TAL RIFAAT, Syria: Nine-year-old Rawan Mustafa knew she would miss school this year. Her primary school is in ruins, blown apart two months ago by an airstrike in rebel-controlled northern Syria.
“I come here to find books to take them home and read – my sister helps me,” Rawan said Sunday, picking her way through the rubble of shattered walls, half-burned work books and smashed glass.
Sunday was the official first day of school in Syria, a country of 23 million people, but the country’s agonizing war is keeping thousands of students like Rawan out of classrooms nationwide.
Many schools have been destroyed or occupied by refugees. Some parents are simply too afraid to send their children to school due over fears of violence. Still others are living in refugee camps outside the country with only limited access to an education.
The U.N. children’s agency says it is difficult to know precisely how many Syrian children have been out of school for an extended period due to the conflict, which started 18 months ago and has killed at least 23,000 people.
Dina Craissati, UNICEF’s regional education adviser, said at least 200,000 Syrian children who have been displaced from their homes within the country are having difficulty accessing education.
Outside Syria’s borders, the U.N. has registered more than 250,000 refugees – including children – but tens of thousands more have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq without registering.
Some 2,000 schools have been damaged in the conflict and 759 are being used as sanctuaries for those displaced, Syrian Education Minister Hazwan al-Wazz said. Still, the government says 22,000 schools are operating and handling any overflow by having students attend classes in shifts.
It said more than 5 million students attended school Sunday.
Mohammad Rakani, a 10-year-old from the Damascus suburb of Sbeineh, was not among them. He is staying with his family at the Somayya al-Makhzomiya School in Damascus, which is sheltering more 300 people, or 65 families.
“I want to return to my school, which I love so much. I am now in the fourth grade,” Mohammad said during a government-escorted trip to the school Sunday.
In the north, where the opposition wields much more control, rebel officials say they are too focused on getting enough food and medical supplies into the country to concentrate on schools. There are also fears that any makeshift schools set up may attract airstrikes.
“Our main focus is food, shelter and medical care right now,” said Seif al-Haq, a rebel with the Tawhid Brigade that is responsible for civilian affairs in the northern city of Aleppo and the surrounding countryside.
“No schools are running in the liberated areas of Aleppo, they were all destroyed, but we are trying to run makeshift classes underground, like English or computers. Of course we’re still afraid they’ll get hit,” he said.
Abu Ahmad, a high school physics teacher in Tal Rifaat, said some had contemplated holding private classes but feared they would be hit by the airstrikes that hit the area on a daily basis.
“They target anywhere where people gather,” he said, asking his real name not be used because as a civil servant, he is still receiving his government salary.
Another problem is that many teachers have joined the hundreds of thousands who have fled the province.
Standing amid the ruins of the school, Mohammad Ibrahim, 13, said his Arabic teacher Abdel-Razaq was his favorite because he never got angry. But Abdel-Razaq was gone now, along with half of Mohammad’s friends.
“It makes me sad that they are not here,” said Ibrahim, whose favorite subject is math because he said it makes his brain work. “It’s boring without them.”
Even in villages considered “safe,” that aren’t subject to daily bombings, schools aren’t opening, often because they are filled with refugees.
In the town of Souran, the newly built school is still in perfect condition, but each classroom is now filled with a different extended family who sleep side by side on the floor on thin mattresses.
Refugees from the fighting in Aleppo, they came here months ago and moved all the desks out into the sun-splashed courtyard so that they could settle in the classrooms.
The displaced acknowledged, though, that local residents had been urging them to leave and head for the refugee camps on the border so that the school could return to its original use.
It’s not clear why so many schools have been hit in the fighting.
In some cases rebels have apparently used the facilities, as may have been the case in Tal Rifaat where one classroom had some tattered military fatigues on the floor.
Residents in Kal Jibreen, however, say that wasn’t the case with their school, which Saturday afternoon was nearly hit by a missile that tore the facade off the house across from it.
A few weeks ago, rockets put a hole in the school roof and smashed most of its windows, according to residents.
“Today we should all be in school, but we can’t go because of the planes,” said Dargham Yassin, a bespectacled little boy, who like many Syrian children looks much younger than his 12 years. Without school, he’s not sure how he will fill his days.
“I’ll do nothing,” he said. “I’ll go feed the sheep.”
Syrians who have escaped their country also lack access to education.
At the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan – which is fast becoming known as “the children’s camp” – two-thirds of the 30,000 Syrian refugees are under 18, while 5,000 are 4 and younger.
On a recent day, the children filled plastic bottles with drinking water at pumps or played on swings and slides; others scampered aimlessly about.
Save the Children and UNICEF believe part of the healing process for the camp’s children will mean going back to school.
However, Jordanian officials have said that may not happen until October at the earliest, after promised funding is made available by the government of Bahrain.
UNICEF wants a school for the camp’s children to open much sooner.
“We really need to ensure that children regain some sense of normalcy. They have been through horrific times and have seen extreme violence,” said Dominique Hyde, UNICEF’s representative to Jordan.
“They need as soon as possible not only to come back to education but also to some sort of routine and stability. School provides one of the best ways,” she said.