Yemeni students would rather study under trees than lose another year
LAHJ, Yemen - Classes here start at 8am, but the cold weather forces Abdulhaq Ali Ghalib, 18, a student in al-Rab School in Lahj's al-Qabaita district, to wake up at 6am, so he can arrive early enough to catch a spot where there's abundant sunshine.
"The weather is so cold in the morning, it's hard to understand the teacher, and the only solution is for me to sit in the best spot in the class, where there are sun rays," Ghalib told Middle East Eye, glancing at a group of students in another class sitting under a tree nearby.
Ghalib hails from the Karesh area, which he left because of fighting, but now lives with his family at the school he attends after it became a camp for displaced people. Because they did not want to miss an academic year, students opted to study under the trees in the valley.
The fierce clashes in Karesh area have so far forced 425 families to leave their homes and head towards other areas in Lahj and Aden provinces. Many of them have opted for the al-Qabaita district, as it is the nearest to Karesh and there are camps for displaced people.
Due to violence and the closure of schools, more than 350,000 children were unable to resume their education in the past school year, bringing the total of out-of-school children in Yemen to more than two million.
“Children who are out of school are at risk of recruitment to fight”, said UNICEF's Yemen Representative, Julien Harneis, last month, according to the group's Yemen website.
UNICEF estimates that 2,108 schools across the country can no longer be used. They were destroyed or damaged, host internally displaced families or are being used for military purposes.
"We are studying amid dust and noise, and we are suffering from bad posture, as we do not have chairs or even a paved place to sit on," Ghalib said. "But this suffering is better than losing another year. We already did not study last year."
Ghalib considers himself luckier than Heela Husain, 17, considering he has found a place where he can sit under direct sunlight and then move when he needs to under the tree. Husain's class always takes part under a tree, so she is always feeling cold.
"I am suffering from bad headaches because of the cold weather and the dust," Husain told MEE. "Every day I have to wash my clothes since I sit on dusty ground for four hours a day."
The students feel that they aren't grasping most of what they are being taught: the teaching environment is not conducive for learning, and inclement weather and pain due to sitting on the ground makes it difficult for them to pay attention.
Tents can be a solution
The principal of al-Rabo School, Farea Saeed, said he met the relatives of students and teachers two months ago, and they decided to resume studying under the trees since the displaced people cannot evacuate the school and return to their homes because of fighting.
"The environment is not suitable for studying, as people are suffering from illnesses, and there is a dire need for blackboards and other supplies, but it is the only choice we have," he told MEE. "There are no bathrooms for students, and they have to relieve themselves behind large rocks."
There are more than 850 students in the primary and secondary classes in the al-Rabo School, all of whom are studying under the trees. The school only has three tents, which are not enough even for three primary classes, according to Saeed.
Since the conflict escalated more than 18 months ago, attacks on school children, teachers and education infrastructure left a devastating impact on the country’s education system – and on the chances of millions of children to access learning, according to UNICEF.
"The main problem is that the displaced people do not have tents, so we cannot ask them to leave the school. I am calling for the organizations to provide us with tents, so students can study inside them, which definitely are better than trees," Saeed added.
Saeed confirmed that more than 170 students in the school are displaced, and he cannot provide even the half of the students with textbooks.
He believes that the current teaching environment could worsen in the coming months, as the expected rain can prevent students from studying under trees. "The rain season will come during the next months and this will hamper our teaching efforts under the trees; that is why I am asking organizations and charitable people to provide us with tents."
Riyadh Salem, a teacher at the school, confirmed that the educational environment does not meet the lowest standards, as students cannot grasp even a quarter of the lessons, but the relatives of the students and the management of the school insisted on having classes resume.
"While I am teaching a class to the students, they are busy looking at and listening to birds on a tree, or cleaning their clothes from the dust, while others are cleaning the spots underneath them, so I can say that it is difficult to teach in these conditions and I prefer to stop teaching," Salem added to MEE.
"Even if there are tents, I do not think we can teach inside tents. I prefer that displaced people live inside tents and we return our school."
Education office cannot help
The director of the education office in al-Qabaita district, Mohsen Gazem, said that the war closed eight schools in the conflict zones of the district, including Karesh, and forced students to look for alternative schools either in al-Qabaita or outside it, but most of them are studying in the former.
"We distributed 14 tents for several schools, including three ones for al-Rabo School, and we know those tents are not enough for students, but we do not have others to provide," Gazem told MEE. "The education office does not have a car and does not have an operating budget, so we cannot visit the outdoor schools."
He stated that there are students at mosques and tents, and more than 1,000 students study under trees and in the valley, and those are in the rural areas of al-Qabaita.
Gazem added: "The educational system is one of the sectors damaged by the war and it is not in our hand to reconstruct it, as the war is ongoing and the educational offices are working without a budget. So we will wait until the end of the atrocious war, and then the government may help."
He confirmed that even if the environment is not suitable for teaching, resuming classes can help prevent students from picking up arms. Some of the students joined the war last year when they found themselves out of school and that was the same motive that made parents send their children to study under trees.
Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, the United Nations has found that 1,210 children, some as young as eight years old, were recruited to fight, according to UNICEF.
"The government could not provide us with enough food after my father lost his work as a vegetable seller in Karesh, and we could not get a proper house to live in, but I hope the government can end our suffering under the trees," said the displaced student Ghalib.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.