In a woodland patch of opposition-controlled Latakia, a troop of boy scouts gathers closely around a bonfire which dimly illuminates the simple encampment behind them.
They have just pitched their tents and placed lanterns around the camp. Now, they await further instructions.
All eyes point toward Jamil Mohammed Hajjar, a seasoned leader whose wealth of experience is visible in the neckerchief he dons and the beaded knot that dangles over his chest.
Hajjar is the head of the Coastal Scouting Troop, the first group of boy scouts in opposition-controlled Syria.
In August, Hajjar and a group of former scout leaders founded the organization with the purpose of educating Latakia’s youth while assisting a local community which has struggled to cope with large waves of displacement and a sharp economic downturn.
“We need to focus on our children and their education while they’re still developing,” Maher Primo, one of the troop’s leaders, told a Syrian Voice correspondent.
The Coastal Scouting Troop’s mission is to develop a new generation of Syrian youth and provide them with skills to improve their society, according to what Hajjar tells the Syrian Voice.
The hope is that scouting will empower and equip Syrian youth to build a strong, cohesive society based on civic participation and religious tolerance, he added.
Instilling values ‘society desperately needs’
The scouting movement has a long history in Syria beginning with the 1912 founding of the Scouts of Syria.
In 1986, Hafez al-Assad banned scouting troops. At that time, the Syrian government organized its own youth group, the Baathist Vanguards, for school-aged boys and girls to attend paramilitary camps and receive state-sponsored lessons in civic duty.
Bashar al-Assad lifted the ban in 2006, but the outbreak Syrian conflict five years later forced many scouting troops to disband.
Several scout leaders, such as Jamil Najjar, fled regime-controlled territory at the onset of the war and eventually settled in rebel-held Latakia.
A member of the scouting movement since 1969, Najjar saw the need for an educational outlet within the region.
Though Scouts of Syria, the internationally recognized scouting organization, still operates in regime-controlled Latakia, Aleppo, and Damascus, there were no such opportunities in the rebel-held Latakia countryside.
In the northwestern Syrian province, Russian-backed air campaigns by the Syrian regime have displaced thousands of families and disrupted schooling for many children.
Hajjar and the coordinators of the Coastal Scouting Troop aim to fill this educational void, which they believe make Syrian youth susceptible to religious extremism.
In addition to the traditional outdoor activities of scouting – camping and wilderness survival – Hajjar and his co-organizers place an added emphasis on civic responsibility and ethics.
“I studied nursing and public health, which has played a major role in how I teach,” Khaled Asaad, a scout leader in training, tells the Syrian Voice.
“The individual, whoever they are, can have an active role in society by fixing small problems, by setting goals and achieving them,” he explains.
For his part, troop leader Primo became involved with the Coastal Scouting Troop in order to foster ethical values and social skills in Latakia’s youth because, as he puts, “society desperately needs them these days.”
The troop, which is open to all young men and women in the Latakia countryside, received their first major task last month. Members of the Coastal Scouting Troop prepared presentations on their skills and experiences. The entire troop then voted for a group of leaders to guide them forward.
Translated by Tariq Adely