By Taylor Smith
As a former teacher in an international school in the Kurdistan Region, I’ve seen what is considered to be the best education the country has to offer. I’ve also seen the worst during my time volunteering in refugee camps.
The United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) has estimated that two million children in Iraq do not have access to school and another 1.2 million are in danger of dropping out due to the continuous violence. In the bubble of Kurdistan’s private school system, you would never guess that such disparity exists. Students show up to school in range rover SUVs. Their bodyguards wear expensive Italian suits and are only there to carry the backpacks, which change every month or so. Meanwhile, two million other children don’t have books or even a backpack to put them in.
Of the schools that do exist in Iraq, approximately 5,300 are either damaged beyond use, converted into military operation bases, or makeshift shelters for displaced families according to UNICEF. That’s roughly 1 in 5 schools in Iraq. The overflow of students has increased class sizes at functioning schools up to 60 children per room. Barely able to manage my own classes of roughly 30 students, I can tell you this makes learning nearly impossible. Hence, some schools have started operating in shifts to decrease the overflow. This means even the children who are lucky enough to attend school are doing so on a reduced basis.
Poverty and insufficient education exists all over the world, but there is something to be said when the spectrum is as polarized as it is in Kurdistan. During my time volunteering in Morocco as an English teacher for a local non-government organization, I saw the influence of poverty set back motivated students from achieving their dreams. But even then, they had hope. They attended second rate public education institutions and showed up to our classes to make up for what their schools lacked. Many of the underprivileged and displaced children I’ve met here have lost that ambition and drive. They seem more motivated to destroy their interim environment by shattering glass bottles for fun than sit and repeat the alphabet sounds.
Creating a sufficient education system in the Middle East is not impossible. Before the civil war, public education in Syria was considered impressive. According to the World Bank in 2007, about 90 percent of children attended primary or secondary schools in Syria and 8 out of 10 Syrians achieved literacy. Syria was one of only three Arab countries whose students reportedly stated they felt safe in school in numbers reflecting the international average, according to a Carnegie Endowment report on school climates in the Middle East. A country dealing with its own sectarian politics and conflicts much like Iraq, that is an impressive achievement. The adequate access to education and the provision of a learning environment regardless of socioeconomic background produced real literacy results.
But what can be said about the millions of children being swept under the rug in Iraq? They grow up uneducated and lawless, fall prey to ideologies they can’t comprehend, and feed into the cycle of never-ending conflict. Children growing up in Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) territory may not have access to school anymore, but they can attend one of ISIS’s sharia religious schools. There are even religions schools for girls, complete with their own certificates for memorizing the Koran. If this is the only education these children receive it will be impossible to beat extremism. ISIS will simply be replaced by a younger generation and a different organization but the same beliefs.
Simply escaping these schools is not enough either. According to UNICEF, 70 percent of the children who have escaped ISIS controlled areas have still lost at least an entire year of school. Many of the children have been idly living in camps for almost two years. Many of the refugee camps I’ve visited are just finally getting provisional schools set up. The majority of them are being run by teachers on a volunteer basis with no background in education.
Those of us who hide behind the walls of our international school facilities, thinking we are making a difference in a part of the world that sorely needs a good education, are ignoring the heart of the problem. Until we increase access to target those children who are being written off and ignored, this country will never reach its full potential of being a leader in the Middle East. The indoctrination into destructive extremism of the children we walk by on the street selling roses or washing cars will occur, and the battle will continue.
Schools have the power to be real change agents in societies that teach tangible skills and moral values inspiring action. Before any institution can be successful, it must have educated people to run it. The CIA World Factbook reports that 40 percent of Iraq’s population is under the age of 14. 59 percent are under the age of 24. That is a majority that we cannot afford to ignore anymore. It’s time the country stopped investing in only the education of the elite and focused their efforts on the general population.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.