Wafaa Affas grew up in Armanaz in the Idlib countryside, where she studied and finished high school. She took the high school exam in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia after her family traveled there for her father’s work.
After passing the exam and scoring among the top 10 students in Riyadh, Wafaa went back to Syria to pursue higher education. “Going back to Syria to start university without having any of my family by my side was a big challenge for me. It was a significant change to the monotonous lifestyle that I lived in Saudi Arabia, especially since the major I chose, Architecture, involved more practical and group work than other majors.”
During her university studies, Wafaa learned to depend on herself away from her family. She developed a strong character, which helped her in her working life, particularly in communication, interpersonal relations and decision-making.
Wafaa graduated from university in 1993 after deliberately postponing her graduation for 2 years because she didn’t want to do the 5-year compulsory state employment, which was required of all graduates of Engineering and some other majors. Once she had graduated, she decided to work in the public sector in the hope of finishing her period of compulsory service and devoting herself full-time to working in her own Engineering office.
“I was assigned to the Directorate of School Buildings in Aleppo, which fell under the Ministry of Education,” she says. “Our main job was renovating public schools and nurseries. I worked there for more than 2 years, then moved to work in Idlib after I got married.”
She adds, “During my work, I noticed that more attention was devoted to education in the Idlib countryside than in the Aleppo countryside, both from the students’ side and the parents’ side.”
Wafaa and her husband lived in the city of Armanaz. At the time, she was working in the city center of Idlib so she had to take public transportation every day for half an hour to reach work. After about two years, she moved to Idlib city with her husband.
“I moved to Idlib city because I found it hard to work in a relatively far away area, especially because of my family and kids,” she says. “I was the only engineer in Idlib’s Education Directorate, but the number of engineers increased over the years. The nature of my work was field-based and required on-site visits to oversee the renovation of schools in rural areas and in the city.”
She adds, “Resources were being depleted due to lack of organization and planning in spending. In general, the schools’ architecture was bad in our country and we often suffered from shortages in cement and iron. This was due to widespread corruption among contractors and the Military Housing Establishment, which was responsible for building schools after tendering and selecting contractors. However, the selection would often depend on nepotism and personal relations. Schools also suffered from design faults. For example, classrooms facing the North were too cold. The architectural style of the schools followed the model stipulated by the Housing Establishment, which resembled that of a prison. In addition to that, modern teaching methods were poorly implemented, leading to high school drop-out rates.”
Throughout her career, Wafaa tried to stand up to the corrupt contractors who were using counterfeit building materials. She monitored their work, warned them, and even threatened to suspend them, which resulted in the contractors trying to bribe her to turn a blind eye to irregularities. When she refused, they accused her of not cooperating and obstructing their work in order to extort money from them. Amid these difficult conditions, Wafaa tried to resign several times, but her request was refused because the Education Directorate needed her expertise given the limited number of employed engineers and the huge number of schools in the Idlib Governorate for which they were responsible.
Wafaa says that she didn’t entirely depend on her salary because the salaries of public sector workers were low. Instead, she depended on the income generated by her family’s land in Saudi Arabia, “It was very unlikely that the state salary would cover expenses. This led state employees to join the cycle of corruption, bribery and the like.”
She adds, “During one of my field tours in a remote village, I disbursed an amount of 100,000 Syrian Pounds for a school principal to paint the school. He asked me if he could buy the paint and do the job himself instead of hiring workers so that he could pay himself and save some money to support his poor family. That same principal would also travel to Lebanon in the summer to paint houses and save extra money.”