Iguacu Blog

“Education is the best thing in life” | Back to School: Addressing the challenges faced by Iraqi and Syrian children

Oct 11, 2017
“Education is the best thing in life” | Back to School: Addressing the challenges faced by Iraqi and Syrian children
Nathanael Chouraqui
Lead Researcher, Iraq & Syria

Nathanael holds an MSc. in International Relations from the LSE, a Bachelor of Laws from the Sorbonne University and a B.A. in Government from Sciences Po Aix. He previously worked for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as Research Consultant at Harvard University. Nathanael was awarded the LSE Research Festival Highly Commended Prize for his research on post-terrorist attack resilience. He speaks French and English.

Syrian and Iraqi children have been witness to war when they should have been going to school. In the first of this two-part series, Nathanael Chouraqui, Lead Researcher at iguacu, explored the deep psychological impact the wars are having on an entire generation. This blog will delve into the challenges of humanitarian response, and review some of the initiatives that address the children’s traumas and help them get back to school.

Both in Syria and Iraq, aid organisations have started to tackle the issues of children’s mental health and education. While the need to reintegrate these children into the education system and provide them with psychological support is increasingly seen as a priority, aid workers and teachers struggle to meet their needs.

“There were difficulties at the beginning because firstly they’ve come from a war-zone … they had some mental health problems.” A teacher in a refugee camp in Lebanon said. “They’re agitated, maybe introverted, aggressive at times,” a psychologist working in another refugee camp confirmed.

Shy child at a Syrian refugee camp, Karkosik Erbil. | Photo Credit: Mustafa Khayat

To address their traumas, aid organisations have to find innovative pedagogical approaches. Lebanese charity Basmeh & Zeitooneh created “peace education” classes in Syrian refugee camps.

The classes start with the children deciding on rules for how they can and cannot treat each other. Then, teachers and educators engage the children with a variety of activities including drama and storytelling, but also ‘yelling’ sessions, designed to help the children express the fear and anger they feel as victims of the war.

Similarly, several organisations use drawing and art therapy as a way to allow children to communicate their experiences and memories of war.

Some schools also work on linking psychological and physical recovery. Six-year-old Moustafa was left partially paralyzed by an airstrike in Syria. “My dad was carrying me when the plane came. He threw me down. He died, and my mum, and my cousin. And me and my other cousin were hurt” he told BBC journalists. He found safety and support in Jordan, in a school for children who lost one of their parents. In this psychologically calming and supportive environment Moustafa approaches his recovery with determination. “Nothing matters to me in the world except fixing my hand” he says. He wants to become a dentist.

Returning to the classroom is a welcome, and often inspiring, opportunity for those children. “Education is the best thing in life,” according to a 12-year-old refugee girl interviewed by UNHCR. “The kids don’t like the weekend. They like coming [to school]” a teacher running pre-school classes in refugee camp said.

Syrian refugee children in a Lebanese school classroom. | Photo Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development


The general response is still extremely limited. Iraq and Syria currently lack the human and financial resources needed to reach the millions of children that remain out of school.

Several members of the iguacu network have highlighted how crucial it was to act and invest in education and psychological support, a domain not usually considered an emergency in the humanitarian world.

Rime Allaf, Syrian-born political analyst and member of the Board of Directors of the Syrian Economic Forum told us: “Giving children education hits several birds with one stone. It lessens the risk of early marriage and of child labor, and it gives them and their parents a goal to reach for, and a hope that their skills can be put to use later.”

One of the most urgent goals is to avoid a situation where they “come to adulthood with hardly any option”, no purpose and no opportunity in life. A situation that, she says, may form a fertile ground for radicalization.

Children inside a classroom at Za’atri refugee camp. | Photo Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

“The trauma you see in the eyes of these children… A lot of them are not speaking anymore” — Rime Allaf

The traumas of war have the potential to plague an entire generation of Iraqi and Syrian children. Long term psychological damage looks a near inevitability for thousands of young people unless drastic action is taken to provide treatment and reintegrate them into formal education. Rime Allaf, believes progress can be made but “we [would] need an army of psychologists” for the process to begin.

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