Mohammed moves between the cars at the traffic lights in central Dohuk. He taps on a window and tries to sell the driver inside chewing gum. But the man pretends he cannot see the small boy
Like so many other children making a living here on the street in Dohuk, Mohammed is Syrian and his family are refugees in Iraq. They live in the Domiz camp which is about 20 kilometres south of Dohuk city, in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, 60 kilometres from the Syrian border and home to over 60,000 refugees of the Syrian crisis.
Mohammed dropped out of the school in the camp so he can earn money. “My father is sick and he can’t move or leave the house,” the nine-year-old explained. “So my sister and I left school and now we work every day to get food and medicine for our family.”
Syrian children also work inside the camp. Idris, 12, sells cigarettes on the camp’s streets. He also dropped out and he tells NIQASH it’s because the school he is supposed to attend is too far from his tent and the roads there are muddy.
Other children have other explanations for non-attendance at the camp’s schools. They say that the curriculum is too different from the one they were learning in Syria and they also complain that some of the lessons are in Kurdish, which is closer to Persian; in Syria, lessons were in Arabic.
“We live in Domiz camp,” says nine-year-old Salma. “But I leave there every day with my mother so that we can collect money by begging in the streets. In Syria I used to go to school every day,” she notes. “But here some of the classes are in Kurdish and the books are different from the ones back home. They are a lot harder. That’s another of the reasons I left school.”
The schools are also crowded. Jihad Mohammed is an older refugee and he works as a teacher at the Afrin school inside Domiz. “We have up to 1,350 students here and only 35 teachers,” he explained. “We’re currently trying to teach the curriculum that was being taught in Syria because we believe a lot of the children drop out when the Kurdish curriculum is taught.”
“There are 20,000 children in this camp and about 12,000 of them should be at school,” Salem Saeed, the media relations officer at Domiz camp, told NIQASH. “We opened six schools in the camp, in cooperation with international organizations, including primary and high schools. But there are more than 1,200 children at each school already.”
Shayma is eight but rather than going to school, she sells bottles of water on the streets of Domiz camp. “My father buys five cartons of distilled water every day and then me and my younger sister sell them here. We make about IQD10,000 [about US$8] a day and we give that to our father to spend on food and clothes for the family.”
Shayma has a different reason for not being in class. She says she thinks that while her family were allowed into the camp, they don’t have the proper identity papers yet to allow them to attend school.
Haval is 13 and he works in Dohuk city shining shoes. “I live with my family just outside Domiz camp because they stopped taking more people in,” Haval explains. “My father rented a house and we are paying about IQD35,000 a month [about US$29] for that. I have to work so that I can help my father pay the rent and so we can live. I totally forgot about school or anything like that,” he admits.
Nobody knows how many of the refugee Syrians who should be going to school are not. However judging by what seems to an ever growing number of children standing at junctions or working in local markets, it’s a problematic figure that isn’t going to change anytime soon.