On the outskirts of Doha in the neighborhood of Al Duhail, a weathered Free Syria flag flaps in the breeze. Inside a high-walled compound, Abdulqader al-Khatib sits with perfect posture behind his wooden desk. He is the principal of a new school in a dusty quarter most Qataris never visit, where 600 Syrian students are trying to restart their lives.
While Qatar has embraced the effort to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it is less keen to take in Syrian refugees. Most of the 2.5 million Syrians fleeing the conflict are in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Far fewer have made it to wealthy Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Khatib, an engineer, is the brother of a prominent imam formerly based in Damascus who opposes Assad’s regime. Last October, the Syrian School of Qatar opened its doors to children grades 1 to 11 using an adapted Syrian curriculum in the hope that students can eventually return home and continue their schooling. Its funding comes entirely from Qatar’s government which has shown some flexibility in how it treats the children of displaced Syrians. [Editor’s note: The original version didn’t reflect the current status of Mr. Khatib’s brother.]
After the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Doha became the primary financial and diplomatic backer of the armed opposition, welcoming defectors and dissidents. The opposition met in luxury hotels and rebel commanders flew over to request funds. While Doha is still believed to be backing some rebel factions, since last summer its role has been eclipsed by that of regional rival Saudi Arabia.
Paving over the past
Many residents here remember when Assad and his elegant wife, once friends of the former emir, dined and shopped in Doha. Now signs of the regime’s presence have been expunged: The old embassy was closed in favor of a new, opposition-staffed villa. A former Syrian school was shut down and pictures of Assad removed from its walls. Expatriates here say that Syrian workers siding with the regime were asked to leave.
For newcomers, it also became more difficult to get in. “There are large quantities of people applying” for visas to Qatar, says the opposition’s Doha-based ambassador Nazir Hrakey. The authorities are “very selective” for security reasons, he says, and reject anyone who might be sympathetic to the former regime.
Many Syrians have been coming to the Gulf on short-term visas that don’t allow adults to work or their children to attend state or private educational institutions. As more children began arriving on these visas, there was a pressing need for a school for Syrians, particularly as families that did have Qatari residency were also struggling to pay school fees.
The separate school allows Doha to make an exception to its own visa rules without setting a precedent for non-Syrians. It is paying for everything in the new school: the salaries, the building, the books, and the pens and pencils.
Getting the house in order
Khatib, tall and slim, bears a striking resemblance to his brother, Moaz al-Khatib, the former imam at the iconic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He gave fiery speeches about the conflict in Syria and, backed by Qatar, became an opposition leader before resigning in April 2013, protesting a lack of international will to end the crisis.
“Many were betting the school would not open,” Khatib says proudly, listing the hurdles: There was only one printer and two computers. There weren’t enough classrooms for all the grades, so they erected makeshift partitions.
Then there was the issue of what to teach. The regime’s ideology permeates the standard Syrian curriculum, so new materials had to be ordered from a group in Turkey that has re-written the textbooks. Not enough had arrived when classes started.
Teachers and staff were recruited from refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey. Sami, a physical education teacher, arrived from Jordan’s Zaatari camp after hearing about the job by word of mouth. “Word spread quickly” because there were so few opportunities like that, he says.
A delay in some teachers’ visas left the school scurrying to find temporary replacements when it opened in October. Sami is still waiting for approval to bring over his family from Zaatari and Syria. “It’s difficult being abroad when my family is still there,” he sighs. “I’m working here but my mind is in Syria.”
Things are gradually improving at the school. Every child now has their own desk, and every classroom, which fits roughly 25 to 30 students, has a brand new overhead projector. After the last bell rings, teachers stay behind to learn how to create PowerPoint presentations.
Classes are mixed gender until grade four, when boys and girls are separated. In the newly painted hallways, children of all ages mingle until a fleet of buses takes them back to their homes across Qatar, some as far as an hour away.
The staff live in a newly built complex just off Doha’s corniche where they share apartments until their families arrive.
Outside the school, such assistance is hard to come by. Occasionally, the startup Syrian opposition embassy, which has few resources of its own, taps Qatari charities for medical care and other essentials. Still, displaced Syrians feel lucky to be living in a rich country with ample means.
Their basic needs met, their thoughts circle back to the memories of Syria.
“There are students who are upset, and we don’t know why,” says Sami, the teacher. The school has invited a psychologist to instruct teachers on how to deal with post-traumatic stress symptoms among students.
In Doha, politics also loom. Qatar has been accused of backing Islamist-leaning Syrian rebel groups there. Those associations hang over expatriate politics, as many try to associate with—or at least avoid criticizing—Doha’s stance.
As Khatib closes his office for the day, 12-year-old Mustapha, from Damascus, lingers, waiting for the bus. The 7th grader arrived not long ago from Egypt, where he completed 6th grade in a one-room school where one teacher taught all grades.
“This is 180 degrees different,” he says, his feet swinging off a chair too tall for his body. “Here it’s more organized.”
“But I miss Sham,” he continues, using the affectionate name for Syria. Asked what about his country he misses—The food? The air?—he answers again, as if it is obvious, that he misses everything: “Sham”