An Iraqi father's shattered dream

UNHCR staff register refugees at the Douma registration center on the outskirts of Damascus. Registering with UNHCR ensures that the most vulnerable refugees receive aid.   © UNHCR/M.Bernard

DAMASCUS, Syria - An automobile technician by training, Iraqi refugee Kamal* had higher hopes for his children - he dreamed that they would all finish university. But this dream has been blown apart by the same bombs that make life in Baghdad such a nightmare.

"The violence was something we couldn't cope with," he says, explaining why he and his brother decided to flee Baghdad with their families. In the Iraqi capital, he says, "we couldn't leave the house for a month. Even the children, if they wanted to go to school, someone had to escort them and then go back for them."

Some of his large extended family of 13 are still traumatized, he says, "but this secure living (in Damascus) has given us hope for the future again." And just as important as security, he says, is education.

So obsessed is he with the value of a good education that he sees a nefarious plot in much of the daily mayhem plaguing Iraq. "All the violence going on in Iraq - the kidnapping of children - is for one purpose, for preventing Iraq and Iraqi children from developing and getting educated," asserts Kamal, who, like his brother, worked for the regime of Saddam Hussein.

When Kamal and his brother Mostafa* crossed the border into Syria with their families, the Syrian authorities put a stamp in their passports specifying that they are not allowed to work during their exile in this country.

Condemned to sit at home, penniless and idle, Kamal faced the agonizing decision to send his 17-year-old son Karim* out to work instead of into a classroom. Having eaten up his savings down to the last $50, Kamal frets that the family is just a whisker away from living on the streets, so he can't afford to lose the teenager's income that is supporting all 13 people.

So he looks on helplessly as Karim, the family's only breadwinner, sets out at 9.30 in the morning for his job in a laundry across town, not returning home until after midnight, exhausted by the work that brings in a vital $3 a day for the family.

"If I register him in school now, it will mean some more expenses, and I can't afford it right now," laments Kamal. But the consequences alarm him: "For sure education is one of the highest priorities for me because if these kids remain uneducated and illiterate, they will not have any future."

* Names changed to protect refugees