Trauma yet another challenge to educating Iraq's displaced children

A young Iraqi - who fled violence in the northern city of Tal Afar due to attacks by Islamic State (IS) jihadists - points to an Arabic letter during a class at a make-shift school in a tent at the Bahrka camp, 10 km west of Erbil in the autonomous Kurdistan region on September 1, 2014.

Thousands of Iraqi children may be robbed of their right to education as schools increasingly become shelters for families fleeing from the Islamic State’s ongoing offensive in northern Iraq. 

In a Sept. 10 statement, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova appealed to the international community, asking them to “mobilize and invest in education for the Iraqi people.”

“It is time to stand up and act now,” she said. “Education cannot wait.”

Providing access to quality education for Iraq’s displaced children has become a major challenge for the government and humanitarian groups in the country, said Ala Ali, a consultant for the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Resources are growing strained as the conflict continues unabated, she said. In addition, many of the children are traumatized and not receiving proper care, making it difficult to give them stability, she said.

“When children leave their homes … their lives are not normal,” said Ali, who is also a board member for Iraq Al-Amal, a local nonprofit that provides health and training services and advocates for peace. “They have no food, no shelter, no health care. How do you expect these children to go back to school?”

'Beyond capacity'

The UN estimates that fighting in Iraq has displaced nearly 2 million people since December last year, including more than a quarter million school-age children. More than 1,000 existing schools are now serving as shelters for these families, with another 60 being used for military purposes, according to the organization.

Thousands of children have already missed the first day of school and the trend is likely to continue for those who have been displaced, said Aram Shakaram, Iraq program director for Save the Children, an international nonprofit that promotes children’s rights.

Humanitarian efforts are therefore focused on making education available to children at camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), he said.

“We provide child-friendly spaces where boys and girls can come together, a safe place where they can have some sense of normalcy,” Shakaram said. Though most lessons are informal, the hope is that these spaces could prepare students for their eventual return to regular classes, he said.

But even with the UN’s appeal last June to bump up funding in Iraq to more than $300 million, resources in the region are inadequate. In the northern province of Dohuk alone, nearly 34,000 families are living in makeshift shelters outside of the regular IDP camps set up in the area, according to documents provided by Al-Amal’s Ali.

“We are beyond capacity,” Shakaram said.

A burden of trauma

Aid groups must also consider the children's state of mind, Ali said. Forced out of their homes, living in camps and exposed to violence, these children “need psychological programs, specialists,” she said.

“A traumatic event can seriously interrupt the school routine and the processes of teaching and learning,” according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), based in the University of California Los Angeles and Duke University in North Carolina.

A traumatized child might become withdrawn, subdued or mute, or show physical signs of distress such as headaches and stomachaches. Adolescents might experience feelings of guilt or shame and entertain thoughts of retribution or revenge, according to the NCTSN fact sheet on trauma.

“There are usually high levels of emotional upset [and] potential for disruptive behavior … unless efforts are made to reach out to students," the fact sheet continued.

But options are limited in a country where there are only four psychiatrists for every million people and even fewer professionals trained in psychological counseling, based on a 2013 report by Doctors Without Borders.

The impact of such a reality could reach far into Iraq’s future, Ali noted. 

“What will happen if [these children] don’t go through the healing process?” she said. “They will transfer this trauma to the next generation.”

Pinpricks of hope

Despite the colossal challenges facing aid groups and others who are working to help Iraq’s IDPs, hope remains, said Tahani Alsandook, acting cultural attaché at the Iraqi Cultural Office in the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq in Washington, DC.

College and graduate students who have had to leave Mosul and Tikrit as the Islamic State widens its reach have been allowed to continue taking classes at other universities, she said.

A system is also in place for making up for missed classes. “This is not the first time we are in this situation,” Tahani said. “If the period of the war exceeds three months and there are no lessons during this time, [schools] will take it from summer vacation, plus extra hours after class.”

The important thing now, she said, is to bring an end to the conflict.

“We hope that every student will have a chance to start school again soonest, that every teacher will return to their university,” Tahani said. “We hope the cycle of education starts again and that it moves forward, not backward.”

More on GlobalPost: Children face 'education emergency' in northern Iraq