How Do Civilians Teach Their Children in ISIS-held Deir Ezzor?

ISIS established its education system in Deir Ezzor to supplement its forces with young male fighters who are imbued with its extremist ideology. However, civilians in Deir Ezzor have found ways to counter the education system imposed upon their children by ISIS. Teachers, parents, and students have adopted ruses that embody the spirit of non-violent civilian resistance in Deir Ezzor and their desire to fight for their rights, freedom, and justice, even while living under the tyranny of ISIS.

The report presents seven exclusive interviews with eyewitnesses, teachers, and families, who spoke about their efforts to resist the curriculum that ISIS imposed on the children of Deir Ezzor. For security reasons, we have used acronyms instead of the real names of the participants. The interviews took place through phones or online and were held between the third and thirtieth of May 2016. The first section of the report sheds light on the reality of education in Deir Ezzor province, and the second lists some examples of education-related non-violent civil resistance. This report confirms the existence of civil resistance seeking to preserve the continuation of education in Deir Ezzor, and stresses the importance of spreading and sharing such examples on social media platforms.

The Educational Situation in Deir Ezzor
In mid-August 2012 following the end of the battles of Shaittat, ISIS started to promote its new educational system in relevant scholastic circles. The group spread rumors that it would distribute books to schools for free. MA, a 30-year-old former teacher now in Turkey—who lived under ISIS rule—said, “In the beginning, ISIS did not consider education as one of its top priorities.” According to him, the main priority for the group was to end the presence of the remaining militants affiliated with the Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At the time, former teachers and local councils in the province schools were teaching the old curriculum.

ISIS, however, took gradual steps to take over the schools. At first, only males were allowed access to them. Parents had to promise to send their sons to ISIS-run schools and were warned that they would be held accountable for their children’s failure to attend classes at the schools. MA also witnessed a class session of a ”Jihadist Education” course for fifth and sixth graders. The course sought to indoctrinate children in ISIS’s ideology and teach them how to use weapons.

As ISIS managed to seize control of large areas of land in the province of Deir Ezzor, it began focusing more and more on education. ISIS began dividing the students into three stages (elementary, middle, and junior) which, in total, covered a period of nine years. Each year, 10 months were allocated to studying, and the year was split up into two semesters. SH, one of the teachers in the city of Mayadeen, said that a  teacher called Hussam Al Owayd had been ordered by the minister of education in Wilayat al-Khayr (the name ISIS gave to the province of Deir Ezzor) to recruit a network of informers made up of teenagers and children. They were called the “Cubs of the Caliphate.” The network’s duty was to search for students who dropped out of schools and force them to return and study ISIS’s curriculum.

Once ISIS succeeded in annihilating its military rivals in the province of Deir Ezzor, it began to focus increasingly on controlling the educational system. All the educational staff in the province were forced to attend Sharia sessions. The indoctrination strategy of the ISIS-imposed curriculum was explicit. Indeed, the Justice for Life Observatory in Deir Ezzor obtained a copy of the books being used by ISIS in a second primary school (ages 10 to 15) in the city of al-Bukamal, near the Iraqi border, which shows how ISIS uses images of weaponry to prime children to embrace its extremist ideology. Clearly, ISIS sought to turn schools into recruitment centers.

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Figure 1: Images from ISIS’s text book

The level of education provided by ISIS in Deir Ezzor was poor for two reasons. Firstly, ISIS was unable to hire competent teachers because it relied on loyalties rather than on competence (as it does in all aspects of its administrative and military structures). This was demonstrated by a picture of a classroom, released by one ISIS’s own propaganda outlets, which shows a teacher confusing the past tense with the present tense during an Arabic language lesson (see figure 2). Secondly, ISIS struggled to cover the costs of maintaining the education system. For instance, when the books printed in the city of Mosul reached the province of Deir Ezzor, they were not distributed to students for free, as had previously been claimed by ISIS and its supporters. Rather, they were instead sold at a price of 2000 Syrian pounds, under the pretext that the money would be used to pay off the cost of transportation from Mosul to Deir Ezzor.

Today, the harsh realities of the war in Syria have destroyed nearly all educational opportunities for children in Deir Ezzor. The majority of schools in Deir Ezzor have been closed for around a year now, and ISIS has transformed them into shelters to protect itself from coalition air strikes.

The economic burdens faced by civilians in Deir Ezzor has been the main reason for the lack of attention given to education. The average salary of a Syrian government employee is only around 50 US dollars—less than two dollars a day—with a rate of inflation that has reached more than 1100 percent. Families have had to rely on all their members to generate income. Sadly, teachers who were left with no incomes had no choice but to join ISIS-run schools. Others joined them for fear of being punished by the organization. A small number of teachers also worked in ISIS-run schools because they believed in its cause and ideology. This is the case with Said al Ghanash. He now works as the head of ISIS’s department of education in the city of Mayadeen, even though he used to teach music in schools there before pledging his allegiance to ISIS.

All these factors have presented serious obstacles for families and teachers attempting to preserve some sort of valid educational opportunity for children in Deir Ezzor. Nevertheless, as this report will show, it has not prevented them from looking for alternatives and coming up with new ways of teaching their children.

Statements about civil resistance against the seizure of educational sector by ISIS
In the second section of this report, we discuss the acts of heroism carried out by professors, students, and their guardians in their efforts to counter the curriculum imposed upon them by ISIS. The interviews reveal three different categories of resistance against the control of education by ISIS: (1) homeschooling, (2) deception in schools, and (3) overcoming ISIS inspections at checkpoints. All of them point out to the way many civilians in Deir Ezzor continue to find inventive and creative solutions for the sake of education and their children.

The following testimonies of Syrian families and students have revealed an incomparable bravery and a striking desire to protect the education of their children from the control and influence of ISIS.

Homeschooling has been able to continue in the rural areas of Deir Ezzor. Teachers and students can move freely in the rural areas of Deir Ezzor, in contrast to the situation in cities where ISIS security is concentrated. SW, a 30-year-old headmaster of a primary school in northern Syria who was displaced from his village in the eastern countryside of Deir EzzorISIS, explains: “Teachers were concerned about being able to teach the old curriculum, so we began to teach our children in our homes in the countryside. Ten to fifteen students would gather in a house and attend classes that generally did not last more than an hour and a half.” Homeschooling was easier in the rural areas due to the relatively reduced presence of ISIS moral policing activity, when compared to more urban areas in the province of Deir Ezzor. Homeschooling in the rural areas was also facilitated by the fact that families in the countryside of Deir Ezzor lived close to one another, which made gatherings of children less vulnerable to condemnation from ISIS.

Women have also played a vital role in preserving the homeschooling system. AA, a displaced female civilian who lives now in Idlib, northern Syria, said that “housewives are the ones who teach their children in their homes, as it is now beyond the bounds of possibility to come out of our homes if we do not comply with ISIS’s regulations to the letter. They intervene in all aspects of our private lives, including the shoes we wear.” If a woman was incapable of teaching her children, she would usually ask her neighbors or relatives to school them sometimes in return for a small amount of money, but mostly for free.

Deceiving ISIS Observers in Schools
Schools have also witnessed noteworthy examples of civil resistance against ISIS. Some teachers would write down Quranic verses on the blackboards and then ask their students to put ISIS’s curriculum books on the table. After that, they would go on explaining theories taken from the previous curriculum, which was banned by the ISIS-run department of education. RW, 65 years old and the father of a displaced family from the city of Mayadeen who lives now in northern Syria, said: “When I was in the city of Mayadeen, teachers in the private institute would put religious books on the table and ask their students to do the same. This is what I was told by my son who used to attend mathematic classes at the institute.” The same thing was confirmed by HW, a 24-year-old female French teacher who was displaced to the city of Idlib: “Education continued in secret through private lessons that were arranged secretly.” She taught private lessons to a maximum of three students. During classes, she always requested each student to put ISIS’s leaflets and books in his bag so as not to raise suspicions if arrested by ISIS members. Teachers resorted to these acts of deception, lest they be imprisoned for not using the books of ISIS’s curriculum.

Overcoming ISIS’s Checkpoints
Some of the most astonishing acts of civilian resistance occurred at the end of the school year, as parents prepared their children for exams in the regime-held areas. Junior and high school students started taking private lessons before taking their exams in the regime-held areas of Deir Ezzor or Hasaka province. MA, 30, a former teacher who works now in Turkey, said that “Baccalaureate students on their way to take their private lessons would hide the books under their clothes as if they were smuggling contraband or drugs.” However, ISIS blocked all roads leading to areas in Deir Ezzor and Hasaka that were under the control of the regime in an attempt to prevent any students from passing the exams. To overcome this obstacle, the parents chose to send their children two weeks to twenty days before the examination date to secure the rental of houses where the exams were meant to be held, adding another financial burden on the shoulders of the parents. The students themselves avoided returning to their homes on the same day of their exams, fearing that they might be exposed.

Mohammad, one of the top students at Abdul Monaim Riyad High School in Mayadeen, explained that students “always had to hide exam cards while passing through ISIS checkpoints in order not to be arrested and forced to attend a Sharia course.”

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Figure 2 – The source of the image is the official account of ISIS media office in Damascus. It is no longer available because it was suspended by Twitter last year.

Recommendations for activists
Syrian civil activists need to consider how to support these daring examples of courage from all sections of the society in Deir Ezzor. In light of the security conditions in Deir Ezzor, sending books to ISIS-held territory from Turkey or northern Syria or sending electronic copies is out of the question. Taking care of the education of the displaced civilians from Deir Ezzor should be a primary concern but it does not address the problems inside the province of Deir Ezzor. These acts of civilian resistance in Deir Ezzor should be publicized through social media platforms such as Whatsapp so that they inspire civilians living in ISIS-held areas in Syria to copy these ruses and find new ways of resisting the despotism of ISIS safely.

This report was originally published on the Justice for Life Observatory in Deir Ezzor. You can find the original here.

Image: PHOTO: Girls sit inside an empty classroom as they pose for a photograph during a celebration marking the end of the school year in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria May 21, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh