Over the last fortnight we have been continuing with field visits in Kurdistan. This has involved a providing ongoing support to some of the teachers we have met there, but the main focus is upon preparing the ground for a fuller deployment of volunteer teachers for the Autumn.
We remain absolutely focused upon the need to provide formal education to children. It would be all to easy to find a group of children and carry out some informal activities. But we have always resisted that ‘easy’ approach. Children deserve a proper formal education and it does no favours to the children to take the ‘easy’ option and ignore their more fundamental needs. For many of the children there is a clock ticking. Each day that passes they get older and they move closer to passing out of school age education, without having received an education. In this kind of context it would be a betrayal of the children to use resources for activities, when their formal educational needs are so great.
As we go around camps in Kurdistan we are constantly asked about whether we can provide school buildings and generators to power school equipment. We are open to considering these kinds of issues in the future, but we are not going to focus on them in the short term. The single most important educational resource for children is a teacher. Our focus is therefore upon placing teachers with children.
However, placing teachers with children is extremely complicated. There is a national curriculum and there are legal requirements for educational programmes in Kurdistan. This means that we have had to meet and talk to a lot of different officials. The focus upon teacher support is a very different and a new form of Educational Aid. Kurdish officials tell us that it hasn’t happened previously in Kurdistan and they can’t even find examples of it anywhere else in the world. So there is excitement about trialling something new, and also some nervousness.
We have met with officials at district and governorate level, as well as at the Ministry of Education in Erbil. There is a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement to try this new approach we have been really pleased to get the Minister’s approval. Even with his approval, we still have a lot of work to do in order to establish an effective teaching environment on the ground.
The scale of the need is so enormous that when we are talking to people at different levels we are constantly being asked about whether we can extend and take on new projects. One official brought to our attention a school which has 2000 children and just 1 teacher. Could we do something there? Another official raised the issue of 4000 teachers in a province which need training. We’re open to considering further possibilities in the future. But to start with, we are very keen to start in a limited way, so that we can prove that the concept works.
Working in Kurdistan is complicated. Even at the level of language there are an enormous range of complexities which the local community have to navigate. There is a fundamental distinction between Arabic and Kurdish educational programmes. But within Kurdish there are multiple distinctions which have very real impact upon communications. Sorani Kurdish is the official language of government, but in the North of the country the children are learning in the Badini dialect. Some of the Kurdish refugees from Syria are Kurmanji speakers. And amongst the Christian community of refugees and IDPs in Erbil we have encountered Syriac and Aramaic speaking children. This week we even encountered a group of children who have returned to Kurdistan from Europe and do not have enough Kurdish or Arabic to learn in either of those languages.
Even within Sorani Kurdish, there seems to be a very different accent between Sulaimaniyah and Duhok speakers. We were in one meeting where Kurdish speakers from Sulaimaniyah and Duhok were having so much difficulty with each other’s accents that they preferred to speak in English, albeit a limited English which we all had to supplement with occasional emojis. We ourselves have struggled with elements of Kurdish. One meeting descended into mirth when the host was accidentally thanked for his ‘beauty’ instead of his ‘kindness.’ And we have become very aware that although English is expanding exponentially, amongst older taxi drivers there can be nil recognition of international words such as ‘airport,’ unless the Kurdish term (frrokexane) is used.
One of the focuses of our recent visit was also security. We do not publish information about security, as that would potentially undermine security arrangements. However we met with various officials offering advice and resources. It is relatively simple to ensure a highly visible security presence, but it is not always advisable. Excessive security can attract attention and undermine one of the most important security principles: being discrete. There are very clear extremes to avoid in planning. We benefited from talking to the heads of several NGOs which already have staff in the field and they talked through the security arrangements which they have found works well. We particularly enjoyed meeting European teachers in Kurdistan who work in International schools. Their perspective on day to day safety was particularly interesting, as they are choosing to live, work and travel regularly in very specific contexts.
One of the implications of working with the camps in Kurdistan is that they tend to have additional security infrastructure of their own. The Booklet: IDPs and Refugees in Duhok Governorate provides an information summary of camps in the North of Kurdistan, listing police stations and security teams which are based in camps, useful reading if you are considering volunteering with us.