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120 9th Graders Leave Besieged Palestinian Refugee Camp In Syria To Take Exams

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CAIRO -- Over 100 Palestinian 9th graders were able to leave a besieged refugee camp in the Syrian capital on Sunday to do the seemingly impossible: take a school exam.

The 120 students are residents of the Yarmouk camp, a sprawling, unofficial camp in southern Damascus once home to the largest Palestinian community in Syria. Some residents there are starving to death and eating leaves, grass and animal feed to survive. In February, photos of Yarmouk went viral, showing apocalyptic scenes of the camp's destroyed homes and desperate residents waiting for food aid.

All of this makes it even more remarkable that the young adults were willing and able to take the test, a nation-wide exam administered at the end of 9th grade to all students in Syria. The test determines whether the students are able to pass on to the next grade level. If they don't take it in time, they're technically not permitted to move forward with their education.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN agency that administers aid to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, coordinated with the Syrian government to allow the children to temporarily leave the camp.

“They have extraordinary resilience,” UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told The WorldPost over Skype on Sunday. “They’ve been under siege for a year. But miraculously, we’ve managed to keep education roughly going.”

Gunness said the UN has provided the children, most of whom are 14 years old, with housing, food, hygiene kits, and a small cash stipend.

For many children in Syria, school is now just a distant dream. There are no UNRWA schools operating in Yarmouk due to the volatile security situation, but children often gather in places like mosques to learn, Gunness said. He added that the UN has been developing a distance learning television program that could be used by children in Yarmouk if there is access to electricity.

At the start of the school year, 26,000 UN back-to-school kits containing school bags, pens, and notebooks were delivered to children in Syria, the UN reported. According to recent figures from the humanitarian body, 16,392 students in Syria are still enrolled in UNRWA schools, and 24,107 children are attending government schools run by UNRWA.

Yarmouk, once home to 150,000 Palestinians and Syrians and now only hosting an estimated 18,000 trapped civilians, has made headlines in recent months as residents of the camp starve to death. The camp has been the site of heavy clashes between government and opposition forces. The UN, which cannot deliver aid without government permission, has been consistently blocked from supplying food aid to the camp by both the Syrian government and some extremist opposition fighters.

No food assistance has been allowed into Yarmouk since May 13, when shots were fired at two Syrian military regime personnel within the UN’s distribution area. Only 25 percent of people in Yarmouk are meeting their minimum food requirements, according to UN statistics.

“These are ordinary people,” Chris Gunness said. “They want nothing more than to get on with their lives, get educated, and move on.”

Photos taken by BBC Middle East Bureau Chief Richard Colebourn chronicled the children leaving the camp: