Kilometres away from frontline fighting in Yemen, young children march diligently into their classroom, with the not so distant sound of gunfire and missiles replacing the sound of school bells. And, one young boy, blind from birth, often steps in as his fellow classmates’ substitute teacher. This is Ahmed Rageeb’s story.
Al Wahda Milad Primary School, just outside the city of Taiz in Yemen, is a school unlike any other. With blackboards kept under lock and key, no chairs, no windows, doors, or even a roof, and no teachers at times – due to the ongoing conflict – partnered with the continued fear of gunfire and shelling, hundreds of children go to school.
Ahmed Rageeb is nine-years-old. One of five children, Ahmed and his siblings were all born blind. Despite being unable to read or write, with no access to education in braille at his school, Ahmed is the school’s star pupil also ensuring his fellow classmates receive their education.
Two years in the planning due to the extreme conflict and war currently being experienced in Yemen between the government and Houthi rebels, BBC News international correspondent, Orla Guerin did not expect to meet such an extraordinary young boy.
“We were very keen, as always, to show the impact of conflict on civilians and particularly on young children,” explains Orla, who is speaking to editor Lorne Gillies. After seeing an image of Al Wahda Milad Primary School, Orla and her team visited the school.
Orla explains: “It was described as a school where children were sitting, literally, in the rubble. The school is on the outskirts of the city, about a 10-minute drive from the main checkpoint into Tiaz.
“You wind up this picturesque, beautiful road into the mountains. It is a beautiful scene, very striking and idyllic. You turn around a corner and you then see this extraordinary sight.
“Our jaws hit the ground. We had seen the photograph, but the photograph doesn’t capture the reality. Here were all of these little children, so polite and well-behaved, filing off one-by-one into this ruin. A literal ruin. They sit amongst the rubble.”
During their visit, Orla and her team saw a young boy leading the assembly and giving his classmates instructions prior to the same pupil standing at the top of the class calling out the Arabic alphabet with pupils repeating after him.
This was Ahmed.
Orla enthuses: “When teachers don’t turn up, Ahmed routinely stands in and he teaches in his class. We were, honestly so impressed by him. He finished his lesson and we spoke with Ahmed, who is so full of personality, character and humour, even at just nine years old.”
Passing on what he has already learned when teachers are able to come to the school, Ahmed stands in as substitute.
From their conversation, Orla shares her discussion with Ahmed, who enjoys learning the Quran, science and maths, Arabic reading and Islamic studies. “The easiest subjects for me are Quran and science,” says Ahmed.
“As long as the [other pupils] are well behaved I can teach them. But, I make them behave and be quiet.”
And, like any other young boy, Ahmed has his own goals and ambitions.
“If the teacher isn’t here I teach instead. If the teacher is here, then he teaches us and we study and learn from him. When the teacher isn’t here, I teach the students what I have already learnt.”
However, amongst the challenges Ahmed has faced being unable to read or write, with no access to braille and being visually impaired, his spirits are not dampened. The main hurdle faced by Ahmed and his fellow pupils is the ongoing humanitarian crisis people in Yemen face with continued heartache and the fear of harm from gunfire.
Ahmed solemnly says: “When I hear the noise, I think I am going to die. Once, the tank exploded I felt the house shake. I hear it all the time; sometimes explosions, sometimes gunshots. I get scared, I am scared that something will happen, I get frightened from missiles and artillery fire.”
When Al Wahda Milad Primary School first opened it was a showpiece in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, due to conflict the school has been left in ruins and rubble.
Despite learning in rubble, Ahmed and his 700 strong peer group continue coming to class.
“Ahmed is such an independent, accomplished young boy,” Orla emphasises.
“When he was going home with Fatima, his little sister who is also blind, he joked that the young boy guiding them home – who was also called Ahmed – was his car. Off they went.
Hungry for knowledge, Ahmed is just one young boy in a class of hundreds making the most of a horrific situation, hoping for a better life.
In regards to the representation of disability in Yemen compared to here at home in the UK, Orla adds: “We need to think about what we do and what we don’t do, rather than thinking that other people have to fit in with the current structure.”
By coming together and uniting, we can all support everyone in society to reach their true potential, obtain their goals and live happily and securely.
More on Ahmed’s story can be found by following Orla Guerin. Charities working in Yemen include: Unicef, Oxfam, and Save the Children. We will continue to keep Enable readers updated when and if direct support is made available to Ahmed and his school.