Jun 02, 2015

Iraqi Kurdistan: Smiles and Resilience - the Face of Educational Deterioration

In celebration of International Children’s Day, thousands of children living in greater Kurdistan region received presents thanks in large part to a network of NGOs and the distribution efforts of the Rwanga Foundation and United Arab Emirates Red Crescent. The event is shadowed by a larger regional concern however, as public education programs and budgets continue to deteriorate as a result of weak regional stability and armed conflict. With half of the country’s population under the age of 20, fears of an education gap spanning a generation are very real, and are only magnified due to fragmentation as a result of internal displacement. In spite of this, at least for International Children’s Day, thousands of Kurdish children smiled as toys were distributed.

Below is an article published by Rudaw:

Thousands of kids across Erbil governorate will celebrate International Children’s Day with new toys this Monday as NGOs visit schools bearing gifts.  

“These children are underprivileged. It’s quite rare for them to receive presents,” said Taban Shoresh, a spokesperson for the Rwanga Foundation, a local charity that distributed the toys in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent. She spoke to Rudaw while distributing gifts to a boisterous crowd of 750 children at a school just outside the regional capital, Erbil.  

Rwanga will hand out 5,000 gifts to elementary school children, most of whom live in small villages away from the more prosperous cities.  

As Syrian refugees and Iraqi families displaced by war with the Islamic State take the lion’s share of resources from aid organizations, “local children have been totally ignored,” Taban said. 

Many families have been hit hard by the budget crisis this year, as Baghdad and Erbil continue to battle over the division of the national budget. With over 60 percent of the labor force dependent on government money, the inability of the government to pay out salaries and other benefits has affected nearly everyone.  
Many children who spoke to Rudaw said they had received less toys and sweets than usual this year. They were thrilled to find the gifts, which were sorted into two categories: toy trucks, footballs, lego sets and helicopters for boys; clay pottery sets, t-shirts, diaries, clocks and play dough for the girls. Informal exchanges between boys and girls took place after distribution in the schoolyard, with some girls clearly more interested in a football than pottery. 

Rebwar, a cheeky 10-year-old, snuck into his brother’s school with hopes of passing as a student.

“I’d guess half of the children in the area don’t get any presents from families these days,” he told Rudaw. 

“But this year is better than last, when we didn’t get any presents for International Children’s Day—we didn’t know about it then,” he added before slinking off to try getting another toy with his giggling friends.

Most younger children did not seem to understand why they were receiving gifts, although they acknowledged their teachers made an effort to explain it to them. 

Older children were generally more informed, even diplomatic. Zanyar, a stern 12-year-old girl, said she “hopes all children will take school seriously,” and that she “wishes the children of the world a happy holiday in solidarity with Kurdistan.”

Beyond the region’s budget woes, war in Iraq and Syria has had more immediate impacts on local Kurdish kids. Many children were delayed in returning to school this year because classrooms were occupied with refugees and internally displaced families. 

The struggling public education system, already under strain before the war and salary cuts, has many worried about a lost generation of kids. As the crisis goes on, more children are seen on the streets begging for money during school hours.

“Children deserve to be children, despite the current situation,” Shoresh said. “We’re trying to alleviate that for International Children’s Day.”

She also pointed out that Rwanga is attempting to help the beleaguered government in other ways, having just opened a primary school in Sulaimani and offering numerous other programs for displaced Iraqi, refugee and street children. 

With half of Iraq’s population under the age of 20, such non-state actors will have to take responsibility for nurturing and educating future generations conditioned by economic instability and war.

But looking around the playground, it is clear that kids are not only the most vulnerable, but also the most resilient in adversity—happy to simply kick a football around in the dirt with their friends or take a selfie with their new diary, no matter what else is going on.

Photo Credit: Rudaw