UNHCR distributes school supplies to Iraqi refugees in Damascus

A gift of a new uniform, sports gear and school supplies helps keep tens of thousands of Iraqi refugee children in school in Syria.

An Iraqi girl receives a new school bag from UNHCR staff in Damascus.   © UNHCR/H.Mukhtar

DAMASCUS, SYRIA, Aug. 3 (UNHCR) - Taiba, a 14-year-old refugee school girl, is clearly excited as she steps into the noisy room where UNHCR is distributing colourful school bags, shoes and uniforms.

"It's always nice to get new notebooks, pencils, crayons and bags," she says, delight written all over her face. "It smells nice and it is brand new. It's also nice to see all the other children."

Earlier this week, UNHCR, in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), began to distribute school kits to Iraqi refugee children close to the Saida Zeinab section of Damascus where many Iraqis live and send their children to school.

The distribution of uniforms, shoes and school materials is taking place seven days a week and is expected to outfit 30,000 children from Damascus and Rural Damascus before the start of the Syrian school year on Sept. 7. Last year, UNHCR's distribution reached 20,000 Iraqi children.

On the first day, over 700 excited children who are already enrolled in primary and secondary schools received their supplies from the private Syrian company AASCO, which helped UNHCR and SARC volunteers distribute the kits.

Each school kit includes a school bag containing around 50 stationery items, a uniform, school shoes, sports clothes and sports shoes. Depending on the school grade, the total cost per child varies between $46 U.S. and $79 U.S., a significant amount for refugee families with several children enrolled at school, but no money coming in.

"Education in Syria is free and compulsory until the age of 15," said Carole Rigaud, UNHCR Education Officer in Damascus. 'The Syrian Government has been very accommodating towards refugee children, but there are obstacles to their attendance, and additional costs, such as buying school materials, are a major problem."

Iraqi families who wish to send their children to school face other problems because they don't have proper documents or can't afford transportation. It's sometimes difficult for children to adapt to the Syrian curriculum because, for example, English teaching starts at an earlier age than in Iraq.

By reducing the financial burden on Syria's increasingly impoverished Iraqi refugees and informing them of the education opportunities available, UNHCR hopes to encourage them to continue their children's education.

In 2006-2007, the Syrian Ministry of Education counted 33,100 Iraqi children and adolescents at school; by 2007-2008 there were 49,132. UNHCR hopes this coming school year will see a further increase in the number of Iraqi refugees attending school.

It is clear that the refugee parents coming to collect school supplies are all too aware of what it will mean if their children miss out on education.

"Without education, a person is ignorant, and even though the schooling of some of my children was interrupted, it is essential that they continue their studies," said Abu Zaidoon, whose four sons and one daughter are all at school. The family arrived in Syria in 2005. He has a Master's degree in Business and Economics and his wife is an English teacher.

Like other refugee parents, he believes education to be vital: "I want to make sure my kids receive a proper school education." However, he adds, "with the increasingly high cost of living, this is extremely difficult. At least this distribution is sparing us some of the expenses."

Aseel is an Iraqi refugee who has been volunteering for UNHCR's education programme since March 2008. She's a UNHCR volunteer at the distribution, but her daughter, who is about to start her second school year in Syria, is benefiting as well.

"My parents are both highly educated, so education is a serious issue in our family," says Aseel. "In Iraq, I worked as a civil engineer. My daughter must have an education. It is the only way, she will have the opportunities her grand-parents and I once had."

By Dalia al-Achi and Carole Lalève in Damascus, Syria