Slump hurts refugee schools in Kurdistan region of Iraq

The classroom is Spartan. Student numbers are high and teachers have not been paid for months, but deputy principal Mohammed Zekkhi refuses to give up hope. "These children are our future, we cannot let them down," says Zekkhi, of the primary school at Kawergosk refugee camp, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, or KR-I, which has 1,700 pupils. 

Since 2012, the Switzerland-sized area, which is Iraq's only autonomous region, has hosted a quarter of a million Syrian refugees and more than one million internally displaced Iraqis. A decade-long economic boom ended two years ago when Baghdad cut funding to the Kurds after they built their own oil pipeline to Turkey and began to export oil independently. 

With the collapse in the price of crude oil, KR-I is now in economic crisis. Authorities have cut state workers' salaries in recent months. Particularly hard hit have been schools such as the one where Zekkhi and his staff teach. 

They have not been paid their government salaries since September. Teachers, many of whom are Syrian refugees, face a stark choice between continuing to work without pay at 72 schools in nine refugee camps and dozens of non-camp locations in the region, putting their families at risk financially, or leaving and putting their students' education in jeopardy. 

Unable to continue unpaid, about 15 percent of the primary school's teachers have already left. In other camps, it is reported that as many as one-third of teachers have had to leave and others are working fewer days per week, but Zekkhi remains resolute. 

He said they would carry on, whether they were paid or not, although he conceded the crisis was taking its toll. "We feel like pieces of wood in the sea being moved by the waves. We have no control over our situation." 

The situation is of particular concern to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which recognizes the importance of formal education in the lives of youngsters driven from their homes by war. About 2.8 million of them have fled the Syrian conflict alone. 

Jozef Merkx, UNHCR's coordinator in the autonomous region, said ensuring children remained enrolled in formal education was important in avoiding negative coping mechanisms, such as early marriage and child labour. "These children are losing their childhood to displacement," he said. "We must ensure that they don't lose their adulthood because of a lack of education" 

Because of a decline in the number of teachers, class sizes have grown and more lessons are being crammed into a shorter time. The teaching week has also been disrupted, with children spending longer hours in school on some days, while on others they have no classes. All the factors have led to low enrolment and high dropout rates among refugee children. 

Despite the challenges, there are grounds for hope. Although the economic crisis has led to competition between local residents, Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis, for a dwindling number of jobs, the children in the school are simply focused on getting along. Among the pupils are 30 displaced Iraqi children whose parents live in Kawergosk town nearby. 

Chatting in the playground, displaced Iraqi third-graders Zain and Rawnaq, from Samarra in central Iraq, said they had never met a Syrian before they joined the school in September and now their best friends are all Syrian. 

The only disagreements between Zain and his new friends are over which is the better football team – Barcelona or Real Madrid. Rawnaq and her best friend Rajah, a Syrian, have no such problems – "football is silly." After initially being fearful about joining the school, the children quickly settled in. As Zain put it: "Syrian kids are just like us." The world could learn a lot from the wisdom of an eight-year-old. 

By Michael Prendergast

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