Syrian refugee children attend a lesson in a UNICEF temporary classroom in northern Lebanon. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DfID / CC BY

QAYYARAH, Iraq — Sabine speaks deliberately, elevating her voice above those of her pupils at a tented school in Northern Iraq. The 13-year-old wants to talk about why she wasn’t in class the past two years. The Islamic State took over her home village of Talabta in 2014. They occupied the school, threw out the Iraqi curriculum, and instituted their own. Sabine was in 6th grade at the time. She’s still in 6th grade now.

“They came with their own books that were all about the Islamic things,” she said. “There was no science, there was no math. Only Islam, Islam. We are Muslims too, but not everything in school is about Islam.”

Sabine is one of the several thousand children attending classes at a temporary learning space run by Save the Children. She likes lessons about English because it’s a new language and she’s waiting for a new life. Some 3 million Iraqi children like her have seen their education impacted by the ongoing conflict, said Save the Children Country Director Aram Shakaram.

In tents and trailers like these across the Middle East, the magnitude of humanitarian crises is reshaping the way humanitarians think about education. Long considered a development prerogative — something that happens when the displaced go home — a growing number of donors and aid groups now argue that education is a basic emergency need for children, as important as water and food.

But the realities of delivering education in Iraq and Syria have also changed conceptions of what education means in these circumstances. Children from those two countries have lived through the terror of war; they number so many that the aid community can’t accommodate them in formal schools. As a result, psychosocial support is now the key component of education in emergencies.

More than places where they learn literature or math, frontline schools are “a place where children feel like children again,” said Maulid Warfa, UNICEF’s chief of zonal office in Northern Iraq.

Children are remarkably resilient — if reached in time. For an emerging group of aid organizations, governments, and donors, emergency education became a question not of if, but how.

The new approach is transforming programming. Education practitioners are now asking how to transition from emergency programs back to the formal system, how to catch up students who fall behind, how to convince donors to fund the expensive undertaking and how to bring communities — and particularly parents — on board with a plan that doesn’t immediately offer their children credentials.

The experiment is playing out in places like Jad’ah camp, home to some 8,700 school-aged children like Sabine. Most of them didn’t go to school under ISIS occupation, often working instead — acting like adults for two years, under restrictive and at times brutal conditions. Sabine helped her mother in the home; a peer, 11-year-old Mahmoud, sold vegetable and sheep at the market.

These children fled in the midst of battle, often with physical and mental scars. Few of them have done homework or studied from a book in more than two years. “Organizing them back into school can be a massive undertaking,” said Warfa.

Even if the camp were to lump 2,000 students per school, it would need at least four large facilities to accommodate them, plus the teachers, desks, books and materials. For now, no one has those luxuries.

A new model

New thinking on emergency education stems from the sheer magnitude of children affected by recent conflicts. UNICEF estimates that there are some 2.25 million Syrian children now out of education. In Iraq, more than 78,000 school-aged children have been displaced from just the Mosul area since last October. Worldwide, as many as 75 million children are out of school in 35 crisis-affected countries, according to donor coalition Education Cannot Wait.

Adding to the volume of students has been an overwhelming set of psychological needs arising from the often years of war children have experienced. Save the Children’s recent report “Invisible Wounds” documents the “staggering levels of trauma and distress” among Syrian children; 3 million of them are under the age of six and have known no reality but war.

And yet children are remarkably resilient — if reached in time. For an emerging group of aid organizations, governments, and donors, emergency education became a question not of if, but how.

The realities of delivering education in Iraq and Syria have also changed conceptions of what education means in these circumstances.

“Emergency education and advancements in it has been one of the question marks that we have in the industry,” said Mercy Corps Iraq country director Su’ad Jarbawi. With an influx of Syrian refugees, then Iraqi internally displaced, into Northern Iraq, for example, “schools could not tolerate the number of students coming in, even with turning it to three-shift day. There’s an infrastructure problem, there’s a number of teachers problem, a books problem, but then there’s [the question of] what do you teach them? Outside of formal education, programs were needed.”

In Northern Iraq, humanitarian agencies have broken down their approach into three key stages, the first of which are temporary learning spaces. Usually built in tents, the schools focus on socializing children toward normalcy through play, song, drawing and some basic literacy.

Children “need this period of rehabilitation and support to engage with each other again and to survive really the trauma and the psychological impact of the conflict,” said Shakaram. Save the Children recruits instructors largely from the displaced camps. Many were teachers before and only need training on the specifics of psychosocial first aid. UNICEF also tries to ensure a few social workers are in each classroom to watch for signs of acute stress, abuse or other issues, according to Warfa.

The second stage of emergency education moves children back toward formal schooling.

“Once the situation stabilizes a bit, we then build temporary schools,” said Warfa. These facilities are larger, often with the desks and chalkboards of a regular school. And crucially, at this stage, “we bring the ministry of education on board,” he said. Teachers come from the ministry and children re-enter the official Iraqi curriculum.

The last stage would see children returning home. UNICEF has helped reopen 70 schools in Eastern Mosul, which is now under government control. Some displaced parents have told aid groups that they are waiting for schools to open before they return home.

“The message from parents that comes to the donors … is that our children need formal education and normalcy,” said Shakaram. “Once schools are operating in a place, it’s a sign that people are ok to return to their places of origin.”

Somewhere in between these steps — perhaps more than once — aid groups expect that students would need to catch up. A few NGOs are now running accelerated learning programs for a few students in camps. Warfa says Iraq’s Ministry of Education is also considering crafting curriculum plans for how to teach two years of class in one academic calendar.

A safe space for children put up by UNICEF at a camp for internally displaced persons in Iraq. Photo by: Josh Zakary / CC BY-NC

On the same page

In practice, getting parents on board with temporary education may represent the most urgent challenge. Here in Jad’ah camp, fewer than half of school-aged children attend class.

A short walk from the temporary learning space in Jad’ah camp, a newly displaced family of six explains why they don’t see a point in sending their three school-aged children to classes. “We heard about the school here [in the camp,] but we prefer to send our children to a school that is run by the Iraqi government, where they will get the certificate” they need to advance, the father said.

From Talabta, like Sabine, the children aged 5, 6 and a half, and 7 missed out on two years of education, and their parents are keen to see them catch up. (The family asked not to be named for fear of retribution against family members still in ISIS-held areas.) Other families say they need their children to help earn an income, hawking goods at the camp or queuing at distribution points.

Aid groups here work to convince parents that the temporary learning spaces are a first step to getting back on track. In some schools, the World Food Programme is trying to incentivize attendance by offering children a meal at school — often the equivalent of what they would earn working in the camp, Carlo Scaramella, Deputy Regional Director, MENA, World Food Programme, told the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai last week.

Q&A: EU aid commissioner Christos Stylianides

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq comes at a pivotal moment for the humanitarian system. EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides tells Devex how the big debates facing the sector — about reform, cash assistance, and limited funds — are transforming operations and the EU's way of thinking about the future of aid.

Authorities in Iraq have been slightly more receptive to unconventional approaches and “quite responsive and supportive, by accepting first of all the temporary learning space and also nonformal education,” said Shakaram. Numerous aid groups described a good working relationship between the Ninewa regional Department of Education in conversations with Devex.

Yet here too, there are challenges on the ground. The Education Sector’s most recent situation report from Mosul notes that, in newly built displaced camps, government camp managers allocated insufficient space for education programs. The DoE is also “unable to pay their formal teachers to work in all the formal tented schools that they requested in the camps” — phase two of the education plan. “To avoid the spaces being left empty, education partners are now gaining permission from DoE to use them as nonformal education spaces, including remedial and catch-up classes,” the sitrep notes.

Some funding gaps are indicative of the disconnect between donors’ rhetoric on prioritizing education and actual dollar commitments. Education makes up just 2 percent of all humanitarian funding, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In Mosul, education accounted for just 3.5 percent of last summer’s $284 million U.N. emergency funding appeal.

“Education still is not taken seriously in emergencies,” UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said in response to a question from Devex at the Dubai forum. “Now the Syrian crisis and the protracted crisis in particular reminded us that [these] kids are a lost generation.” 

Put into practice

As Sabine rushes off to rejoin the tent classroom, another boy makes his way forward. He wants to attend school, but administrators are struggling to register him. His parents died, and he is alone here. He has no identity card or documents proving how old he is; in fact, he isn’t sure himself.

Emergency education is proving to be an exercise in rethinking most of the protocol education practitioners are used to operating on.

The boy’s situation isn’t exceptional. Across Iraq, thousands like him have lost their credentials in the flurry of displacement and conflict. All of the children born in Mosul under ISIS lack Iraqi government birth certificates, since ISIS took over local administration.

And proving identity is just one of countless practical complexities. Emergency education is proving to be an exercise in rethinking most of the protocol education practitioners are used to operating on.

Class itself is the most obvious example. At Jad’ah school, the students sit on the floor and spend much of their time in play. Teachers focus on “Psychological First Aid” — a sort of therapeutic socialization, linked with basic literacy and numeracy. Save the Children’s Shakaram calls this the biggest lesson learned for his organization in emergency education.

Yet those pupils will have to catch up on hard skills at some point, or they risk falling out of the education system entirely. From the conflict in next door Syria, only 25 percent of secondary-school-aged children are enrolled in class. The effects for the country’s post-war economy are ominous.

Most of the students now displaced from Mosul have already missed two years of school and realistically will miss a third, waiting for schools to be built and funded, said Shakaram. No one knows how long they will be displaced or what sort of home they will return no.

Ensuring that students can and do make it through the various stages of emergency education and back to formal class is difficult in part because, at that stage, “It’s no longer about education; it’s about governance,” says Jarbawi of Mercy Corps. The Iraqi and other governments will have to decide if and how to honor informal certificates — or even parents’ and students’ word — from unaccredited classes.

The challenge is one affecting everyone, from students to families to donors. “How do you reshuffle and reform to tolerate a new shock,” Jarbawi said. “To deal with it not just as temporary but in the longer term.”

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About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.

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