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In Kurdistan, New Refugees Wonder About Education

ERBIL, Iraq—An education crisis is sweeping through the Kurdish region of Iraq as refugees displaced by the rampaging Islamic State swamp local schools.

In central Erbil—the prosperous and well-managed capital of the semi-independent Kurdish region—many students have found a seat in a classroom. But many schools throughout the Kurdish countryside are now housing refugees, preventing hundreds of thousands of children from studying.

In the Erbil suburb of Ankawa, refugees who fled the Islamic State’s ransacking of Christian villages outside Mosul are sleeping in classrooms and tents strung up in the local schoolyard. Families are using school desks as tables for cooking, eating and playing cards.

Youssef, a former army translator, lives with his wife and five children in a tent hanging from a tree branch in the schoolyard. He’s been trying to figure out if another school nearby might be offering classes.

“I’m gathering information to see if I can send my kids to a school here,” he said. “I am not sure if I can send them if the school is far.”

Since fleeing his village of Qaraqosh, where his family ran a cafe and small casino, Youssef has no income. He survives on the support of international aid organizations and spends time teaching his children English, hoping they can go abroad one day.

Luckily, said Youssef, his older children were able to complete their school exams from last year in Erbil after they arrived in Kurdistan. His son Matthew would now have the opportunity pursue his dream of studying medicine in college if he could only find a school to attend.

Violence has displaced around 1.8 million Iraqis this year, according to the United Nations. More than 800,000 went to Iraqi Kurdistan. The majority of them have found shelter in Duhok Province on the Turkish border, often in schools that have become refugee camps. The crisis has forced Duhok officials to delay the start of the school year by at least a month.

Abu Sabo, an English teacher in Duhok, has been working as a translator while he waits for his school to reopen. As non-government organizations seek to hire staff who speak Arabic and English, he’s received a number of tempting lucrative job offers that would help him support his newborn child. The school system, meanwhile, hasn’t paid his salary for three months.

Kurdish officials say they want to provide an education for refugee children as well as Kurdish youth, but the scale of the need far outweighs their ability to provide shelter and education for everyone. The international community has been slow to work on the educational aspect of the crisis following the Islamic State’s seizure of large swaths of northern and western Iraq this summer.

In a half-built parking garage in Ankawa, a few hundred refugee families live in makeshift shelters. Among them is Hanna, his wife and their four children. The family fled Hamdania to the west of Baghdad in early August—the third time they have been displaced in recent memory.

Nobody has come to talk about schooling for his children, said Hanna.

“We are worried about the kids not going to school,” he said. “But we went to the Ministry of Education and they say they will build schools for the children. We are confident it will happen. We hope it will.”

His 16-year-old son, Licardo, dreams of playing soccer professionally. Hanna has gone to the Red Crescent—the Muslim version of the Red Cross—to see if he could start a youth soccer league. Without anything to occupy young people, boredom is a problem, he said.

His daughter, Licudinia, 14, used to enjoy her studies in Hamdania. After the trauma of the past few months, school is now the last thing on her mind. “I usually stay in the room,” she said. “I don’t go out.”

Her younger sister enjoys reading, but the family managed only to bring one book of Bible stories with them when they fled.

The U.N. is working with local Iraq authorities to built new camps that will allow the schools to return to teaching children.

Small non-governmental organizations like RISE, a two-year-old foundation established in Erbil to aid refugees, are also helping. RISE runs art and cinema programs for children, including painting murals and showing cartoons and children’s movies on big screens in refugee camps at night.

Kids having a chance to draw and laugh is important in the short-term, said Jamil, another refugee from Hamdania who has settled in Ankawa. But he added that he has been lobbying local authorities to provide a proper education for his children too.

“We worry about the kids and want them to continue their studies,” said Jamil. “Our kids cannot sit at home. They must open the schools.”
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