By Khalil Ashawi
AL-RAI, Syria (Reuters) - Sifting through ripped up textbooks and writing on broken whiteboards, Syrian children returned this week to a dilapidated small-town school that was used by Islamic State militants as a prison for more than two years.
With no chairs or desks, around 250 children huddled in classrooms on mats to stay off the cold concrete at the Aisha Mother of the Believers school in al-Rai, in the northern Aleppo hinterland near the Turkish border.
The students, aged 5-15, were given notebooks and pens on their first day back on Monday by seven volunteers who teach reading, writing and maths and helped get the school habitable again over the past six weeks.
"(I feel) joy, because I was able to bring back to school this number of students in a short period," said volunteer Khalil al-Fayad. "(But also) heartbreak because of the bad condition (of the school)."
The school previously taught 500 students before being seized 2 1/2 years ago by Islamic State insurgents, who slapped logos on school bags bearing the slogan "Cubs of the Caliphate", residents said.
The principal and teachers fled the area when Islamic State took over and parents stopped sending their children to the school, which closed after two months and was used to house prisoners of the ultra-hardline jihadists.
Volunteers set about trying to return the school to its previous standards last month in al-Rai after Syrian Free Army rebels backed by the Turkish military ousted Islamic State from the area.
With shattered windows, bullet strewn walls, debris and broken equipment still present, there is plenty left to do for the team of volunteers, who say they are seeking funding from local and Turkish authorities.
"(I) fear not being able to continue what we are doing if the situation remains the same and the lack of support continues," Al-Fayad said.
(Writing by Patrick Johnston; editing by Mark Heinrich)