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Changing Schools

Series following a year in the life of four schools in Damascus. At Zaki Al Arsouzi Girls' School, new pupil Dua'a must adapt to a more liberal environment.


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We've followed school life around the world from Uganda,

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to India, to China.

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Now we're in Damascus, Syria, the oldest capital city on Earth

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in the heart of the Arab world.

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Following a year in the lives of four schools in Damascus, we look at Syria's next generation.

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What is life really like in this high pressure crossroads of the Middle East?

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There are signs that Syria is opening up, but it remains dominated

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by a single party and Syrians have limited political freedom.

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Education's compulsory for boys and girls until 15 and free up to university level.

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Like anywhere in the world, school life is about much more than just books.

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In this programme it's the start of a new school year.

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Amal Hassan is the head teacher

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of Zaki al-Arsuzi Girls' Secondary School.

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She makes sure everyone knows who's boss.

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Du'aa comes from a devout Muslim family

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and until now she's been educated at Islamic school.

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But this term she's moved to the more liberal Zaki al-Arsuzi School

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where most of her classmates come from different backgrounds.

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Across town at Jaramana Boys' School, Yusif is football mad.

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He's an Iraqi refugee who lived through the bombs of Baghdad.

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Now in Syria, he must start to overcome his fear of explosions.

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We follow their stories as they begin the new academic year at their Syrian schools.

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It's September...

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Set in the affluent Al-Mazraa area of Damascus,

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Zaki al-Arsuzi Girls' Secondary School prepares for the first day of term.

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Looking forward to guiding another batch of students to graduation, is head teacher, Mrs Amal Hassan.

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I want them to see how strong I am

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and how I am proud of myself.

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And how I am free from inside.

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And this is very good for them to face all the problem of the life, they have to be like this.

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Today is the first day of Mrs Hassan's 17th year as head teacher here.

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-Are you happy to be back at school?

-No, we're not.

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The girls are finding their classes for the new school year.

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17-year-old Mayas Barazi was so disruptive last year

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that she's been moved to a different class.

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It's my friend and their class, I'm here. I don't know any girls here.

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We miss her so much.

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-They cannot accept us because we are so naughty.

-Yes.

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THEY LAUGH

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BELL RINGS

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Zaki al-Arsuzi is a state school which teaches 1,200 girls aged from 15 to 18.

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Like most Syrian schools it's secular

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and follows the Baccalaureate system, teaching the full range of subjects.

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Mr Nablisi gets up to speed in physics.

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Mr Houssam tackles life's big questions in philosophy.

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And in the next door class room, Mrs Ramadan sets out her stall with Islamic studies.

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What's different about the beginning of this school year

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is that it coincides with the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

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Muslims aren't supposed to eat or drink until sundown.

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The school doesn't enforce this but as a concession there's no PE and the tuck shop's closed.

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At least on the first day of term the girls can wear whatever clothes they like.

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They want to show at the beginning of the year that they are girls,

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beautiful girls, for the teachers, for me for each other. Yes.

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But beautiful or not, school supervisor Miss Rehab wants

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to make sure that for the girls these relaxed rules only last for one day.

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They can wear whatever they want this day.

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Tomorrow you not know them.

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They are quite different tomorrow.

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The holy month of Ramadan has just begun.

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It celebrates the start of God's revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed.

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Late afternoon and the streets are jammed with hungry, thirsty people fighting to get home.

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Towards sunset, at a time that would normally be rush hour, the traffic gradually trickles away.

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Families gather at home and friends meet at restaurants.

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Huge fire crackers and the sun set call to prayer tell the faithful

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it's time to begin their Iftar meal, a word normally used for breakfast.

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The new moon hangs over the city

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which will follow the Ramadan daily cycle, for a whole lunar month.

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Every day before dawn the city is awoken by drummers.

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Waking the faithful to eat a sustaining meal that will take them through the day ahead.

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Day two at Zaki al-Arsuzi School

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and Mrs Hassan is checking her girls have come in their uniform.

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16-year-old Du'aa Bazazi is a new girl at Zaki al-Arsuzi,

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so she's got a new bus route to master.

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The great majority of schools in Syria are secular

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but, until now, Du'aa has been educated at a Sharia school run according to Islamic principles.

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But Du'aa switched schools to non-religious Zaki al-Arsuzi in order to focus on her academic studies

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for the crucial last year of her Baccalaureate.

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Some Muslim girls at Zaki al-Arsuzi don't wear the hijab, the traditional Islamic head scarf.

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Du'aa's Islamic Sharia school was a different world.

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Her new head teacher, a Muslim woman from a different generation, has noticed a change of fashion.

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From ten years ago, the girl will not cover.

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Now most of them they are covered.

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Why I don't know.

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So Mrs Hassan has come to Du'aa's class in a spare lesson to explore the reasons.

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New girl, Du'aa, decides to join the debate.

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I want them to be free from inside.

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It's Mrs Hassan's job to deal with all the challenges that come with her position.

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Not everyone can be headmistress because it is very difficult to,

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to know everything about your students, about your teachers.

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Vice head, Lina, is dealing with an issue that every school faces at the beginning of the year.

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Now it's the hardest time of preparing the timetable.

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The difference here is that many of the teachers also work in other schools to boost their income.

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So it's a logistical nightmare to sort out the timetable to fit in with everyone's different work schedules.

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Things have got so bad that Mrs Hassan has called a teacher's meeting to set things straight.

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Drive an hour south from Damascus and you reach Israeli occupied territory.

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An hour to the west and you're in Lebanon.

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And four hours to the east is the border with Iraq.

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Damascus and its schools feel the effects of nearby events.

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Since the fall of Saddam in 2003, two million Iraqi refugees have

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fled to Syria, their first stop in their quest for a new life.

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15-year-old Yusif Andrios and his older brother, Johnson,

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are Iraqi Christians from Baghdad, but for now they live in Damascus.

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As a refugee, Yusif is eligible for a free school uniform from the UN

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as he's about to start life at a new school.

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Syria is proud of the haven it's offered, but many Iraqis have

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suffered high levels of psychological trauma before arriving here.

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After picking up his new school uniform, Yusif returns home.

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He lives with his family in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana.

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Historically, it's a religiously mixed area of the city.

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So it's been a magnet for Iraqi Christians who have suffered badly in the sectarian violence

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that engulfed their home land after the fall of Saddam.

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Yusif loves football.

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He spends his evenings playing with his fellow Iraqis at a local Damascus football club...

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...or with his brothers watching his favourite team in a nearby cafe.

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But not tonight, because tomorrow Yusif is going to start life at a new school.

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At midnight tonight Yusif's brother, James,

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will leave Syria to start a new life as a barber in Sweden.

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He'll be joining his wife who's already managed to get a visa.

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When will you see your brother again?

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-Spiky?

-Yeah.

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It's my only brother.

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It's time for James to start saying goodbye to his family.

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I want to cry.

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Morning, and Jaramana is waking up.

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With his brother already about to touch down in Stockholm, Yusif setting off for his new school.

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The staff are getting ready.

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Yusif has been in Damascus for two years already, so there are some familiar Iraqi boys

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who are also starting at the Jaramana School today.

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BELL RINGS

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The school teaches 500 boys up to the age of 15.

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The only problem is it was built for 300.

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New head teacher Mrs Seif is struggling to cope.

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These boys are not just from different countries, but different faiths as well.

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The school is secular,

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but teaches both Islamic and Christian religious studies.

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So school supervisor Radwan

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needs to know who will study what.

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-Good morning, teacher.

-Sit down.

-Thank you.

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On the first day of term, the boys are told not to assert their differences.

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Yusif is no stranger to conflict after life in Iraq, where even a kickabout could be life-threatening.

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In Iraq, Yusif had been expecting to play in front of a visiting group of Dutch talent scouts,

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but his brother's death meant that he had to leave the country before he could show them his skills.

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Now he's in Damascus, he's safe to follow his sporting dreams.

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But in his first PE lesson, it seems sports teacher Mrs Fallouh is less of a football fan than he is.

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Before long, Yusif realises that today's PE lesson will be all talk and no action.

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Until the fall of Saddam, Iraqis and Syrians lived

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under different versions of the same political system, Ba'athism.

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Ba'ath is Arabic for renaissance.

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The Ba'ath Party was founded in Damascus in 1940 after the end of French colonial rule.

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It's based on secular and socialist ideals.

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Images of the president, leader of the Ba'ath Party, still look on citizens from every angle.

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The Syrian constitution says that,

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"the Ba'ath party is the leader of state and society."

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The party organisation stretches into everyday school life.

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At Zaki al-Arsuzi, Sarah Shbat hopes to become the leader of the Ba'athist school structure.

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So from now on the girls will have to pass her uniform check just to get into school.

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School supervisor Mrs Rehab Zweed

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is grooming Sarah to take over the position of head girl.

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While she may seem hard on her fellow students, Miss Rehab regrets some of the liberalising reforms

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introduced in 2001 when President Bashar al-Assad came to power.

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At morning assembly, she's given Sarah the role of acting Head Girl.

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NATIONAL ANTHEM PLAYS

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After the national motto, Sarah gets to raise the national flag

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to the strains of the Syrian national anthem.

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Young Syrians may now have more freedom to choose their futures than before,

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but the Ba'ath party is still effectively the only political option for them.

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It's time for the school prefect elections.

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All the candidates and voters have to be active members of Syria's Revolution Youth Union.

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Today, Sarah can get a step closer to being confirmed as the new Head Girl.

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CALLING OUT NAMES

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Mayas puts herself forward despite sometimes being known as a disruptive student.

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And although Sarah's the frontrunner,

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she needs Miss Rehab's help to add her name to the list of candidates.

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Only the top seven girls will become leaders of the school's

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seven sub-committees, ranging from Head of Sports to Head of Media.

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The other union members filter away after voting,

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leaving just the candidates behind to witness the count of the votes.

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HE CALLS OUT NAMES

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Syrian democracy is very limited.

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In national elections, the Ba'ath party is guaranteed a majority in parliament.

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And instead of presidential elections, there's a referendum

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every seven years when the President stands, unopposed.

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Finally, it's time to hear the results.

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Although Sarah got the most votes, it's up to the adults of the student union to make the final decision on

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the eventual roles she and the six other top candidates will be given.

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Despite the fact that Sarah won the most votes, her father is not entirely happy with her.

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Her father's criticism seems particularly harsh as Sarah and a few friends have been

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keeping up their basketball practice, despite the fact they are fasting for Ramadan.

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One of Sarah's friends is Mayas Barazi

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who was so naughty last year that she was nearly thrown out of school.

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But she is popular enough to have clinched the seventh leadership position against the odds.

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Jaramana Boys is a religiously mixed school with a lot of Christian Iraqi refugees.

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It's full to bursting point and, at break times, it can get pretty rough.

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Everyone competes for very limited space.

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Today, Yusif's Iraqi friends, Fadi and Steven, have got into trouble.

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They've been called in to see supervisor, Miss Summer.

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Yusif gets roped in as a witness.

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Today, there's a chance for Yusif to try to put the past behind him.

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60 miles outside Damascus is the mainly Christian town of Malula.

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There's an expectancy in the air as the town prepares for the annual all-night Festival of the Cross.

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Back in Damascus, 30 buses are waiting to take

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members of Jaramana's refugee community to the party.

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It's an opportunity for Iraqi Christians like Yusif and his brother, Johnson,

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to reassert and celebrate their Christian identity after persecution in Iraq.

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The crowds are gathering in Malula for the all-night firework festival.

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For Yusif, it will be a raw reminder of the sounds of war.

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FIREWORKS EXPLODE

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As the light fades, processions set-off into the surrounding mountains.

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Fire handlers have taken up positions above the town

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from where they will orchestrate a fearsome display.

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FIREWORKS EXPLODE

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Tonight, Yusif will have to confront his fear of loud bangs head on.

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First, they visit the chapel of the Convent of St Takla where an all-night vigil is already underway.

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The focal point of the ceremony is the Christian symbol of the cross.

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The party will continue throughout the night.

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Simply letting off firecrackers marks progress for Yusif,

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who lived through the American bombardment of Baghdad.

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But, perhaps, he will never fully get over his fear...

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-BANG!

-...of loud bangs.

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The Festival of the Cross has coincided with the third week of Ramadan.

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And in Damascus, where over 80% are Muslims, the holy month is gathering in intensity.

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Du'aa Bazazi is no exception.

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She'd memorised the entire Koran by the time she was 14.

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And went to Sharia school until she moved to secular Zaki al-Arsuzi

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this term to concentrate on preparing for the Baccalaureate exams.

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For Du'aa, there is no contradiction between devout religious conviction and a desire for

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a modern education.

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As a child, Du'aa dreamed of space travel.

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Du'aa has now been at Zaki al-Arsuzi for nearly a month.

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But before the holiday hits, newly elected prefect, Mayas Barazi,

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is among those who've been picked to take part in a new innovation in Syrian education.

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Mayas and her team get down to work on their pitch.

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Little do they know that the school is about to host a very special guest.

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Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria, is known for making surprise

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visits to these workshops and today she's come to Zaki al-Arsuzi.

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APPLAUSE

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The First Lady was born and went to school in England

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before marrying Bashar al-Assad, now President of Syria.

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She represents the newly evolving free market face of the country.

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She makes her way around the groups as they prepare their business presentations.

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Asma al-Assad had a successful financial career in the City of London,

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so she's well-qualified to grill the girls on their business strategies.

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CALL TO PRAYER

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On the way out, the First Lady is mobbed before she can reach her car.

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CHEERING

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After a whole month of fasting, Ramadan is about to end,

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so it's time for some last minute present-shopping before the Eid holiday.

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That evening, the final firework is lit to mark sundown.

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And the streets fall silent for the last time as people break their fast.

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The moon has waxed and waned and Ramadan is over for another year.

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Dawn on the first day of Eid.

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Damascus awakes to the end of Ramadan.

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In the old city, the ancient Umayyad mosque is filling up with worshippers

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gathering for their Eid prayer.

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Across town, Du'aa and her sisters arrive at their local mosque to share the celebration.

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THEY CHANT

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While the men gather in the main hall, the women find their place upstairs

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to repeat an act of worship that they've done since childhood.

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Across Damascus, the prayer begins.

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Once the special Eid prayer has been said, the normal devotional cycle is repeated three times through.

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CHANTED PRAYER

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The end of the prayer brings a month of fasting to a close and the Eid holiday begins.

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Slowly, the streets fill with children wearing their new clothes and playing with their Eid presents.

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Small fairgrounds spring up in the city's parks.

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Many take advantage of the family gathering to pay their respects at the graves of their ancestors.

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Du'aa and her sisters have come to pay a special holiday visit to their grandfather.

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Back to school after Eid, and the tuck shop has thrown open its doors.

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PE is back on the timetable...

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For Sarah, back to school means hitting the drill square with Rehab.

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Du'aa has got through her first month in the school.

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She's had time to assess her move to Zaki al-Arsuzi.

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The local Youth Union has come to reveal their final decision

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on the student leadership for the rest of the school year.

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It's Mayas's chance to pitch for the job she really wants.

0:57:240:57:29

On the next Syrian School...

0:58:130:58:14

can two Palestinian refugee rappers break the mould?

0:58:140:58:18

To find out more from the Open University about schools in Syria -

0:58:180:58:23

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:330:58:36

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:360:58:40

Five-part series following a year in the life of four schools in Damascus, a high pressure crossroads in the Middle East.

It concentrates on some remarkable characters finding their way in a country that has never before opened ordinary life up to the cameras in this way, challenges the usual cliches of Arab life and charts the highs and lows of the school year.

Mrs Amal Hassan is the larger-than-life headteacher of Zaki Al Arsouzi Girls' School, intent on teaching her girls to stick up for themselves and 'be free'. She has a new girl at school, Dua'a, who comes from a devout Muslim family. Until now Dua'a has been educated at a conservative Islamic school, but this term she has moved to the more liberal Zaki Al-Arsouzi School. How will she get on with the big ideas of her new headteacher?

Across town at Jaramana Boys' School, Yusif is football mad. He's an Iraqi refugee who lived through the bombs of Baghdad. Now, in the relative calm of Syria, he must start to overcome his deep-seated fear of loud bangs.