NOGINSK — Knowledge Day falls on Sept. 1 and marks the traditional start of the school year in Russia. But for the children of Syrian refugees who live in Noginsk, a town of about 100,000 inhabitants that's a 90-minute train ride from Moscow, it's a day like any other.
These refugee children can't go to a regular Russian school because they aren't officially registered. Instead they go to a makeshift school in a shabby building where attendance is voluntary.
A couple of girls in hijab sit on a bench in front of the building. Barbed wire separates the facility, which is 200 years old, from what used to be a prison a long time ago. While half of the building houses an apartment complex, the other half holds a couple of classrooms for the children of Syrian refugees.
I pass through a dark, filthy lobby. Children speaking in Arabic rush past me and open the door. The school is newly renovated ,clean and well lit. The four teachers in the building teach Russian, Arabic, English and mathematics.
In this makeshift school, children are not expelled for falling behind. They attend only if they want to — and many do so, eagerly, to learn the much-needed Russian language. But not all students stick it out. Some are forced to leave Russia as they don't have legal documentation. Others want to try their luck in Europe. Many quit school to work.
About 12,000 Syrian refugees live in Russia. Only 2,000 of them have political asylum, a small number compared to the number of refugees Europe accepts. The Russian government blames the migrant crisis on Western countries.
"We must not forget that the problem of refugees is tightly tied to the misguided politics of the West toward Syria. If there was no war, there wouldn't be people running away from it," says Riyad Haddad, Syria's ambassador in Moscow.
Others echo this sentiment, emphasizing that the war in Syria was not Russia's doing, and that Russia shouldn't, therefore, have to bear the burden. Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, warns that taking in refugees carries great risk: Militants from terror group ISIS can easily infiltrate groups of migrants and pose a threat to national security.
Barriers to entry
Compared to people in other countries, Russian citizens aren't particularly welcoming to Syrian refugees, according to a survey by Amnesty International. But Russia is not an idle bystander. The country renders aid to Middle Eastern nations by suppressing civil wars in the region through diplomatic and military means.
The nation also carries the burden of the conflict in Ukraine. Between 2014 and 2016, more than one million Ukrainian refugees relocated to Russia and received social aid. Less than 2,000 Ukrainians have been denied asylum.
The ministry for emergency situations regularly flies humanitarian aid to the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and, on the way back, they bring families — about 100 people per flight. The majority of refugees come from mixed Russian-Syrian families, or families that can trace their ancestry to Russia. The great grandfathers of some of these refugees once lived in Russia's Caucasus region. Some still have family or distant relatives in Russia.
Noginsk, in particular, is attractive to many Syrian families. Back in the 19th century, businessmen from Aleppo started a large textile factory that closed in the early 90s. When the war started, Syrians with experience in the industry were able to revive old factories and brought over their families, friends, and acquaintances. In the last four years the Syrian diaspora in Noginsk grew to more than 2,000 people.
Noginsk city center — Photo: A. Savin
But, without residence registration, getting an education is almost impossible. Filing for registration without a legal immigration status is also out of question. Since some of the Syrians are illegal immigrants, they risk fines and deportation. Even the Syrians who have legal status aren't able to enroll their children in school because the landlords who rent the apartments to Syrians decline to sign their accommodation registration requests.
A non-profit charitable organization aimed at helping refugees and forced migrants, the civic assistance committee tried to overturn legislature that prohibited Syrian children from attending school because they weren't registered. Although they helped change the law, the situation hasn't changed on the ground. In the last year, only three Syrian children were enrolled in a Russian school.
To help Syrian children get some form of education, Syrian activist Muiz Abu Aljadail raised funds from the community to rent half of a house in Noginsk in 2014. He found teachers to instruct the children. Shortly after, the civic assistance committee began sponsoring the school and established a curriculum. But when immigration officials contacted the house's landlord, who then asked the Syrians to leave, the school was shut down. In March, the school opened up again in a new location, next to the correctional facility.
"Our women don't work"
Elena Drozdova, one of the Russian language teachers, is a former journalist. She doesn't refer to her students by their last name, as is common in the Russian education system. "The families have many children. Brothers and sisters attend class together," she explains. "Also they are all from approximately the same place and thus they have the same last names. Almost all of my pupils are Al Noemi or Mohammed."
Drozdova's students struggle to pronounce Russian names and surnames, as many letters in the Russian alphabet do not exist in Arabic. Every faculty member is simply "teacher."
Many of the children are attending school for the first time. "We should not forget that they survived a war," says Drozdova, saying that their experiences can make learning a challenge.
During the break, older girls hang out separately from the boys. Nora and Gufran, who are both 12 and wear hijab, say they don't have other friends. Once they reach a certain age, they can't appear in public unless accompanied by a father or brother. The only exceptions for that is when they attend school or go to a store.
When I asked what would happen if they are accepted into a Russian school but are forbidden to wear the hijab inside, they say that the choice would be obvious: no more school. Up until now they haven't encountered any obstacles posed by religion. Even the meat their families buy is halal as it's purchased from a store owned by a Syrian.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I ask. The girls shrug. "We will not work, our women do not work," one of them says.
A safe space to talk
Irina Gvozdeva teaches adult foreigners at the school. "Adults come to practice speaking Russian, to act out daily life situations, how to go to the bank, how to call the clinic," she says. "Many Syrians arrive and immediately reach out to their acquaintances. They continue to speak Arabic and that complicates the process of learning the language."
To get out of their comfort zone, Gvozdeva advises her students to meet Russians, join dating sites, and listen to Russian songs. "Those who plan to remain in Russia want to marry Russians," says Gvozdeva. "The other day one of my students called to thank me. Thanks to my lessons he met a Russian girl and she praised his knowledge of the language."
Students frequently tell Gvozdeva about the war and about loved ones who died, showing photos from life before the war. This is when the school transforms into a small rehabilitation center, where one can talk about problems and ask for advice.
Volunteers from the civic assistance group visit frequently. They advise refugees on how to attain asylum and address other immigration questions. The school is also a place where Syrians in Noginsk get together, including to receive humanitarian aid.
Around the perimeter of 'class' walls there are bags of food, flour and sugar. In the evening, after taking care of schoolwork and other chores, men and women with children don't rush to leave the school. They leisurely chat with each other, with the teachers and volunteers. They talk in the schoolyard. Only then do they take the bags of groceries and head home.