Global Citizen: Displaced Iraqi Children Call on US Leadership for Help

By Kate Whalen | September 14th, 2016

Last week, members of the US House of Representatives met with displaced students from Erbil, Iraq, to highlight the magnitude of humanitarian crises in the world. The event was co-hosted by Global Citizen, Global Campaign for Education-US; Jesuit Refugee Service/USA; U.S. Fund for UNICEF; and A World at School. 

A livestream video provided a unique opportunity to put faces to the numbing statistics of the global refugee crisis and to highlight the need for more robust and better-funded education in emergency zones. Ultimately, the event was meant to draw attention to the Education for All Act, which needs to be passed so essential funds can be disbursed.

During the introduction, Martin Rendón, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the U.S. fund for UNICEF, said, “for children in emergency situations, education is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity.”

The livestream was connected through a “Portal” that was installed by Shared Studios in Erbil, Iraq. Portals are gold shipping containers equipped with immersive audio-visual technology, placed in public sites around the world. When individuals enter a Portal, they come face-to-face with a stranger in a distant, identical Portal and can converse live as if in the same room.

US Congressmen Jim McGovern and Mike Quigley led the discussion and heard first-hand about the importance of education in emergencies from displaced students –– Malak, 11, from Baghdad, and Omar, 15, from Haji Ali – and refugee teacher Tafra, from Hassakah, Syria.

Education is important for Malak, who fled Baghdad with her family and now lives in a host community in Erbil where she attends Afreen School. Malak loves going to school because it is a place where she can make friends, learn, and feel safe. When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, Malak told Congressmen McGovern and Quigley that she wanted to be a doctor.

Omar and his family were displaced by military operations in the Mosul corridor as Iraqi forces moved toward Mosul. His home was blown up by ISIL after the family fled to Debaga camp. Omar has not been able to attend school for the past two years. Desperate to continue his education, Omar told Congressmen McGovern and Quigley that his future is unknown, but being safe with his family is what is important.

Omar lives in a camp that was built to house just the displaced families living in informal settlements in the area. In November 2015 – about a month after it opened – Debaga camp hosted 3,300 people. That number has since increased tenfold, now with more than 30,000 people and about 15,000 more expected in the coming months. To accommodate the overflow, schools are being shut down and used for shelters.

Tafra, a Syrian refugee teacher, opened up about the daily challenges she faces and made an emotional plea for help. “The hardest thing I face is when children come to me and ask when they are going home, and I don’t have an answer for them.” Tafra has done extraordinary work under the most difficult of circumstances, and does so without a salary, an additional burden that makes it difficult for her to give students the support they need.

Hearing the hopes, hardships, and challenges of these people touched the hearts of everyone in the audience and highlighted the importance of education as a lifesaving intervention.

The conflict in Iraq has forced millions of people to flee their homes. In what is now considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for children, violence is destroying childhoods and education is in a desperate state.

In Iraq, nearly one in five schools is out of use due to conflict and almost 3.5 million children are missing out on an education. Schools have been taken over as shelters for internally displaced people, and children don’t have access to what should be safe places to learn and play.

At this point, various efforts are trying to address the crisis. Particular initiatives focusing on education in emergencies, including the global Education Cannot Wait fund and the US legislation Education for All Act (S. 3256) (H.R. 4481), have made progress in the past couple months. But a lot more has to be done. The Education Cannot Wait fund needs to be adequately funded, and the Education for All Act still needs to pass through the US Senate and signed into law, but we cannot do it without your help.

It is important for us to have more conversations like this and keep the momentum going so we can help give children the support they need to recover from the horrors of war and contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq. Sign our petitioncalling on world governments to pledge to the Education Cannot Wait fund, and callyour Senator to urge them to support the Education for All Act.

Congressman Quigley concluded the event with a powerful message to all displaced people that are coping with crisis: “our thoughts are with you, but more importantly, our actions need to be with you.”