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A Normal Life’: School For Syrian Kids Offers Lesson in Hope

Image: Head mistress and founder of Al Salam school in Reyhanli, Hazar Mahayni,

Al Salam headmistress Hazar Mahayni cheers along with her students during a party celebrating the end of the school year in Reyhanli, Turkey. Ivor Prickett / Panos for NBC News

It’s the end of the school year at the Al Salam school in Reyhanli, a town on the Turkish border with Syria. Al Salam’s headmistress, 63 year-old Hazar Mahayni, is distributing chilled lemonade and honor certificates to dozens of excited students who have packed the courtyard. It’s 90 degrees outside, and getting hotter. Despite the desperate situations most of these kids endure on a daily basis, it’s a scene that would be familiar to parents around the world: smiles, cheers, delight.

“When I see the smile on these faces, when I see that my children, Syrian children, are living a normal life, only for one or two hours, that's enough,” Mahayni says.

Mahayni, a Damascus native and grandmother of three, works full-time as a pharmacist in Montreal, Canada, where she and her family moved more than 20 years ago. But she spends up to three months in Turkey each year overseeing Al Salam – a school she founded to help refugee children after her husband died two years ago.

Syrian Students’ Smiles Light Up Teacher with Hope 0:38

“At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, everybody was thinking of giving food, clothes, and some of them are giving weapons. But, you know, I was thinking that education is the solution. It is the hope for all the Syrians. I thought the best thing I can give to my country, to the Syrian children, to my people, is to take care of their children,” she says.

Al Salam opened in October 2012 with an expected enrollment of around 300 students. Staff members were shocked and overwhelmed when three times that number showed up. Today there are 1200 students, filling grades 1-9, with 50 teachers and a dozen administrative staff, all Syrian refugees, who work full-time.

The school operates three sessions daily, six days a week. Funding comes from personal donors and fundraisers and tuition from a sister school in Montreal. Books, other supplies and tuition are all free of charge. Crucially, the school offers its students free transportation to and from school. Most Syrian refugee families living in and around Reyhanli lack bus fare to get their children to school.

Syrian Kids Find Joy in School for Refugees 0:39

According to UNICEF, more than two million Syrian children are not in classrooms. Mahayni is hoping to raise enough funds to expand the school to grade 12 and increase the number of students to 1500. The plan to expand reflects Mahayni and her staff’s bleak outlook on the fighting inside Syria.

“When I started the school I was thinking that it will only take 1, 2 , 3 months [for the war in Syria to end and these children to go back home]… then a year passed, and now a second year. But now I’m not waiting anymore, because I know it will take a long time.”

“It’s sad, but this is the reality. We have to deal with this reality. We have to accept it,” she says.

Image: Headmistress Hazar Mahayni sits on the steps of the Al Salam school in Reyhanli, Turkey.
Headmistress Hazar Mahayni sits on the steps of the Al Salam school in Reyhanli, Turkey. Ivor Prickett / Panos for NBC News

Mahayni wants the students at her school to embrace new ideas that will help build a new democratic Syria. There is a student parliament, where students are encouraged to vote and give their perspectives on how the school should be run.

“Here we are treating the children with respect,” she says. “I’m always telling my teachers, you have to deal with each child as if he is the new president of Syria.

“I think the hope of Syria is the children. The smile on their faces, the happiness they get when they come to school, when I saw them running, running, and I saw them wait outside for one hour, they wait for the bus for one hour to pick them up… This is the hope.”

To help the Al Salam school, visit www.syriankids.ca and sponsor a student or contribute to a teacher's salary.

Read our previous story on Syria's Suffering Families - Years Of Quiet: No Cure For Syrian Boy Who Can't Speak