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Huge increase in number of Iraqi children in Syrian schools

Huge increase in number of Iraqi children in Syrian schools

Tens of thousands of Iraqi children start classes in Syria as the Syrian Ministry of Education begins a new school year with plans to enrol 100,000 Iraqi students who have been forced to flee their own country.
11 September 2007
Iraqi refugees join Syrian children for the first day of school in Saida Zeinab, Damascus, Syria.

DAMASCUS, Syria, 11 September (UNHCR) - Tens of thousands of Iraqi children who have been forced to flee their own country started classes in Syria this week as the Syrian Ministry of Education began a new school year in which it plans to raise the number of Iraqi students to 100,000.

The Syrian Ministry of Education reported a huge increase in the number of Iraqi children who have registered. When classes resumed on Sunday and Monday, a survey of 32 schools showed a significant rise, with one school's Iraqi enrolment increasing from five students last year to over 100 this year. A full count will be available in October.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Ministry of Education have been preparing since the beginning of 2007 to increase the number of Iraqi children in Syrian public schools to 100,000 during the 2007-2008 school year. Syrian schools, which have accepted children from neighbouring Arab countries for decades, last year enrolled over 33,000 Iraqi children. UNHCR estimates that at least 1.4 million Iraqis are currently living in Syria, some 250,000 of school age.

"The Iraqi refugee children living in Syria are the future of Iraq," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR representative in Syria. "Many have already missed out on a considerable amount of their education, both in Iraq and as refugees in Syria. It is one of our top priorities to support the Ministry of Education to accommodate the tens of thousands of Iraqi children who want to enrol in schools."

In Seida Zeinab, a neighbourhood of Damascus where over 350,000 Iraqi refugees live, all schools have seen significant increases in the number of Iraqi children attempting to enrol.

For 16-year-old Nada, this is the first time in two years she has been able to attend school. In June 2005 she graduated in the top 10 students in the Baghdad region. By September 2005, three of her uncles had been murdered and Nada's school was no longer functioning. When a fourth uncle was held for ransom, before finally being released in 2006, Nada and her family came to Syria.

"My dream in life is to be a doctor," said Nada. "I find it really hard to study in Syria - my whole life is disrupted. Although I wish I could return to my life in Iraq, I am grateful that I have the opportunity to study again."

During the summer break over 70 schools have been rehabilitated and equipped in areas with high concentrations of refugees. Plans for constructing eight new schools, with a capacity for over 16,000 children, have been finalized and construction is to be completed by the beginning of the next school year in 2008.

In the meantime, UNHCR is ready with a number of solutions for schools that are overwhelmed by requests for enrolment from Iraqi refugees, including transportation to alternative schools with space, temporary classrooms and the payment of teachers' salaries for schools that undertake a double shift system.

During the past two weeks, school uniforms were distributed to over 11,000 children with the support of Syrian Red Crescent volunteers. UNHCR aims to increase this number to 20,000 in coming months.

UNHCR and UNICEF issued a joint appeal in July for US$129 million to support Iraqi refugee education in the region. Since then, UNHCR and UNICEF have established an Emergency Education Taskforce to find solutions to the many issues preventing Iraqi refugees from accessing education. By the end of 2007 UNHCR will have given the Syrian Ministry of Education over $20 million, with increased funding expected for 2008.

UNHCR's commitment to education will enter a new stage this month when UN High Commissioner António Guterres and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie join former US President Bill Clinton at the 26-28 September meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in a call for $220 million to ensure refugee children worldwide have access to schools.

By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria