Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN national security analyst and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Mustafa Mohammed Alali contributed to this piece.
Step through the gate into the schoolyard and the sight of colorful drawings of happy children greets you at the door. The joyful shouts of little ones belting out their ABCs ricochet through the halls. And smiling students can be seen shuffling their way up the stairs to their classrooms.
It looks like any school anyplace in the world. Except that it isn’t.
And there is something here no one expects to see: hope.
This is Raqqa, Syria. The city that ISIS once called its “capital.” A place where beheadings and hangings happened regularly, where the religious police roamed the streets throwing citizens in jail. A place on whose streets women were bought and sold as slaves.
And now it is a city whose slow, grinding but real and visible progress is underway. When people talk to me about Syria, including northeastern Syria, now held by the US-backed forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces, they immediately use words like “basket case” or “quagmire” or “hopeless.”
But see the reality on the ground, and things look quite different. Yes, there is shocking destruction. Yes, there is heartbreak and loss. And yes, most certainly questions loom about the future and what it will look like. But alongside all these challenges is a spirit of determination and people who quickly speak with you about pushing their city forward after the yearslong hell they faced under ISIS.
Few expect to find progress in Raqqa, let alone inspiration. But they both are here. Talk to women and men on the city’s streets and there is a sense of possibility among those leading the battle for stability. We don’t see or hear them often enough. However, if the city is going to have a peaceful future, it will be because of them.
One of them is Shamsa al Basiq, an Arabic teacher working in the city center.
I recently spent a morning with her at the Raqqa elementary school where she teaches. As we spoke, backpack-toting little ones jumped up and down, and harried teachers bustled in and out of classrooms.
“When Raqqa was liberated, there was hope for the future,” Shamsa says. “There is hope despite the destruction. There is hope now because there is a big desire from the students to go on. These students have suffered, but they want to learn.”
Things looked a lot different six months ago.
Last November, most of where we stood was filled with rubble. Back then, ISIS had just fallen. Few dared go back. Civilians feared ISIS sleeper cells if they returned home. They feared the mines that ISIS fighters left behind – in teapots, refrigerators – all across the city as they abandoned it.
Slowly, though, things have begun to shift. And Raqqa has become one more front line of the fight for stability. This is a fight that started the day most of these teachers returned after fleeing war – and came back to rebuild the single place they believe is key to keeping peace.
“Forty teachers came back; we spent one month cleaning up the school together,” Shamsa says, using her right arm to show me the rubble that used to be where we now stood. “When I came back to this neighborhood after it was liberated, I didn’t even go home to clean up my house first. I came here.”
Shamsa’s father encouraged her to get back to work after ISIS, telling her he would worry about where their family was going to live. It was her job to get back to work at the school where she taught before ISIS moved in.
Each day under ISIS, she says, held fear.
“I was afraid to leave the house, and I was afraid to be arrested by the Hezba (religious police),” Shamsa says. “We were living in fear every day; we just stayed at home and waited to be liberated. They always gave us the feeling we could all be beheaded.”
During the last months of the battle between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces, Shamsa and her family paid smugglers to get them out of Raqqa. ISIS shot at them as they sped through a checkpoint, she remembers.
Now, they are back. And Shamsa, with her father’s blessing, is in her classroom once again, teaching boys and girls whose love of learning is enough to move even the most war-hardened visitor. Myself included.
The school opened last January and almost immediately had several hundred students studying each day. Today, that number has climbed to 1,500 girls and boys studying from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., the teachers say. They study Arabic, mathematics and English, among other subjects. And judging from the day we dropped by, these students would stay at school and study for as long as their teachers allowed them.
Shamsa says she hopes the international community and the anti-ISIS coalition will continue to support the work of teachers like her and schools like this one. They will do the work of teaching each day, but they need support – and the international community to stay and help them get rid of the rubble – as they stand their city back up after the nightmare of ISIS.
And that is what strikes you most moving around Raqqa and the neighborhoods around it. The city’s own citizens are doing the biggest lift: They are cleaning their houses. Rebuilding their lives. Opening restaurants. Starting businesses. And their fight to keep a fragile stability is one shared by anyone who cares about the region’s stability and doesn’t want international forces to ever have to go back.
The steps forward are here to see. The question is, will the world continue to back them?
This city is not a basket case. It is a place of beginnings. And Shamsa and her students are leading the way.
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“When we started school, the first thing we did was to build relationships with our students,” Shamsa says. “They would play like ISIS, pretending to be carrying out beheadings, like ISIS did, and those things. We stopped them and talked with them and intervened using music and sports and painting. It took two months, and then we saw a difference.”
As much as the school is about teaching its students, Shamsa says, it is also about offering its children some sense of normalcy, a place free of fear. And letting these little ones, who witnessed hangings and beheadings and all manner of brutality, have a plain old, regular day at school.
“We see our work as taking the thoughts of ISIS from our students’ minds,” she says. After all the horrors that Shamsa’s students have seen and survived, and after all that the city has endured, she says she and her fellow teachers feel more needed than ever. “Today, we are even more motivated to teach.”