Over the last year we have had several requests to look at opening education projects for displaced and refugee education in the middle east. Last week we, therefore, visited Kurdistan (Iraq) to look at the situation on the ground and make an assessment of what would be feasible.
We began the week in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. Within the city of Erbil we visited projects run by the Archbishop of Erbil, who is currently caring for families which have fled from the plains of Ninevah (around Mosul). We visited purpose built schools attended by children from the city and portable classroom schools catering for the displaced children. Equipment and infrastructure seemed perfectly serviceable in the schools, with whiteboards and even digital projectors available for some classrooms. The urgent need in the city schools was for teacher support. One school asked if we could find them 5 primary teachers. Another school needed teachers with IB Diploma experience.
On the outskirts of Erbil and radiating into the countryside are a range of camps and camp schools which get steadily more and more basic. Camp schools consist of portable buildings, tents and mobile classrooms. In one case there was something that looked like a converted fast food van which stopped and spread an awning under which children could sit on mats. Across five camps we found something like 20,000 children getting indifferent to poor educational provision.
After looking at the situation in and around Erbil, we went to look at the situation in the more rural North of the country. The most direct and best road from Erbil went through areas where there is ongoing fighting. We, therefore, took the popular route used by the Kurdish population, which detoured at a safe distance.
We found a charming and quiet city located where the road from Erbil (and Baghdad) branches to neighbouring countries. In this region, there are several hundred thousand Kurdish and Iraqi IDPs (Internally displaced people) and Syrian refugees spread across many camps. The reason that there are so many camps concentrated in the area, is that it has always been a very quiet region which has seen no ISIS aggression or violence.
One of the camps we visited had just over 10,000 school age children from Sinjar province, which came to notoriety in 2014 when 5000 Yazidi men were massacred by ISIS and thousands of Yazidi women and girls were sold into sex slavery. Quite a few of the adults and children in the camp had first-hand experience of those events.
Of the 10,000 school age children in the camp, there was only education available for less than 5000. We asked about the plan for the other 5000 school age children. There was just a lot of shoulder shrugging.
In the camp, the educational provision for the ‘lucky’ children was very basic. We visited a set of 10 primary classrooms which were about half the size of a UK classroom. We started counting the children in one of the classes and lost count in the mid-50s. The space was so cramped that the children were almost on each other’s laps and there wasn’t even enough room for them all to get their books on desks. These were the lucky children, as at least they could get into a classroom. The other 5000 children just milled around outside, looking over the fence at them.
We visited a class of 16-year-olds doing IT. They were looking at pictures of computers because they didn’t have any actual real computers.
We went into classes of 13 and 14-year-olds who were studiously copying in silence from boards. In one class we put a problem to the class to think about. We heard Badini Kurdish, Sorani Kurdish, Arabic, Syrian and Aramaic as the children all animatedly discussed the problem.
We stopped to talk to a group of half a dozen 13-year-olds who were not able to get any education. We asked them some maths questions to see what they already knew. They were about 5 years behind what we would normally expect for that age. Within minutes of talking to the children in the camp high street, we had another 200 children gathering around on the street and lining up so that they could join in the ‘lesson’.
We went into a class of 17-year-olds doing biology. As we entered they all stood up and ‘teacher’ went back to his place in the class. It transpired that this class had organised itself and the children took it in turns to be a teacher. Once again we had to remind ourselves that these are the lucky children. The other 5000 are sitting in the sand outside, unable to get any access to any education.
One of the core problems is teacher availability. The only teachers for the schools in the camp are people in the camp who happen to be teachers. But even amongst qualified teachers, there are varying degrees of availability. As the economic situation has been so dire the state has been unable to pay teachers for a couple of years. So many teachers have left the profession. Some are now trying to return to the profession but are de-skilled and desperate for training to help them renew their pedagogical skills.
In quite a few cases, when we visited a classroom we ended up joining in lessons and doing some teaching alongside the class teacher. In one classroom we whispered some advice to the teacher, suggesting teacher wait longer for the children to answer questions before giving them the answer. When the teacher did that, the children started answering more questions. The teacher was effusive with thanks. That off-the-cuff whispered suggestion about waiting longer was the only training or CPD which the teacher had had in 10 years as a teacher.
The camp is clearly doing its best in what are very difficult circumstances. 40 teachers in the UK would equip a school for about 800. Here, those 40 teachers are working to educate around 5000 children, and they are doing so without any of the benefits of educational coordination to support them. The camp has done well to make even this happen. But they have absolutely no way of doing anything else educationally for the other 5000 school age children, who are just sitting around all day with no access to any education.
Within 15 minutes of walking into one camp, the camp manager was asking us if we could place a school and offer secondary education to 2000 children (‘or maybe you could do more….’). He added that a ‘centre for 1000 mothers and toddlers would be good too…’ The scale of the need is almost unimaginable.
As we saw the scale of the problem we were astonished that more isn’t being done at an International level. Quite a few of the families were saying very clearly that with the improving weather they will soon be starting on their journey to Europe to claim asylum. ‘There’s no point staying here,’ they said. ‘We want to get our children into schools, so we are going to have to go to Europe and claim asylum.’ To date, something like a billion Euros has been spent on asylum claimants in Greece. If a fraction of that money was spent on providing services such as education in the camps on the other side of the Mediterranean, then there would most probably be a lot fewer people feeling the need to put their lives at risk and make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.
What we have instead, are camps in Kurdistan where 5000 children can just have their education written off. Children like this in the camps of Kurdistan should be the hope and future for the rebuilding of the country. Instead, they sit in the dust as a condemnation of missed opportunities and wasted talent.
Perhaps one of the most poignant moments occurred as we left a camp. At the gates we met a group of teenage mothers who had lined up with their babies, to wait their turn to talk to us. Their message was a very simple one: ‘don’t forget about us. We still want to learn to read too.’