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Syria's Suffering Families

Education For Me is Life’: The Headmistress Keeping Kids From ISIS

Syrian Children Need to Be in School, Says Headmistress 2:12

REYHANLI, Turkey --At the Al Salam School for Syrian refugee children here at the Syrian border, headmistress Hazar Mahayni starts her day at 4am, Skyping with colleagues at Al Salam's sister school in Canada. But even as the sun sets, she keeps going. This evening she's attempting to convince a reluctant father to send all five of his children to her school. Right now, only 12 year-old Waseem - who walks an hour each way to get to class -- has left behind farm work for an education.

"What are you going to do? Watch your children grow up without the ability to read or write?," Mustapha, the kids' father. "If they don't go to school, how will they live? Give them the right to live. Give them four hours of education a day."

Her persuasion works. After much pleading, Mustapha eventually agrees to let 14 year-old Ahmed, his oldest son, join Waseem at school. His other children will have to wait.

An alternate path

The 63 year-old pharmacist and grandmother is a Syrian native, but has lived in Canada for decades. She started Al Salam school two years ago, expecting to accommodate 300 children in grades 1 through 9.

But more than 900 prospective students showed up on the first day alone. Six months ago, when we first visited Al Salam, the number had grown to 1200. This fall, 800 more students came to enroll- including 500 in grades 10-12.

Image: Hazar Mahayni speaks with the father of young Waseem , a student at her school for Syrian refugees who had been missing classes to help his dad at work
Hazar Mahayni speaks with the father of young Waseem , a student at her school for Syrian refugees, to persuade him to send all of his children to her school. David Copeland / NBC News

"Education for me is life. It's more important for any child than food or clothes. When I see any child begging in the street or abused by child labor or having no hope, I'm really scared," says Mahayni.

The rise of ISIS in the region, and the ongoing wars between extremist groups, rebel groups and the Syrian government forces, make education even more important Mahayni says.

"I'm very worried about what's going on in the world with ISIS and terrorism," she says. "I feel it's so easy to slip into this dangerous group and be one of them"

Education is the surest way to offer an alternative in a desperate situation, she says.

"When you save a teenager from the street and give him hope, education makes him believe that we care about him and his future," she explains. "He will take care of himself. He will not go to explode himself to die for nothing. When I see my students in the school here I feel that they are more safe than when they are in the street because if they feel they are worthless they might do anything crazy and dangerous."

The war will not end anytime soon, and Mahyani wants to prepare her students for that.

"When you hear the news and how it's gong inside Syria, it's worse everyday," she says. "So I want to prepare the students that it will take a long time. Maybe years. Maybe I will never see my home again."

The perfect gift

Mahayni's next hope: to explore opportunities for her students to attend university. But first, she will present Waseem with a gift tp celebrate his perfect attendance: a new bike to get to school.

Waseem is shocked when Mahayni rolls the shiny new bike over to him. Then he smiles, and hops on.

A Special Gift For a Special Student 0:38

"Waseem asked me who bought the bike?," says Mahyani. "And I said 'I bought it for you because I want you to come to school everyday -- I'm very proud of you that you are not missing a day. Education is your right in this life.'

"He then hugged me. I cannot believe it because he's very shy. He hugged me and he said thank you."