Waiting outside the UNHCR Iraqi registration center on the outskirts of Damascus, Khalid, a middle-age Iraqi father of four from Ramadi, points to his family and declares: “We don’t know what the future will bring.” Over the past eight months he has relocated twice between Iraq and Syria. In the moves from one county to another and the daily struggle to make ends meet, his children’s education has fallen by the wayside. “We don’t have a permanent home now, so my children haven’t been able to go to school,” he said. “Without an education, what is their future?”
For a growing Iraqi refugee population — most of whom are living off dwindling savings or remittances from family members abroad — covering the daily necessities of life is an all encompassing concern. As the conflict in their homeland drags on, however, the absence of a formal education among the numerous refugee communities scattered throughout the Middle East looms as a major obstacle to the future development of their country.
“We don’t want a whole generation to miss out on education,” UNHCR regional public information officer Sybella Wilkes said. “These children will be the future of Iraq, so it’s essential they receive an education.”
The Iraq refugee crisis now stands as the greatest mass exodus in the Middle East’s history. More than 4 million Iraqis — one in seven — have been displaced by violence and around 2.4 million have fled their homeland, the vast majority seeking shelter in Jordan and Syria. The UNHCR estimates there are about 500,000 school age children now residing in the neighboring countries of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. Of this group, little more than 50,000 are presently enrolled in school.
“Prior to the war, Iraq had one of the higher literacy and school enrollment rates in the region,” Wilkes said. “Now we are seeing a major gap in the education of the country’s younger generation and the impact of this down the track, as Iraq tries to rebuild cannot really be calculated.”
To combat rising illiteracy among Iraqi refugees, UNHCR recently launched a $129 million appeal with the aim of enrolling an additional 155,000 children in schools throughout the Middle East. Syria, which has absorbed an estimated 1.4 million refugees since 2003, is the main target with the UNHCR hoping to enroll 100,000 children in schools by the end of the year. To date, only 33,000 out of an estimated 300,000 school-aged children are enrolled in Syrian schools. Other targeted countries include Jordan (50,000), Jordan (2,000) and Lebanon (1,500).
The funds will cover the costs of building new schools and upgrading existing facilities, the hiring of more than 4,000 school teachers, as well as buses to transport the children. Specially designed bridging programs will be taught to bring children back up to speed with their studies, along with psychological support services to reintegrate traumatized children back into a school environment.
For many Iraqis, the lapse in a formal education started before they fled their homeland. Due to rising violence, many parents regard sending their children to school as too dangerous and as such are keeping them at home. While Syria has always held that Iraqis have free access to the country’s education system — Jordan recently announced it will open its schools to Iraqi children — a variety of reasons have resulted in a poor take up of the offer. The inherent instability associated with coming to a new country has meant that many parents simply have not had the time to arrange schooling for their children. At the same time, other families are unaware their children are able to receive an education in Syria, while in a growing number of families, children are being put to work and in some cases are a family’s primary income earners.
Red tape barriers exist as well. The drive to register Iraqis living in Syria has been met with much suspicion by Iraqis and many fear it may eventually lead to deportation. As such, unregistered parents have been unwilling to enroll their children in local schools as attendance requires the family to register their details with Syrian authorities.
With many classrooms in Damascus already numbering 50 students, there has also been resistance from Syrian authorities to enroll Iraqi students in the public education sector until additional schools have been built. Iraqi parents enquiring about sending their children to Syrian publics schools have been told that their simply is not enough room for their children. For most families, a private education is too expensive.
The bid to raise the number of school children receiving an education is also more than just about improving literacy rates. It is also about returning a sense of normality to the lives of Iraqis, both children and parents.
“Getting children into schools also helps families readjust,” Wilkes said. “It gives them some sort of routine in their life, it helps restore a sense of normality back into a family’s life, a sense that in many cases has been missing for some years and the absence of which can put great pressure on families.”