Deir Ezzor (AFP) – Her name means “dreams” in Arabic and schoolteacher Ahlam is finally realising hers – returning to her beloved classroom after years of jihadist rule over her eastern Syrian hometown.
Perched on school benches in their bright coats, excited young boys and girls chant in unison as they count the cherries she has drawn in chalk on the blackboard.
The Islamic State group overran large swathes of Syria in 2014, with the jihadists imposing their own rigid interpretation of Islam on residents.
They opened their own schools, banning music and the arts, and dispensed brutal punishments to those who did not adhere to their ultra-conservative values.
Ms Ahlam says the jihadists tried to recruit her to teach in one of their schools in her hometown of Al-Shamatiyah, near Deir Ezzor city.
She refused, opting to teach her children in secret at home and eking out a living from an orchard she tended to with her husband, an agricultural engineer.
“I thought there would no longer be a future for our children – no schooling, no rights,” recalls Ms Ahlam.
“But thank God, the children are studying, so they can at least read and write,” she tells AFP, her hair covered by a blue headscarf.
Since a Syrian government offensive ousted the jihadists from Deir Ezzor city and nearby territory in late 2017, teachers and pupils alike have rushed back to the classroom.
At 13, Mohammad al-Ragheb shyly admits he does not know how to read or write, having spent the years under IS rein outside of school.
“I should be in eighth grade now, but I wasn’t able to go to school,” he tells AFP.
He now sits excitedly in a crisp classroom in eastern Syria, awaiting his lesson.
According to Deir Ezzor’s education directorate, the fighting in the region meant some 200,000 students went without proper schooling for five years, with around 5,000 teachers out of work.
Now, the directorate says, dozens of schools have reopened and around 45,000 students are back in school.
Some 6,000 students are also resuming their studies at the Euphrates University in Deir Ezzor, capital of the province of the same name.
Its main buildings lie in a western part of the city that remained under Syrian government control but was under siege for years by IS fighters holding the rest.
But some of the faculties – such as those of medicine and agriculture – lie in areas that were seized by the jihadists.Student Mona al-Nasser, now 24, was getting ready to graduate when IS swept across the desert province in 2014.
Their advance trapped her under jihadist reign in her hometown of Mayadeen, 50 kilometers away.
“All I wanted to do was study. I’m so happy to be back today, and I hope those other days never return,” says Ms Nasser.
Hanging over one lecture hall’s entrance are portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez.
Inside, students are silently working on an Arabic language exam.
Some are hunched over their papers, writing furiously without pause. Others furrow their brows, thinking hard, before tackling the question.
Amina, 23, has travelled to her class all the way from Raqa – more than 130 kilometers to the west.
Her city was the de-facto capital of IS’ brutal “caliphate,” but was captured in October by a US-backed alliance that has rivalled Russian-backed Syrian troops.“I was besieged in Raqa for three years and could not resume my studies. I was in my second year,” she tells AFP.
“It was a very difficult period. I tried as hard as I could to leave Raqa, but I needed a miracle.”
Now that Amina is back in school, she has picked up where she left off as a sophomore.
“It feels so wonderful to be back in class, because that’s what determines your future in the end,” she says.
Even as IS lost its military grip on Deir Ezzor, the jihadists left unexploded mines and sand berms all across the city and its entrances, barring the way for students and residents in general.
Syrian military personnel have spent months clearing away those explosives, and displaced residents have started to repopulate the city.