UNESCO paves the way for post-conflict Syria

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

UNESCO representative in Lebanon and Syria Hamed al-Hammami inspects the damage the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' inflicted on Palmyra. [Photo courtesy of UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut]

UNESCO representative in Lebanon and Syria Hamed al-Hammami inspects the damage the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' inflicted on Palmyra. [Photo courtesy of UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut]

UNESCO has been implementing a two-pronged crisis strategy in Syria that aims to improve education and restore the country's heritage sites, according to Hamed al-Hammami, UNESCO representative in Lebanon and Syria.

To this end, the agency has been contributing to the construction and rehabilitation of schools in and around Aleppo, and reinforcing archaeological and heritage sites in Aleppo and Palmyra that are at risk of collapse, he said.

By preparing to accommodate children returning to the safe zones in Syria from neighbouring countries, UNESCO will smooth their eventual reintegration into the education system, he told Al-Mashareq during a wide-ranging interview.

Al-Mashareq: What are the key activities carried out by UNESCO in Syria?

Hamed Al-Hammami: Since the beginning of the crisis, UNESCO has been represented by four staff members stationed in Damascus and Aleppo.

At the outset of the crisis, we launched a crisis strategy that meets the agency's twin objectives: "education is a right for all", and "protection of world cultural and natural heritage".

Our strategy focuses on education, youth and world heritage. We are implementing it in Syria and in neighbouring countries that received refugees.

It aims to get students back in school, especially those who have not attended school in the past three to four years due to the conflict.

In co-operation with the Syrian Ministry of Education, we developed an intensive alternative education curriculum for primary and secondary students that will enable them to attend school after passing exams and obtaining a certificate.

The intensive curriculum programme will be implemented in all Syrian provinces, including opposition-held areas, and in every region where the conflict subsides.

About 70,000 students enrolled in the programme’s first year, three years ago. Today that number has reached one million, including those who have returned to school and Aleppo students who enrolled in the programme this summer.

To date, we have trained more than 8,000 teachers on how to deal with students who require psycho-social support and how to encourage students to mentor each other.

Al-Mashareq: Please tell us about the Aleppo education initiative.

Al-Hammami: Aleppo schools lack infrastructure, chairs and desks.

UNESCO, along with UNICEF and other international organisations, has contributed to the repair and rehabilitation of 12 schools in and around Aleppo.

We supplied some schools with electricity generators, and in response to Ministry of Education input, we also supplied technical education institutes with wood, which students used to build desks and chairs.

We also ramped up our co-ordination with other organisations to absorb returning students, with the aim of accommodating them in the schools.

To this end, in co-ordination with the ministry, a three-shift education programme is being adopted in the schools to ensure education for all.

Al-Mashareq: Are you preparing for the implementation of safe zones?

Al-Hammami: Yes. We are intensifying our efforts to accommodate as many students as possible, especially those who will return.

In addition to the programmes we have developed, we have released and distributed a booklet to teachers and students throughout Syria on psycho-social support, how to deal with the crisis, priorities and other issues.

Al-Mashareq: What about archaeological and heritage sites? Are there plans to repair them?

Al-Hammami: The reconstruction phase, particularly in Palmyra and Aleppo, must be preceded with the development of plans, particularly for the sites classified as World Heritage sites by the World Heritage Committee. So our efforts are focused on stopping the destruction and targeting of sites included in the World Heritage List.

UNESCO's Director General has succeeded in getting the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning and criminalising attacks on World Heritage sites in Syria and elsewhere.

The resolution also applies to traders in antiquities who become active in wars and crises and carry out indiscriminate excavations to dig up antiquities.

[...] In Palmyra, we conducted a field survey and assessed the damage to its ancient sites, and determined that 80% of them were in good condition, while the contents of its museum had been saved by the people in charge of it.

As for Aleppo, what has been destroyed there requires a restoration plan.

We are currently working with the Ministry of Culture, in co-operation with some organisations and donors, to rehabilitate the sites that are at risk of collapse, such as the Umayyad Mosque [in Damascus], whose pillars are being reinforced.

An executive committee has been set up in Aleppo to develop a plan for rebuilding its sites under the supervision of UNESCO. It will be submitted to the World Heritage Committee for review and approval.

Al-Mashareq: Are you conducting training ahead of the start of the restoration?

Al-Hammami: We have started putting together and training Syrian staffs to play their role in the rebuilding process, and have held several workshops, the most recent of which was on how to recycle locally manufactured materials.

The Syrian Directorate of Antiquities has expertise in the area of restoration.

While these sites attract international attention, UNESCO's joint efforts with other organisations are focused on preventing the smuggling of antiquities.

We have held conferences and workshops in Lebanon with the participation of local and international stakeholders such as INTERPOL.

We also have co-ordinated with neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and have recovered artefacts from Europe and other countries.

We produced a video featuring the stolen antiquities that is being run at airports and tourist sites to fight theft, as this is the collective responsibility of all countries.

And we launched the #Unite4Heritage campaign in all schools in Syria, after UNESCO launched it in Iraq and then Lebanon to educate the youth about the need to protect their antiquities.

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