THE BLOG

Out of the Refugee Camp, But Out of School Too

25/06/2013 16:41 BST | Updated 25/08/2013 10:12 BST

Hadija, 12, and her younger siblings are fast becoming part of Syria's lost generation. Hadija has been out of school for over a year and has forgotten how to read.

When I asked her if she could read, she said yes. But when she looked at the words on the back of a bottle, she realized she could no longer make out the letters.

She had books at home in Aleppo, but when her family fled to northern Iraq they couldn't carry them.

"I miss school and I miss my friends," Hadija says softly.

Her sister Sara is eight years old and has never been inside a classroom. Sara told me she wants to learn to read and write, "but there is no school".

The family live in Var City, a housing development in Domiz town, about 15 minutes drive from the refugee camp. Around 700 Syrian families have moved in here. For families who can afford it, renting an apartment is generally preferable to living in a crowded refugee camp. But the vast majority of these children do not go to school.

While technically Syrian children are allowed to attend local schools, classes are taught in Kurdish, and they are used to learning in Arabic. There are also simply not enough schools in the area to accommodate them all - more than 70 percent of the 159,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq live outside the camp, and nearly one quarter of them are school age children.

Hadija told me she wanted to become a doctor so she could help children. But right now she will be lucky if she manages to grow up literate, let alone get into medical school.

Another boy with a similar story is her neighbour, Ahmad (not his real name), 16, who fled to Iraq with his family late last year to avoid being called up to join the fighting.

"Sometimes I work [stacking gas bottles], but my ambition used to be to become a pilot," he told me.

These days, his ambition is simply to find less physically taxing work in restaurant.

One of my colleagues says Syrian refugee children tell her that missing education is the thing that upsets them most, as they know their future is being stolen from them.

Eleven-year-old Lilith also lives in Var city, and tells the same story. She and her siblings have been out of school for two years - even before they came to Iraq, they stopped going to school in Damascus as the situation was too dangerous.

"I loved school," says Lilith, a thin, quiet girl, with brown hair hanging to her waist. "My teacher taught me to read stories so that when I grew up I would be educated. But she's still in Syria and we don't know what happened to her... I loved her so much."

But it's not just the stress of missing school that Lilith and her siblings grapple with now. Her parents told me the children saw bodies in the streets in Syria - after that they would often cry, cling to their mother and have trouble sleeping.

"The children are getting better here," says their mother, Amad. "But sometimes they remember things. We just tell them it's a dream and to try to forget it."

For children like Lilith education can be crucial to their recovery - schooling restores routines and normalcy, and allows them to make new friends.

UNICEF and Norwegian Refugee Council are currently in the process of finalizing a joint education assessment on Syrian refugees living in urban areas. The report will inform UNICEF interventions for refugees like the children of Var City. Hopefully, soon, more children can be bought back into formal education where they belong, and be given back their futures.