In the months of siege that began in July 2013, the Palestine refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus, ran out of virtually everything - food, medicines, basic supplies. For students preparing for the vital national examinations, one thing in particular was of paramount importance: light by which to study.
"Because the camp was under siege, I was not able to buy candles", explained one ninth-grade student from Yarmouk. "So I made my own lamp, with a kitchen roll and olive oil in a bowl. I wanted something that would burn all night, because nothing has dimmed our determination to study."
This summer, their determination and courage bore fruit: With the support of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and the Syrian General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR), students were able to temporarily leave the camp to sit for the national ninth-and twelfth-grade exams. Some students displaced from Syria to Lebanon were also able to come back to take their exams.
UNRWA also helped the students, many of whom had missed many lessons because of the violence of the conflict and their isolation in Yarmouk, prepare for the exams. Agency teachers volunteered to give extra lessons in a safer area of Damascus, with the students accommodated at the GAPAR Said al-As Institute. One Yarmouk student, Mu'tassem, said, "I had a mix of happy and sad feelings - happy because I will be able to take the exam, and sad to leave my family in Yarmouk."
"In fact the exam was not difficult - I studied well", said 15-year-old Siba, another student. "But the feeling of loss and the fear of displacement made it very difficult for us."
Before they returned to Yarmouk on 29 May, the ninth graders came together "to celebrate all the hard work that has gone into a school year fraught with unrest and disruption", as Michael Kingsley-Nyinah, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Syria, put it.
He praised teachers and students for their dedication, saying, "We at UNRWA will always be here to help and support you” and thanking the volunteer teachers who helped the students prepare. He continued, “I hope the experience of hardship, fear and anxiety you went through in Yarmouk will give you the strength to face all life's challenges with enthusiasm. Your community needs your talent and abilities", he told them, "so keep up the good work."
On 17 June, students, some of whom had made the journey back from Lebanon just to take the national twelfth-grade exams, had their turn to gather at the UNRWA Damascus Training Centre in Mazzeh. The centre filled with the sounds of Palestinian music and the students, in high spirits after completing their exams, danced dabkeh to celebrate.
Abdallah Al-Laham, Officer-in-Charge of UNRWA Affairs in Syria, noted how hard UNRWA teachers, students and parents had worked that year. He said: "It was excellent to see you eagerly taking the exam thanks to the support of the Syrian government, GAPAR and the Palestinian embassy in Damascus, who helped UNRWA to get you out of the camp”, and asked them to work hard to pursue education and never limit their ambitions. GAPAR representative Mahmoud Abu Khreish, UNRWA education officer Riyad Kassab and Palestinian National Charity representative Walid al-Kurdi also praised the students’ determination and courage, with Mr. Abu Khreish thanking the government and the Ministry of Education for facilitating the examinations for the children.
As the students returned to Yarmouk, they returned to a continuing conflict and a great deal of turmoil. In such an environment, access to education is crucial. With the conflict entering its fourth year, UNRWA has adapted its operations in Syria to address these obstacles. In Homs, classrooms double as a vocational training centre, where enthusiastic young men learn welding and air-conditioner repair. The Agency has also developed self-learning materials to help children study at home or in other safe places; these materials have been adopted by UNICEF and used now across Syria. Education in the midst of conflict not only prepares students for a better future: It also helps heal the wounds of the present.