This week, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the new school year began. And this year many of the local Kurdish students will have some new classmates. As of Oct. 1 all Syrian children in the region – and most often their families are refugees from the conflict over the border – may attend Kurdish schools in the region, which has its own borders, military and parliament and which acts as a kind of state within a state in Iraq.
The reason many of the Syrian children are able to attend school in Iraq is thanks to a project called Back To School, being organised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, along with five other local and international organisations.
The project gives all Syrian refugees within a certain age group the right to register at the school nearest them. Previously they were not able to do this and could only study at schools inside refugee camps or special, private and temporary schools opened for refugee children. While Syrians coming from Kurdish areas in Syria share a language with the locals here, Syrians coming from Arab areas in Syria tend not to be able to speak Kurdish; they speak Arabic, hence the other schools. However this solution was not ideal – most of the Syrian students live outside the camps and the private schools were far away and didn't have the capacity for the numbers of potential students.
According to figures released by the UNHCR at the end of August, there are around 249,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq; almost all of them are in Iraqi Kurdistan, living in three districts, Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. And most recently, for example, there have been just four schools dedicated to Syrian students in the Sulaymaniyah province in Iraqi Kurdistan – but there are an estimated 30,000 Syrian refugees living in the province.
“A letter was sent to all schools telling them they should accept all Syrian refugee children. Last year 400 Syrian children were enrolled in local schools, even before this decision was made. The move also helps reduce pressure on Arabic-language schools,” says Khokar Khaled, a senior planner in Sulaymaniyah's provincial department of education. It is also supposed to help displaced Iraqis – who have fled their homes thanks to the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State – continue their education. There are also an estimated 61,000 Iraqi Arab students in the Sulaymaniyah district.
Although the UNHCR project is aimed at children aged between six and 10, local schools are also assessing older pupils as to their level of education. Often these students were forced to leave their country without any educational documentation from their original schools.
The new opportunity is being welcomed by many of the refugees. For example, Abdo Ismail, a 31-year-old who left the Syrian city of Hassakeh two and a half years ago, when the Syrian civil war began. Ismail and his family stayed in a refugee camp for a short time and then moved to Sulaymaniyah and rented a house.
Ismail told NIQASH that he was making about IQD500,000 (around US$420) of which IQD275,000 (around US$230) is rent. “What remains is barely enough to feed the family,” Ismail explains, which is why he wasn't able to pay any more money to send his children to a special school for refugees further away. The transport costs would have eaten into household expenses.
Now, Ismail explains, his three children can go to the Kurdish school nearest their home. Ismail says he doesn't know how long he and his family will be refugees. But he does know one thing: “My children cannot grow up illiterate”.
Interestingly though, not everyone is happy about the opportunity. “Teaching my children in Kurdish means that I am abandoning my national identity,” says Louay Hatem, 30, who is originally from Deir Ezzor in Syria and who now lives in the Bazian area, popular with Syrian refugees here, with his two sons. “Of course I know that my children need education,” he adds. “But I think it is more important to increase the number of private schools for Syrians in the region instead of this. Instead they should resolve transportation issues for Syrian children living too far away from the special Syrian schools.”
“There were a lot of difficulties like this,” admits Massoud Hussein, who works for the UNHCR project and was involved with the registration of the students; this began in August 2015. “There are a lot of families who don't want to send their children to Kurdish schools for nationalistic reasons. After lengthy discussions, we were able to convince some of those families to register their children. However there were still others who didn't approve the idea at all. And we are concerned that some of those that were convinced, might change their minds after a while and stop sending their children to Kurdish schools.”
An opinion poll had been conducted in several areas to explore Syrian refugees' opinions on the project, Hussein explained. And around three-quarters of them were fine with the idea. The parents who were opposed say that this kind of education won't help their children when they go back to Syria. They say they are also worried about the cultural differences between their children and the Kurdish children.
“Some of the families who enrolled their children last year in Kurdish schools took them out again after two months because the Kurdish students were teasing them about being Arab and being refugees,” Hussein notes. “And other families told us that now wasn't the right time to talk about educating their children. They say things like: We have no food to eat and that's more important right now than school.”
Interestingly the Back To School project is supposed to better integrate the Arab refugees into Kurdish society. Nobody knows how long the Syrians will stay in Iraqi Kurdistan because nobody knows how long the civil war in Syria will last.
“The first thing that we need to do is convince Kurdish students not to look down on the Syrian children and not to treat them like refugees,” education planning director, Khokar Khaled, says. “That's why there is an ongoing campaign to raise awareness of this inside the schools.”
Another immediate problem is language. “We can't force anyone to change his language,” Khaled says. “But we are asking parents to sign a permission slip that says that they approve of their children being taught in the Kurdish language.”
Up until now, Khaled says he is unable to give any numbers on how many Syrian children have registered for lessons at Kurdish schools. “The process is ongoing,” he says. “But we do know that there are many families coming to these schools every day.”
Khaled believes that currently around 2,500 Syrian refugee children are getting an education in Iraqi Kurdistan. And he is confident that this number will rise to 4,000 if families are given the right opportunities, especially given that statistics indicate that about 70 percent of the refugees are children of school age.