Children return to Syrian preschool supported by Arkansans


Photographs by SOURCE: The New York Times / Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

A map showing the location of Maaret al-Numan

The warplanes and bombs that left so many civilians dead and others fleeing the Syrian province of Idlib have lulled, allowing children to return to an underground preschool supported by central Arkansas residents and other Americans.

For the first time in about two months, the school -- called The Wisdom House -- reopened last week. As of Monday, about 80 of the 150 kindergartners and four teachers were back in classes in the city of Maaret al-Numan. Many of the children have lost one or both parents during the long-running civil war.

The youngsters, ages 3 to 6, ride to and from school in a white van funded by donations from supporters of the project, an effort of the nonprofit Syrian Emergency Task Force, headed by a former Arkansan. The effort has drawn support from residents in Conway, Russellville and Little Rock, among other places.

"Thank God the school has not been" damaged, Mouaz Moustafa said. He credited residents who had been "keen on moving the school to the underground location on the outskirts of the city," which helped it stay away from the bombardments.

Upon the school's reopening, the teachers "had a party for the kids. They danced and celebrated," said Natalie Larrison, the task force's outreach director in Little Rock and The Wisdom House's project manager.

While some of the 150 children who originally attended the school have been injured in the airstrikes, none have been killed, said Moustafa, who graduated from high school in Garland County and from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

On Monday, Moustafa was in Washington, where he was lobbying for Senate committee approval of a bill aimed at reducing potentially lethal items that are brought into Syria and used to kill civilians. The bill also would address what Moustafa called "intelligence ventures" that are to blame for the pain and torturing of civilians.

Not far from the school is an aboveground women's center also established by the task force. The center, Tomorrow's Dawn, suffered damage to its solar panels, which provide electricity. Even with repairs and debris cleanup still underway, 20 to 30 women already are visiting the center again.

For now, "The women's center will focus ... on providing education for women who have completed high school," by offering classes in mathematics, English and Arabic literature, Moustafa said. The goal is to resume vocational training at the center next month.

About 50 women were visiting the center before it and the school had to shut down in late December.

"We're repatriating quickly," Moustafa said. "We're looking to ramp up" the number of children, he added, and they hope to offer classes for older children as well soon.

He expects more women and children to enroll at the two facilities because of families who are fleeing to Idlib after being displaced by bombings elsewhere in Syria. The fear, though, is that the Idlib bombing could increase again, he said.

The task force recently released a video showing some of the children standing outside the school, which is decorated with pencils made to look like happy stick figures.

The video includes a written message about the regime of Syria's Bashar Assad and some of his foreign allies attacking civilians and notes that schools in that country are no longer safe.

"But when they heard about the mass shooting tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, teachers and students from [The] Wisdom House in Syria came together to honor those lost," the written message says.

"No school should be unsafe in America or Syria," the message, read aloud by an adult, says.

After it shows the names and ages of each of the 17 Florida shooting victims, the Syrian children shout, "We want to be safe!" and the video ends.

State Desk on 03/13/2018

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