My biggest fear was to be sent back and miss the chance to sit for the exams,” says Nour who couldn’t wait to get some rest and start revising for her tests.

Nour dreams of becoming a lawyer in the future to help fight injustice.

A boy studying for an exam
UNICEF/ Syria 2019/ Abdulaziz Aldroubi

14-year-old Zein* had mixed feelings towards traveling from Idlib to Hama to sit for his national Grade 9 exams.

“I was happy and excited to come but was worried about the journey and missing my family,” he explains.

Around five years ago, Zein and his family had to flee their home in Idlib as violence escalated, forcing him to lose over one year of learning. Since his return to his village following a lull in violence, Zein has only been attending school sporadically due to bursts of fighting.

As national Grade 9 exams approached, Zein and his classmates decided to take the risky journey to Hama.

“We took a bus but had to walk long stretches on foot through mountainous roads; this was the hardest part of the journey,”


“We arrived with little cuts all over our skin and clothes because of walking through thorny bushes,” he continues.

The group finally arrived at the UNICEF-supported accommodation centre after over 24 sleepless hours on the road.

“I’m happy to be here with my friends, we support each other and lift each other up,” says Zein who dreams of becoming a doctor. “I know I took a significant risk coming here, but I want to make myself and my parents proud,”.

 *Names have been changed to protect identities