With the Syrian crisis entering its fourth year, keeping civil society infrastructure alive in rebel-held areas is increasingly difficult. Education is particularly essential for civil society to flourish. According to UN figures, prerevolutionary Syria had a level of public literacy on par with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—90 percent for both men and women.

While we know how education is delivered in the refugee camps outside Syria, we don’t have a clear picture of how education is delivered within Syria. There is no shortage of challenges; more than 4,000 schools have been destroyed in the war, and children risk their lives daily in trying to attend lessons.

In a recent visit to the rebel-controlled areas in northern Latakia, I learned more about these challenges—but also about the hard work and creativity that allows the opposition to keep up a rudimentary system of education.

Teaching the Revolution

Professor Mohammed is a former lecturer of Tishreen University in Latakia City. When the revolution broke out, Mohammed sided with the rebels. He realized very early on the problems the younger generation would face in the conflict. Consequently, Mohammed and other education professionals in the Latakia countryside set up a lose network of 400 or so schools that are responsible for education in rebel-held areas of the province. Working out of a small warehouse, they try to coordinate the logistics of education, from designing a curriculum to delivering supplies. But there is a shortage of teachers—in fact, Sheikh Walid Kabbole, who is the network’s head of Islamic studies, told me that the rebels are more in need of teachers than fighters.

Aside from running schools, these Syrians also visit rebel brigades in the areas where these forces are fighting. Kabbole, for instance, teaches daily at the headquarters of certain battalions, instructing the fighters in the basics of Islamic jurisprudence in fields ranging from prayer to jihad. His job, as he sees it, is to temper their zeal.

The warehouse stocks secondary books on all sorts of subjects. From here, they are distributed to the various schools in the area. Some of these books are of poor quality and clearly salvaged from abandoned schools. Other materials are new and recently bought. But even if educational material may be plentiful, sometimes there are issues procuring things as basic as paper and pen. I visited a makeshift school where books were available but pencils and writing pads were at a premium.

Interference by Regime and Rebels

There seems to be a deliberate attempt by the Syrian regime to disrupt education in the rebel-held areas. This strategy is not only to punish and terrorize the population but also to disrupt any prospect of rebel-held areas functioning without the regime. Schools are being deliberately targeted. Not a single school that I visited had traces of rebels using it to launch attacks from, but several had been abandoned because of regime shelling with tanks or mortars. I also saw so-called barrel bombs—crudely improvised high-explosive containers that are dropped from helicopters—that had fallen near schools.

But the main issue for Mohammed is keeping his network of schools independent from the local rebel politics. He has refused substantial donations from wealthy Gulf donors and rebel brigades because they came with strings attached. This decision has resulted in teachers not getting paid or being short of equipment.

How It’s Done

Teaching is done mainly by former teachers or those who have become teachers, in former schools or sometimes in abandoned homes or salons of private individuals. The teachers are not always Syrians. I came across North African teachers who came to Syria to fight but now teach during periods of inactivity. The North Africans teach mainly the basic tenets of Islam of a Salafi variety.

Teaching methods are basic. Sometimes, for lack of writing material, students will just read from the book. The emphasis seems to be on rote learning. Lessons are intermittent for several reasons, including that many students have to be transported by car or because of safety issues and weather conditions. Sometimes the school may shut down because it is simply too cold. The recent rebel offensive in northern Latakia, known as the Anfal Operation, disrupted the education of many students. There is a lack of differentiation, and it is not unusual to see several age groups taught in the same classroom. It is difficult for teachers to achieve consistency because of spotty student attendance.

Educators Need Support

The challenges for pupils are immense, but many understand the value of education and are enthusiastic about learning. The children I interviewed have been politicized because of the conflict, and they have a sense of being abandoned. It is clear also that these pupils have lost any semblance of what normality means and know the facts of war better than what civilian life actually is.

This is why supporting schools inside Syria is essential. Strengthening civil society within Syria may give students that sense of normality back. The likes of Mohammed need to be supported with funds and depoliticized teaching material—and rather than shying away from the Islamic character of such groups, foreign donors need to accept that religion is a part of the lives of Syrians and that Islamic groups will always be part of civil society. It is not enough that Syrian children are given education outside of their country as refugees. NGOs must also be willing to work with organizations such as Mohammed’s network to provide children with a semblance of education. The alternative is to raise an ignorant generation brutalized by war, sowing more problems for the future.

Tam Hussein is an award-winning writer and freelance journalist who recently visited the rebel-held areas of Syria. He previously wrote for Syria in Crisis on his travels with the Ansar al-Sham Battalions in northwest Syria. To follow his work, visit his website at tamhussein.co.uk and his Twitter page at @tamhussein.