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Arab-Speaking Refugee Children In Iraqi Kurdistan Locked Out Of Schools

Hayman Abdullah
The huge number of displaced Iraqis seeking shelter in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan may see thousands of children missing school this year. Firstly because there's no curriculum for Arabic-speakers in the…
18.09.2014  |  Erbil
A classroom in Iraq.
A classroom in Iraq.

Unlike most other Iraqi school children, Mohammed and Aya won't have to wake up early on school days for the rest of this year. The brother and sister, who are 9 and 11 years old respectively, originally come from the city of Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province but they're now living in Erbil, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Their family came here four months ago, fleeing the violence in their province caused by a combination of Sunni Muslim anti-government action and the entrance of Sunni Muslim extremist groups like the Islamic State to the area.

The two children would actually very much like to go to school again – unfortunately though they cannot find a school that will enrol them.

As local media organisation Rudaw wrote recently: “A comprehensive count carried out jointly by the Kurdistan Regional Government and the United Nations indicates that some 850,000 war-displaced Iraqis have fled to the three provinces of the autonomous Kurdistan Region since January 2014”.

In addition there are other refugees from places like Syria, Iran and Turkey. The total number of refugees currently in Iraqi Kurdistan is estimated to be 1.4 million and rising. Among all of these people, there are thousands of school-age children as well as tertiary students.

While many of the displaced families have done their best to get their children enrolled in local schools only a few have been successful. The main reason for this is that most of the schools in this area teach the curriculum in the Kurdish language and there are far fewer Arabic language schools. The ones that do exist are already over crowded.

The Iraqi Kurdish Ministry of Education says that it has opened a number of new schools where Arabic will be taught but it also acknowledges that there are not nearly enough of these to accommodate all the displaced children.

Some of the schools were opened specially for Arab speakers living in Iraqi Kurdistan before June 2014, when Sunni Muslim extremists took control of northern parts of Iraq. However there may not be enough room for newly arrived arabic-speakers.

“But Iraqi Kurdistan should not be the only one to have to try and solve this problem,” the Education Ministry spokesperson said. “The federal government must play its part too.”

Displaced Arabs have told NIQASH that Iraqi Kurdish locals told them their children will just have to learn Kurdish if they want to attend local schools. But the Ministry of Education said this is just down to some locals' bad attitudes.

“The [Sunni Muslim extremist group] Islamic State is behind this problem and thousands of students have now dropped out of schools,” says MP Nawzat Rasoul. “But the last government in Baghdad did not help either because they didn't transfer any funds to Iraqi Kurdistan which limits development in the region.”

Abdallah Abdul-Karim, who left Anbar a month ago, hasn't managed to get his children enrolled in any schools in Iraqi Kurdistan either. He has no idea when he and his family might be able to go back to Anbar or how his kids will continue their education.

“In addition to problems with housing and unemployment we also have to worry about education for our children now,” Abdul-Karim told NIQASH. “There have been special schools opened here but there's only a few of them, especially when compared to the huge numbers of refugees here.”

Abdul-Karim is just hoping that the authorities in either Iraqi Kurdistan or in Baghdad can change the situation.

And the educational problems don't stop with the children of displaced Arab families. Hundreds of Kurdish students are also having their school year delayed because the classrooms they normally use are housing refugees.

There are thought to be around 650 schools in the Dohuk province of Iraqi Kurdistan, and about 100 schools in other provinces, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, being used as temporary housing for refugees. Classes in the schools can obviously not go ahead.

The solution is speedy cooperation between the government in Baghdad and the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan, says Rasoul. “Until that begins in earnest nobody knows what will happen to thousands of Arabic-speaking students here.”