Aleppo, Syria: Fortified snacks bring critical nutrition to schoolchildren

Principal of a school backed by the World Food Programme reveals her hopes of success for her pupils

Before the pandemic, children received the bars every day — for many it was their only meal of the morning. Photo: WFP/Hussam Alsaleh

It’s break time at a school in rural Aleppo, which means you can hear the students before you see them. The yard is filled with 600 children screaming with joy as they chase friends, launch fiercely fought games and catch up on stories and schoolyard gossip. Like in most schools at break time — it’s chaos.

Headteacher Asmaa Nesser is watching over it all, with a huge smile on her face.

Asmaa supports more than 600 students each day in rural Aleppo. Photo: WFP/Hussam Alsaleh

“Being a teacher might not have been my dream, but it was my destiny,” Asmaa explains. “I’m doing all I can to make sure that children can get an education.”

Asmaa has lived close to the school her whole life. She has seen her community transition from peace to conflict and back again. The journey has not been an easy one, for anyone. Families were already struggling to rebuild their lives amid high levels of poverty, a deteriorating economy and limited employment opportunities. Then COVID-19 struck. All schools in Syria are now closed. The next day of class will not be until the summer break is over in September.

Before the closures, the World Food Programme provided school meals and snacks for more than 1 million students across the country. Staff are working to ensure children now do not miss out on the food that so many rely on — such as the date bars children in Asmaa’s school.

“The children had gotten used to eating date bars every day and they’d ask for them even if they are 10 minutes late,” she says. “They can’t afford to buy anything to eat so they’d get to their first break of the day feeling really hungry as they’d not have had breakfast at home.”

The bars provide one-third of the nutrition children need each day. Photo: WFP/Hussam Alsaleh

She adds: “After eating the date bars, students are more engaged with studying and can think better.”

The bars provide one-third of the nutrients that children need each day. They are the only food that many of these children will eat in the morning at school — a packed lunch is beyond the reach of many.

There is also the issue of “severe and traumatic situations” the children have experienced, says Asmaa. “Some have lost family members, many have witnessed violence.”

Highlighting mental health, she adds: “We have a staff counsellor at the school who works with a number of students nonstop.”

Then there is crushing poverty. “Some children at this school are so poor their parents don’t have enough money to buy them winter jackets, books or even pens,” says Asmaa. “People from the local community distribute clothes to them.”

She adds: “Many children have problems at home. There is conflict, their parents are illiterate, and they can’t help them with their homework. There is high unemployment.”

After a snack, the students are able to concentrate better in class. Photo: WFP/Hussam Alsaleh

Asmaa is keen to devote attention to the children who need it the most.

“I want to put the children with special needs at ease when they are at school,” she says. “Some have sustained injuries from the conflict, but I have tried to make the school an accommodating environment for everyone. I want the children to feel like they can do anything.”

In addition to nutrition, children in Aleppo need help processing trauma. Photo: WFP/Hussam Alsaleh

Asmaa’s office walls are filled with awards — recognition of her hard work under difficult circumstances. Regardless of what challenges her school faces, she will be back in September, surrounded by chaos and enjoying every minute.

WFP is grateful to the Canadian Government’s ongoing support of the school meals programme. Together, we are helping some of Syria’s most vulnerable children improve their nutrition, concentrate in class and have the best chance possible to build a brighter future. Thank you for your support.

Read more about WFP’s work in Syria.

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Insight by The World Food Programme

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Jessica Lawson

Jessica Lawson

World Food Programme Syria

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