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War-weary Syrian children seek solace in cultural activities

Syrian children turn to music, sports, and gardening to escape the sounds of violence that occupy their neighbourhoods across Syria

AFP, Wednesday 14 Nov 2012
School in Syria
Photo by AP

Abdel Razaq Ayubi, 11, has turned to basketball and table tennis to escape the recent memory of fleeing to Damascus from the surrounding countryside when his town became another battleground in Syria's 20-month conflict.

"Very often, the bus wouldn't come to pick us up, and school was frequently closed because of shootings. My parents decided two months ago to leave Mleiha and move to Rokn Eddin in Damascus," the boy says shyly.

Bassem al-Hajj runs the school of Sett Shams, named after historic figure Salaheddin, and as the conflict has raged on he has set up daily two-hour de-stress sessions for its children. "A total of 750 children come to our school, 200 of them from suburban areas that have suffered violence," says the 30-year-old.

"At their age, these are very difficult experiences. For this reason, I proposed that the children do sport, play music and practise gardening." Officially, there are 994 schools in the Syrian capital attended by about half a million children. Fourteen of the schools currently host refugee families.

Twice a week, sports teacher Maamun al-Ali gives classes in badminton, basketball, football and ping-pong.

The children all enjoy the games, but they freeze the second they hear the roar of a fighter jet flying overhead. Looking skywards, they curl their fingers over their eyes in the shape of make-believe binoculars.

When the warplanes disappear, they go back to the games. "You can't imagine how much good sport does them," says Ali.

"These children have never seen war. Suddenly, they hear gunshots, bombing and the sound of fighter jets. They were very nervous at the start. They're doing better now." Violence has ravaged Syria since an anti-regime uprising broke out in March 2011.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces responded with brutal repression that led to a bloody insurgency, and more than 37,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the ensuing conflict. While battles rage across large swathes of Syria, other parts of the country are calm but tense.

In one classroom, portraits of the president and his late father Hafez al-Assad hang on the wall. An English teacher stands before a group of 60 children, instructing them on verbs.

One of the students, 11-year-old Lilas Madalli, came to Damascus with her parents, fleeing the intense violence in the town of Harasta east of the capital.

"I take piano classes to forget the sound of shelling," says Lilas. "I was so frightened. I am so much better off here."

Some students are also taught how to play the violin and oud, the traditional Arabic lute. Others have chosen to take up gardening to get their minds off the war.

But for many students, the experience of the conflict has already left deep scars.

"Schools were informed that many of the students have gone through hell," says Nazeq Issa, a ministry of information spokeswoman.

Of some 22,000 schools across Syria, more than 2,000 have been damaged or destroyed. Over 800 have been turned into makeshift shelters for refugee families, according to UNICEF. The 2012-13 school year kicked off with a troubled start, though officials said more than five million children joined classes this year.

In rebel-held towns besieged and bombed for months, small, informal classes were set up in alleyways to avoid children having to walk very far, says Hussein, an opposition activist in Qusayr, in the central province of Homs.

Compounding their difficulties, some displaced children are teased in Damascus by their peers because of their accents, says child psychologist Azza Nasser.

"Some children, especially those who came from Homs, are mocked by children in Damascus," says Nasser. "They need to play together in order to reduce tension."

But in fact the most troubled are the parents. "Some parents call me every day to find out whether the neighbourhood is calm," says Nasser.

"They even make me promise I'll warn them if anything happens. They are more anxious than the children," she adds.

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