Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Trapped in Idlib, US-funded school for orphans appeals to Trump for help

Children and teachers from Wisdom House school were forced to flee in January in the face of a regime offensive

A man inspects the damage in the village of Maaret Al Naasan in Syria's Idlib province. AFP
A man inspects the damage in the village of Maaret Al Naasan in Syria's Idlib province. AFP

As Syrian regime troops advanced on the former rebel stronghold of Maarat Al Numan in Idlib province this past December, Jerry Adams was at a loss. There was little the businessman could do from 6,000 miles away in Conway, Arkansas.

“You’re helpless,” said Mr Adams. “The sense is, you’re watching a plane crash that you have no control over.”

For Mr Adams, the violence gripping northwest Syria was personal. Caught in the crosshairs was a school for orphans that he for years had helped support. Known as Wisdom House, the primary school in rural Idlib provided a safe space for children in the area, most of whom had lost parents in the war.

Mr Adams leads a group of about a dozen volunteers, many affiliated with his church, who have together raised roughly $150,000 (Dh550,000) for the school since 2016. The central Arkansas-based project has paid for the school’s supplies, generators and teacher salaries, as well as an underground classroom deemed necessary following deadly airstrikes on a nearby school.

“For every child, Wisdom House was their home,” said Moumena Al Qasim, an English teacher at the school. “It was a success thanks to first God and then the Americans.”

But that all changed in December, when under the cover of Russian airstrikes, Syrian troops pushed deeper into the country’s northwest. Civilians were fleeing Maarat Al Numan in droves, and the staff at Wisdom House decided it was time to evacuate the school.

In the bitter winter cold before sunrise, they loaded the frightened students onto the same school bus they once used for school trips.

“The situation kept worsening until the town had to evacuate entirely,” Ms Al Qasim said. “Even the birds and animals fled when the regime advanced.”

The past two months of fighting in Idlib province has displaced more than 700,000 civilians, including many previously uprooted from violence elsewhere in Syria, estimates the United Nations.

The government-led offensive aimed at retaking the country’s last main opposition-held territory drags on despite a mid-January ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the war. The relentless bombing campaign has created a displacement crisis that aid organisations say is unlike anything witnessed during Syria’s nine-year-long civil war.

For months, the Arkansas team and Wisdom House’s parent organisation, the Washington DC-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, had been discussing ways to get the orphans out of Syria. But the process for refugee resettlement can take years, and finding a government willing to open its doors to such a large number of children proved nearly impossible, they said.

With time running out, the Wisdom House volunteers took their cause directly to US President Donald Trump. In a Christmas Day letter, they requested that he pressure the government of Turkey to allow the students and their teachers safe passage across the border.

“I think it came from a kind of a sense of helplessness,” said Mr Adams. “The letter was kind of a call for awareness from people that can’t do anything about it.”

The nine signatories — all leaders of various faith-based organisations across Arkansas — also pledged to provide full financial support for the children should they be allowed to enter Turkey.

“What we were doing was asking the president to address this injustice,” said Father Tony Robbins of St. Joseph Catholic Church. “Don’t forget the people there.”

The ongoing bombardment in Idlib has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing north toward Turkey, which is already home to roughly 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Even as a humanitarian crisis looms at its southern frontier, Ankara has kept its border sealed to new arrivals.

Unable to cross, many displaced families are sleeping in the open air or in overcrowded makeshift camps. The Wisdom House children have found temporary shelter in basements scattered throughout northern Idlib.

Their plight caught the attention of Arkansas Congressman French Hill, who says he was moved by the work of the volunteers in his home state.

“It’s been a real source of inspiration for me to see Americans in my district reaching out and making a real difference in the lives of those in one of the most unfortunate places in the world,” said Mr Hill.

The Republican lawmaker, who was a co-sponsor of the Caesar Act which sanctioned the Syrian regime, forwarded the letter to the White House on January 10. He has not yet received a response and plans on raising the issue of Idlib with the National Security Council, the foreign policy arm of the White House, he told The National.

For now, the Wisdom House children are spread out across the Idlib and Aleppo countryside as their teachers work on finding a more permanent location for their classes. Numbering around 130, the students are but a fraction of the estimated 1.2 million children UNICEF estimates are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance in Idlib.

“It’s a great tragedy,” said Mr Hill. “We will shake our heads in shame when we look back on this in 25 or 30 years.”

Updated: February 13, 2020 11:27 AM

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