Young Iraqi Refugees in Syria Miss Schools

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Syria has become a safe haven for 2 million Iraqi refugees, most of them children. Education is important to Iraqis, but their parents can't afford school in Syria, meaning a generation of Iraqi kids may go uneducated.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Deb Amos, who's been sitting in with us the last couple of weeks, normally covers the Middle East. And Deb, I'm glad you're here because I want to check a fact. Is this correct? There are now two million Iraqi refugees outside their country?

AMOS: That is now the official figure of how many Iraqis have fled the country.

INSKEEP: Which is enough, if they were all in one place, it'd be one of the larger Iraqi cities. They could be their own country, as a matter of fact.

AMOS: In some places they are their own cities. You can go into the Syrian capital Damascus. You can go into Amman. You find whole neighborhoods that feel like you're in Baghdad. You here the particular the Iraqi accent. Iraqis have set up their own restaurants, their own shops. It feels like Iraq.

INSKEEP: Which I know you can tell us because you've spent a lot of time in those refugee neighborhoods, refugee cities, practically, and over the next few days we're going to be talking a lot about that on MORNING EDITION. And let's begin with the youngest refugees, the most vulnerable - the kids.

AMOS: There's about a half a million children in Syria alone. And you see them everywhere. They're on the street. Many of them are not in school, mostly because their parents can't work so they oftentimes do. They are restaurant workers. They're in factories because they can work a 12 hour shift and their older parents cannot.

INSKEEP: Why would that be? How could they work when their parents are forbidden in a place like Syria?

AMOS: Because just like here in this country there are all kinds of jobs that you can work illegally, and that happens both in Jordan and in Syria.

INSKEEP: And can you tell me what you saw when you went to a camp where these children are living?

AMOS: Let me take you to this camp. What this camp is, Steve, is a summer camp. And it has all the features of an American summer camp. It lasted for a week, and it was Syrian kids and Iraqi kids.

(Soundbite of children singing)

AMOS: This is like every summer camp you've ever been to except for the Iraqi kids - 15 out of the 85 - it's the first time for many of them that they've had an experience of childhood since they became refugees. Some of them, that was two years ago, some three, some four years ago. Some were fresh from the border, at this summer camp.

INSKEEP: How did these kids get lucky and not get in that horrible situation of working in some restaurant or some sweat shop, as you described before?

AMOS: Syrian officials went to the U.N. office where refugees are signing up, and there's one little place that's special for children because it takes so long for their parents to sign up. And they just asked. It's a camp that's for nine to 14-years-olds. And I did an interview with one of the counselors, Stefano Buckley(ph)

Ms. STEFANO BUCKLEY (Camp Counselor): You know, this is maybe one of the best things that's happened to them. And they are facing a lot of pressure here. And some of them used to be very rich and very comfortable back home and now that living, I don't know, a very long nightmare.

INSKEEP: I will emphasize, you're showing us the lucky ones here, the ones who actually got a little bit of help, who got this summer camp.

AMOS: Indeed, and I met many of these Iraqi kids. One was a young boy, 14 years old, he is in school, and his name is Rami(ph) and he wanted to practice his English with me.

Do you think about Iraq a lot?

RAMI: Yeah.

AMOS: And what do you think about?

RAMI: My friends. My city. I love Iraq very much.

AMOS: And do the Syrian kids want to know about the war?

RAMI: Yes.

AMOS: What do you tell them?

RAMI: I tell them there's no hope for back into Iraq.

AMOS: You have no hope to go home?

See what he does, is he clicks. And he looks down. These were some of the hardest interviews I've ever done because these children are very introverted and they don't really want to talk about Iraq. And they don't talk about it with the Syrian kids who were there.

INSKEEP: How are they different from those Syrian kids?

AMOS: What the counselors will tell you and what you observe on the street is some of them, not all of them, but some of them have had reactions to the violence that they've witnessed. Often they are very aggressive kids. They play rougher than any of the Syrian kids.

(Soundbite of children playing)

AMOS: I recorded this sound in a neighborhood that is completely Iraqi now. And kids are everywhere. And they are playing the Iraqi obsession, which is soccer. But they play very tough. I often see an Iraqi kid just smacking another one on the street. And counselors who are now starting to arrive, especially from a U.N. organization, UNICEF, are hoping to be finally be able to at least identify some of the worst cases and give them some help. I spoke to a woman named Theodora Savili(ph), who is a Greek child psychologist. She's come to Damascus. And Savili has observed the kind of drawings that some of these children are doing.

Dr. THEODORA SAVILI (Child Psychologist): We see drawings of bombings in their houses and drawings of lost parents, mothers crying, looking for siblings, lost siblings, lost limbs, drawings of children without hands, without faces sometimes.

INSKEEP: And how do the Syrian kids who are near these Iraqis, who haven't been in a war, respond to these kids?

AMOS: In the summer camp - that's one of the few places that Iraqi kids and Syrian kids actually come together. And I was very curious about what the Syrian kids are learning. And I want to play you the comments of Fadi Sarjeri(ph), who also wanted to practice his English with an American reporter who came to his camp.

What about the Iraqi kids here. Are they different than Syrian kids?

Mr. FADI SARJERI(ph): They are so sad because of this war.

AMOS: And nobody talks about it here?

Mr. SARJERI: No. Because I don't think they want to remember what happens there. They want to live now not some, not yesterday. And I'll try to make them happy.

AMOS: What will you do?

Mr. SARJERI: I don't know, but I'm feeling like I'm living there - there are bad things and I'm like maybe not a grown up, I'm still a kid. And maybe I can let the other Iraqi kids happy, but I can't do more than this. I try my best but I can't like stop the war.

INSKEEP: What's going to happen to these children as time goes on?

AMOS: That's a very big question, Steve. For many of them, they are now three and four years out of school. And for Iraqis, education is crucial. It's very, very important for these families. And it's hard to imagine how these children are going to catch up.

More than 30 percent of the parents who are in Syria and about the same number who are in Jordan cannot afford school fees. So you have a generation without school.

INSKEEP: What about the adults, what about their parents?

AMOS: We are going to be talking about this tomorrow. And we're going to be looking at a particular subset of Iraqi refugees, and that's interpreters. These are Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military or in other American agencies, people whose lives are now threatened because they worked for the Americans. We're going to look at one case that was lucky and got to the United States as a resettlement case, and another man who is not.

INSKEEP: So that's coming from NPR's Deb Amos tomorrow.

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