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Exams in exile help further young Iraqis' education in Damascus


Exams in exile help further young Iraqis' education in Damascus

More than 1,500 Iraqi refugee students recently sat for their Iraqi national exams in the Syrian capital, thanks to a second year of cooperation between the Syrian Ministry of Education and the Iraqi authorities.
15 August 2008
Iraqi refugee children are free to attend Syrian public schools, though disruptions caused by the Iraqi conflict can make it hard for them to catch up.

DAMASCUS, Syria, August 15 (UNHCR) - Muhammad and Muhana look exhausted but relieved. The two 18-year-olds have just completed a gruelling week of school examinations, the final Iraqi national exams they need to pass in order to get into university.

These tests, organised by the Syrian Ministry of Education and overseen by Syrian observers, under the watchful eye of a delegation from the Iraqi Board of School Examinations, took place in three different schools in Damascus last week, from August 3 to 10.

It represents another valuable opportunity for Iraqi children currently living as refugees in Syria to validate the education they began in Iraq. And it is the second consecutive year that the Syrian Ministry of Education and the Iraqi authorities, through its Cultural Attaché in Damascus, are cooperating on the organisation of three separate sets of exams for children from grades 6, 9 and 12 (the latter being the final grade before university).

The Iraqi Cultural Attaché in Damascus, Prof. Sabah Al-Mussawy, was present at the first exams. "Syria is the only country hosting Iraqi refugees in the region that has agreed to conduct such examination on its territory," he noted.

Dr. Suleiman Khatib, the Syrian Deputy Minister of Education, is conscious of the importance of this scheme for Iraqi students which he personally helped organise: "This initiative is very demanding, both in terms of logistics and workforce, but it is our duty to Iraqi children, as it has been our duty to open our schools to any Iraqi child wishing to follow the Syrian curriculum."

The scheme has proved very attractive to Iraqi parents concerned about their children's education; from a mere 760 students sitting for the first exams held in Damascus in September 2007, this year's sessions counted a total of 1,532 students.

As part of its endeavour to promote the education of refugee children in Syria, UNHCR did its best to inform Iraqis of these exams and counsel parents and students on how to prepare for them, despite obvious difficulties.

Although Syrian public schools are free and open to all Iraqi children, the latter cannot always easily adapt to their new educational environment, especially since they were sometimes forced to drop out of school in Iraq for over a year.

Muhammad and Muhanna faced problems of a different nature. Having both arrived in Syria for their final school year in September 2007, they found it was too late for them to come to terms with a new curriculum, albeit in Arabic. "There were six Iraqi students in our class and all dropped out, except one - the only student who'd been in Syria for over a year and had already attended a Syrian school the previous year," explained one of them.

After a month of struggling with an entirely new programme, Muhana and Muhammad decided to drop out and concentrate their efforts on the Iraqi exams. With little access to books and manuals, they had to make do with what they could share, with a lot of help from Iraqi teachers also living as refugees in Syria.

"It was difficult," sighs Muhana. "In Iraq, we would have had a day in-between each exam to rest, but here, we had seven exams in seven days. That was hard."

Despite being tired, the two teenagers are extremely thankful for this opportunity, as are their parents. Safa, Muhana's mother, beams: "This is the future. I want to make sure my son continues his education, like his older brother, and the rest of our family." She adds determinedly: "I would have been prepared to go back to Iraq to make sure he passed those exams."

The organisation of such exams remains limited to Syria: "These exams are essential in ensuring refugee Iraqi children's academic efforts are encouraged and adequately validated; plus it's a fantastic stepping stone for further education, in Iraq, in Syria or in other good universities across the world," said Carole Rigaud, UNHCR Education Officer in Syria.

The exams papers have gone back to the Iraqi Board of Examination in Baghdad and results will come out in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile Muhana is hoping to work on his English, his favourite subject apart from computer engineering. Muhammad would like to study architecture or civil engineering; he hopes to set a good example for his three younger brothers, as his father did for him. But what Muhana and Muhammad could both do with is a break, and very good exam results in a few weeks.

By Carole Lalève in Damascus, Syria