Abdul Khaliq was willing to die for a cigarette. The lifelong educator knew that the simple pleasure of inhaling and exhaling tobacco carried a death sentence in Tabqa, a city located in Syria’s Raqqa province. That’s because, at the time, the province was under the control of Islamic State terrorists.
In between his evening cigarettes, Khaliq would engage in an even riskier activity. After sundown, he would give a full English lesson from the state curriculum to two teenage boys in his home. During the three years ISIS ruled Tabqa, until 2017, dozens of boys escaped to take their university entry exams elsewhere in the country. Khaliq risked his life to make sure they were well-prepared.
“Giving a private class is akin to blasphemy in the eyes of ISIS,” says Khaliq, 41. Equally forbidden was leaving Raqqa without permission. Some of Khaliq’s students were beheaded for trying. Khaliq, a soft-spoken man with a short black beard, was aware that he too could be killed at any moment. He lived in constant fear until his town was finally freed in May 2017 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia backed by U.S. air cover. The next month, Khaliq and five other activists founded the organization Better Hope for al-Tabqa.
Supported with $1.5 million from the U.S. State Department, the organization quickly repaired 14 schools in cities across Raqqa after ISIS was defeated in October 2017. Weeks later, Khaliq oversaw the opening of an education center in Tabqa, which has lifted up hundreds of children wounded during the war.
Khaliq has a beautiful heart, but there is only so much he can do considering the circumstances.
Mohanad al-Ahmad, longtime friend
Since 2018, only children with a physical disability have been permitted to attend the center. By then, the SDF reopened official schools and instructed families to enroll. Khaliq didn’t protest the decision, but he worried that the SDF saw his organization as a rival authority.
Still, more than 120 children have enrolled. Khaliq sent me a photo of one of the students, a 14-year-old boy named Hussein. He is raising his arm to answer a question; his hand is missing. Both of Hussein’s hands were blown off three years ago when he unknowingly touched a land mine.
Children like Hussein have found a safe place at the center, where students between the ages of 6 and 10 are taught literacy in the morning, before adolescents and teenagers arrive in the afternoon.
Khaliq designed the curriculum to provide psychosocial support. The children are deeply traumatized. That much is clear from the images they draw. Pictures of corpses, guns and bombs are common. But after just weeks of classes, some children begin drawing animals, relatives and friends.
Khaliq is building on the progress by convincing families that education is important. With most inhabitants in northeast Syria struggling to survive, many children often miss classes in order to help their parents eke out a living. “For some reason children may stop coming, but we often succeed in bringing them back,” Khaliq says.
He also stresses that his students aren’t exposed to political propaganda. That’s rare in a country where education is traditionally used to brainwash children. For decades, schoolchildren have been recruited into state-controlled youth organizations to ensure they become loyal regime supporters. And during ISIS’ short and brutal rule, boys were indoctrinated to become future jihadis. Many were forced to commit unspeakable crimes.
Only now can some children reclaim a semblance of childhood. Khaliq and his team visit internally displaced camps in northeast Syria twice a month to play with the kids. And in October, he created another curriculum designed to teach Arabic and English to 200 displaced children living in Tawhyena, a tented settlement on the outskirts of Tabqa. The curriculum is the backbone to a one-year project that will run until February 2021. “I’m excited,” Khaliq says. “But I just can’t believe it’s the 21st century when I see the way these children are living in the camp.”
Khaliq remembers how pleasant life was before the war. In 2005, he began teaching kindergarten, and the government soon recognized him as one of the best teachers in the country. He married and fathered three children. But one night in February 2016, his middle child, Hala, fell ill. She had woken up trembling and dripping from a cold sweat. Fearing for her life, Khaliq rushed her to a clinic, but all the doctors had fled after ISIS seized Raqqa. Two nights later, Khaliq buried his daughter.
“Hala would have been 9 today,” he tells me solemnly. “I blame [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He didn’t let us flee to reach a doctor.”
Khaliq is committed to helping as many children as possible. His former students revere him for his compassion. Mishaal, an 18-year-old university student who withheld her last name for fear of reprisal from the Syrian regime, recalls taking English classes with Khaliq just days after ISIS was rooted out of Raqqa. “He read poetry to us,” she says. “And I admired how he explained every lesson in a way that everyone could understand.”
“Khaliq has a beautiful heart, but there is only so much he can do considering the circumstances,” adds Mohanad al-Ahmad, his longtime friend and co-founder of Better Hope for al-Tabqa.
The situation in northeast Syria is particularly unstable after U.S troops pulled out in October. The move enabled Turkey to attack the SDF, which it views as a terrorist organization. Fearing a slaughter, the Kurdish leadership struck a deal with the Syrian regime, allowing Bashar Assad’s forces to enter the region for the first time since 2012.
Khaliq fears that the regime could reconquer Raqqa. If that happens, he would flee. His brother has already been captured and jailed in Sednaya, a prison notorious for torturing and killing thousands of civilians. His brother wasn’t even a dissident, merely a low-level government employee who was arrested in 2014 when he went to collect his salary.
Khaliq still copes with the grief of losing his brother and daughter. But like the children of Raqqa, he has found refuge in his school.