Goodwill Ambassador Adel Imam encourages Iraqi schoolchildren in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Adel Imam on Wednesday visited Iraqi children attending schools in Syria and urged them to study hard and keep faith in the future. He also praised the Syrian government and people for helping Iraqis.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Adel Imam meets Syrian and Iraqi schoolchildren in Damascus.   © UNHCR/J.Wreford

DAMASCUS, Syria, September 12 (UNHCR) - UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Adel Imam on Wednesday visited Iraqi children attending schools in Syria and urged them to study hard and keep faith in the future.

"Until the day that you return to your homes, I want you to take your education seriously and make the best out of it," the hugely popular Egyptian actor told children at the Seida Zeinab Elementary school in Damascus, where more than 350,000 Iraqi refugees have found shelter.

Imam was cheered by students, teachers and parents, who crowded the playground of the school. "I love to see Adel Imam on television, but to see him show up in our classroom today is a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life," said an Iraqi girl starting third grade.

The Goodwill Ambassador's visit coincided with the start of the academic year, in which the Syrian Ministry of Education hopes to have 100,000 Iraqi refugee schoolchildren enrolled in public schools. Tens of thousands of Iraqis in Syria started classes this week; many of these children have missed out on a considerable amount of their education, both in Iraq and as refugees in Syria.

Speaking to Syrian children sitting next to their new Iraqi classmates, Imam thanked them for their hospitality and for making refugee children feel at home in their temporary refuge.

"I will go back to the whole world and tell them about your kindness and generosity and I want you to keep this spirit going in your classrooms," said Imam, addressing a class of more than 40 girls starting second grade.

Ending a two-day visit to Syria, Imam acknowledged the country's extraordinary generosity in taking in more than 1.5 million Iraqis who have fled violence in their homeland. In meetings with Syrian officials, including Minister of Education Ali Saad and Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad, Imam voiced appreciation for Syria's support to uprooted Iraqis and called for broader international involvement in easing the humanitarian burden on the region.

"I am overwhelmed and proud to witness first hand the extreme generosity of the Syrians towards their Iraqi brothers and we continue to count on their support to provide a safe haven for the humanitarian cases that will continue to arrive in the border area," said Imam. The Syrian government this week implemented new visa restrictions for Iraqis arriving at the Syrian border.

Imam also urged support for Syria. "The international community and the Arab world have to do their share as well and support Syria and neighbouring countries who [have] carried the heavy burden of hosting Iraqis since violence erupted in their homes," he said.

Later in the day, Imam visited a UNHCR registration centre in Damascus where he received another enthusiastic welcome from Iraqi refugees as well as excited UNHCR staff. He talked to several refugees about their experiences, including kidnapping ordeals and murder attempts.

Imam is the second UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador to visit Syria in the past three weeks. American actress Angelina Jolie met Iraqi refugees in Damascus late last month and also visited a camp just inside Iraq.

The UN refugee agency estimates that more than 4.2 million Iraqis have left their homes - 2 million to neighbouring states and another 2.2 million displaced inside Iraq.

In late July, UNHCR and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) launched a joint US$129 million education appeal aimed at getting 155,000 young Iraqi refugees throughout the Middle East back into school.

By Abeer Etefa in Damascus, Syria