In Syrian cities and towns, it is normal for primary school students to attend a co-educational school and then for students to be streamed into single-sex secondary schools. (This isn’t possible in many small regional schools, so high school students in the countryside often attend mixed classes.) Universities generally have mixed classes.
Last month, on my visit to Dar El Salam School in Damascus – a school that I passed often when I taught English at the British Council – I was greeted by a very enthusiastic and confident English as a Foreign Language (EFL) class, all girls.
I found the mood in Damascus much more relaxed than it had been when I last visited with an international peace delegation in 2013.
Now, it feels that peace has returned at last and people can relax as we do in Australia. Thus, when Damascenes leave home in the morning, they have little to fear: they can expect to see their family in the evening. In Damascus, life has challenges we in Australia can hardly imagine, certainly, but fear of random mortar attacks on suburban streets was no longer one of them. So I started by asking the students how “the crisis” had impacted their lives.
A very articulate English speaker, Julie, explains that she wasn’t too “affected” like other people, but she was in “many ways when she was studying”. For example, when there was no electricity, she studied by candlelight. When it was cold and there was no oil for heating, she found she couldn’t study at all.
Julie says she speaks such fluent English because she listens to pop and rap music and watches a lot of Youtube videos. She tells me her parents have influenced her taste in music, so she loves The Bee Gees, Abba, and George Michael. She would love to have a career in music, but her parents don’t encourage such a career path.
When I ask the class to sing for me, a classmate of Julie’s boldly raises her hand. I love her enthusiasm. She is clearly keen to please me. I neglect to ask her to introduce herself, so unfortunately I can’t tell you her name. I remain grateful to her for her gift. She sings One Direction’s ‘What makes you beautiful’. It was certainly a magic moment for me.
Later, I learnt that the school had been hit by at least one mortar fired by insurgents occupying outlying suburbs, but students and staff returned to class the following day and clearly found strength in their commitment to learning and the supportive community they had established at the school.