Umm ʿAbdu “the Teacher”

Umm ʿAbdu fled the opposition-held neighbourhoods of Aleppo to government-controlled Tartus, where her unique personality caught the eye of the residents of her new city. 

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(Photo: Umm ʿAbdu’s daughters, Siham, Hala, and Nur – Old Garage camp – Tartus – 26-5-2016 [Ghenwa Yusuf/Good Morning Syria]).

(Tartus, Syria) When she first came to Tartus, it did not occur to Umm ʿAbdu that she would be called “Umm Abdu the Teacher”, especially since she had to abandon her studies upon marrying at an early age.

After all, taking into account the customs of her old neighbourhood in Aleppo, a girl’s marriage can affect her education. Nevertheless, after giving birth to five children, the woman still says: “I used to dream of becoming a midwife, like the one who helped me during my pregnancy.”

In Aleppo

Umm ʿAbdu passed her dream on to her children, trying to help them to achieve the best results in school. She would sit with them as soon as they came home, not only to make sure they finished their homework, but also to prepare for their next lessons. She would resort to various means to encourage them to learn, promising those who achieved the best marks both pecuniary and in-kind prizes.

Once she felt that her job was done, she would move on to her housework.

The war

It had been two years since the children dropped out of school. As government aircrafts engulfed the sky of Aleppo and hunger fought its way into its streets, Umm ʿAbdu sent her children, Siham and ʿAbdu, to the grocer’s shop to buy a notebook, a pencil, and an eraser. The grocer wondered in amazement: “What could Umm ʿAbdu possibly need a notebook, a pencil, and an eraser for amidst all this destruction?”

The woman tutored her children herself. She helped Siham and ʿAbdu in maths and Arabic, and taught Nur and Hala the alphabet and numbers, as well as some Koranic verses.

“Just like old writers who used to teach children how to read and write in mosques, sitting on rugs, I gathered the children in the camp after sending word to their mothers to provide them each with a pencil, a notebook, and a rug to sit on.”

However, as the war grew heavier and the destruction wider, Umm ʿAbdu and her husband decided to leave to Tartus and live in the Old Garage camp in the city, in a tent where kitchenware is mixed with schoolbooks.

In Tartus

What was Umm ʿAbdu thinking about at the time? It is summer… There are only two months left before another school year begins, and she must help her children prepare for it after being out of school.

The empty UNICEF tent was a chance for Umm ʿAbdu to expand her idea so as to include all the children in the camp. “Just like old writers who used to teach children how to read and write in mosques, sitting on rugs, I gathered the children in the camp after sending word to their mothers to provide them each with a pencil, a notebook, and a rug to sit on. I would give them lessons almost every day for two hours or more,” the woman explained.

“Some of them were completely illiterate, while others required lessons in maths, English, Arabic, and other subjects. Everyone at the camp then started calling me ‘Umm ʿAbdu the Teacherʼ,” she added.

Umm ʿAbdu “the Teacher” soon caught the attention of the camp’s supervisor and director, who introduced her to the associations and organisations working there and that were willing to help in any possible way.

Camp supervisor and “liaison officer”

As trustworthy as she was, Umm ʿAbdu became the camp’s lead supervisor, preparing lists and statistics, and overseeing distributions and role division. She takes note of the camp needs and mediates to solve problems, trying as much as possible to help those who truly need it. She also prevents cheating, as some would attempt to take a bigger share of aid.

Umm ʿAbdu’s relations further exceeded the camp supervisors to reach local independent activists in the city, such as the ʿUbur volunteer team and al-Shaala Centre, that had heard of Umm ʿAbdu and contacted her; they offered to give the camp residents a hand or to help solve any problem they may encounter. This is how Umm ʿAbdu liaised between the camp and its surroundings.

Although the camp is a miniature image of some of Aleppo’s neighbourhoods with all their customs and traditions, Umm ʿAbdu is just like many other women in camps who, due to the war, had to endure their harsh circumstances alone, or undertake roles they had never played before, in order to obtain the least of their rights as well as their families’.

When a father sexually assaulted his own daughter in the camp and people attempted to conceal the incident by forcing the girl into a “shame marriage” (zawaj sutrah) to preserve her honour, Umm ʿAbdu mobilised local activists who intervened to prevent this union. The girl was then sent to a rehabilitation centre and the offender to prison.

Back to where it all started

When you ask Umm ʿAbdu about the war she witnessed in Aleppo, she holds her cheek with the palm of her hand and says: “What a disaster! There are no schools left in Aleppo.”

Apart from all the commotion about Umm ʿAbdu “the Teacher” in Tartus, the woman is still determined on keeping her daughter Siham in school until she becomes a certified midwife, as her father is no longer the only decision maker in this family.