Islamic State shuts down Palestinian refugee school after teachers take a stand

AMMAN: The Islamic State [IS] closed Yarmouk camp’s only remaining UNRWA-affiliated school last week

AMMAN: The Islamic State [IS] closed Yarmouk camp’s only remaining UNRWA-affiliated school last week, leaving more than 1,000 students to choose between attending ultra-conservative IS classes or pursuing an education outside of the camp.

IS shuttered the Jarmaq school after local teachers refused to teach the group’s strict, religious curriculum, camp residents told Syria Direct last week. Jarmaq previously served nearly 90 percent of school-aged children in areas of the camp under IS control.

“IS wants total control over education,” Omar al-Qaysar, an activist inside the camp told Syria Direct. “And if they can’t have that—as is currently the case—they’ll simply shut down the schools.”

Located just five miles south of downtown Damascus, Yarmouk was once Syria’s largest refugee camp for Palestinians. The bustling neighborhood housed more than 100,000 United Nations-registered refugees prior to 2011.

Today, fewer than 8,000 people live inside the camp after three years of regime encirclement and nearly 18 months of IS control forced tens of thousands of residents to abandon their homes.

 Yarmouk camp students start the 2015 school year. Photo courtesy of the Jarmaq School.

After the Islamic State took control over large swaths of Yarmouk in April 2015, international humanitarian organizations that once funded schools inside the Palestinian refugee camp stopped or scaled back their support.

Teachers at the Jarmaq school, however, continued to volunteer without pay while using old curricula provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Before the summer of 2015, the Islamic State did not interfere with the work of teachers using UNRWA coursework.

“The Islamic State does not involve itself at all with the educational process,” a Yarmouk teacher told Syria Direct in February.

 Children in Yarmouk camp. Photo courtesy of Yarmouk Camp News.

That relatively hands-off approach drastically shifted this July, when IS members informed local teachers that the camp’s only non-IS school would not be permitted to open in September unless they adopted a new IS curriculum.

“IS considers Yarmouk to be caliphate territory,” said activist al-Qaysar. “In turn, they refuse to allow outside actors—anyone who hasn’t formally pledged allegiance—to conduct independent work inside the camp.”

The camp’s teachers refused to acquiesce at the start of the new academic year despite IS’s offers to pay school salaries for the first time in years.

“We won’t be bought off to teach this IS curriculum,” one local teacher said under the condition of anonymity. “Forget about our salaries; money has never been what’s motivated us. We’re here to teach.”

In response, IS shuttered the 1,300-student Jarmaq School.

The Islamic State controls roughly two thirds of Yarmouk camp—with Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (formerly Jabhat a-Nusra) managing the remaining portion—following multiple bloody turf wars earlier this year.

With Jarmaq closed, there are only two remaining schools for the camp’s 1,500 students in IS-controlled territory. Members of the Islamic State run the group’s two gender-segregated schools with religiously tailored coursework focusing on IS-approved topics.

Additionally, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham oversees one school in their area of control; however, movement between the two sides is virtually impossible inside the camp today.

“IS cancelled many traditional and foundational classes on the grounds that they considered them to be secular,” said al-Qaysar. “The teachers who are now teaching these classes aren’t even qualified, but they’re doing the job nonetheless because IS promises to pay their salaries.”

In turn, parents are left with two options regarding their children’s education: either they travel outside the camp for schooling and risk not being able to return or they remain in Yarmouk and have their children attend IS schools.

In the week since IS closed Jarmaq, hundreds of Yarmouk families have elected to move outside the camp to nearby towns, such as Yalda and Babila, in the regime-encircled, south Damascus pocket, opposition media outlets reported last week.

“People tried to hold on to their lives here; they tried not to abandon Yarmouk,” local citizen journalist Noor a-Deen al-Khateeb told Syria Direct. “But after this decision [to close Jarmaq], people are leaving, and for the first time, they’re not returning.”    

Currently, IS permits families to leave the camp and to send their children outside for schooling though Yarmouk residents worry that this freedom of movement could change at any given moment.

For the roughly 6,000 camp residents in IS-controlled territory, the only other option is to send their children to IS-run schools.

“IS believes that the caliphate is priority number one for them, for their children and for everyone around them, and they’ll tailor a curriculum to reflect just that,” said al-Qaysar.   

Amidst repeated regime bombing and starvation-level food shortages, which have claimed the lives of more than 100 Yarmouk residents since the camp’s encirclement, camp teachers say education has long provided one outlet for optimism and resistance for the camp’s residents.

“These kids are talented,” the Yarmouk teacher told Syria Direct, adding that students in the camp had consistently scored in the top 10 percent of students across Syria.

“It’s an understatement to say that we’re proud,” the teacher said, “not only because they test well but also because [education] has been the one area where we’ve been able to push back against the Islamic State.”

“After everything that we’ve endured…now we’re losing education?” asked citizen journalist al-Khateeb. “It was our only hope, the only reason why families stayed.”

“I fear that the absence of education will be the final nail in the coffin for Yarmouk camp.”