A Syrian refugee is the first student in three generations

Last week I was welcomed by Sidra’s family into their home in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Her family fled the conflict in Syria in late 2013. Sidra lives with her parents, grandparents, two uncles and their families, one aunt, and six siblings. The three-room house is unfinished, with unpainted walls, no locks and only one toilet for the large family. They haven’t paid the rent for the past few months, but luckily the owner understands their situation and has been generous enough not to demand it.

Sidra (9) and her siblings Silva (12), Mohammad (10) and Shireen (7) are the first children in three generations to go to school because the family receives US$160 per month to help buy school uniforms, books, and pay for transportation to school. The money is due to UNICEF’s child education grant funded by the German Bank for Reconstruction (KfW) and implemented by Triangle.

Even though her parents and grandparents didn’t attend school, they are now ensuring that Sidra and her siblings attend school in spite of their displacement and economic hardship.

A group of people stand in front of their house.
UNICEF/Khurshid Sidra and her family.

Syrian refugees and displaced people face many challenges. There is mounting pressure on infrastructure and local services, lack of sufficient schools, multiple shifts in existing schools, a high student to teacher ratio, long distances to school and high transportation cost, and a lack of resources make it harder for many displaced families to prioritize children’s education over other needs.

In addition to providing cash assistance, UNICEF is helping refugee families register their children in schools and provide psychosocial support and cross referrals to specialized child services to children in need. UNICEF is working very closely with Directorate of Education and Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to provide needed support to refugee and displaced children.

Iraq allows registered refugees to work in the local market. Even so, Sidra’s father Waleed and his two brothers, who are day labourers in the construction business in Erbil, have been hit hard by the economic downturn. “We used to make 30,000 IQD (23US$) per day in 2013 and 2014, but now it’s hard to find a job for IQD 20,000 (US$15) per day. On average, we are only able to find work for one week or less per month,” he said.

If it were not for the education grant, Sidra would not be in school. There are around 8,000 other displaced and refugee children like Sidra who benefit from UNICEF’s child education grant.

After fleeing Syria, Sidra missed two years of school. She is in the second grade instead of the fourth. Nevertheless, she’s happy to finally be back in class.

I asked Sidra what she liked the most about going to school and she excitedly said “my friends.” Going to school has not only helped her to receive an education but also to make friends to play with and learn from.

There are almost 229,000 Syrian refugees living in Iraq – including about 100,000 children. The vast majority of Syrian children in Iraq have missed multiple years of school. Many are still out of school.

I asked Sidra’s grandfather what value he sees in Sidra’s education.

“She is happy,” he said.

With dwindling humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees in Iraq, economic crisis and cost of war, Syrian refugees in Iraq are often forgotten by all parties to the conflict.

We hope to keep this smile on Sidra’s face.

Atif Khurshid is a Social Policy Specialist with UNICEF Iraq.

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  1. I want to protect children in poor countries from war zones, backward countries from feudalism, racism, which I personally want UNICEF to strengthen. Investigation of child abuse is on the rise, children are innocent and they need protection with the best conditions.