Jesuit Refugee Service: Iraqi Children Ask U.S. Lawmakers for Help

Omar, an articulate, polite and outwardly jovial 15-year-old from near Mosul, Iraq, is a typical teenager in many ways. He enjoys hanging out with friends, is close to his family and hopes one-day to become a journalist. But he is missing an essential part of growing up – attending school. 

U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern (left) and Mike Quigley field questions from displaced children in Erbil, Iraq, via a livestream video link Sept. 7. (Sean Lengell – Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern (left) and Mike Quigley field questions from displaced children in Erbil, Iraq, via a livestream video link Sept. 7. (Sean Lengell – Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

Two years ago Omar’s life was upended – and threatened – when Islamic State militants invaded his northern Iraq village, taking control of the town and changing the curriculum in its schools. Fearing he would be forced to fight for the terrorist group, Omar and his family fled to the Debaga refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq. Because of overcrowding at the camp, he hasn’t attended school since arriving, despite his wish to return to the classroom. 

In early September, Omar, along with another displaced Iraqi student, Malak, as well as Tafra, a longtime teacher who fled to Iraq from Syria to escape her country’s brutal civil war, spoke from Erbil with two U.S. congressmen in Washington – Reps. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Mike Quigley of Illinois, Democrats – via a livestream video linkup.

The event, using new technology that allowed for an almost seamless, clear conversation despite the 6,000-mile separation, was a collaboration of the International Basic Education Caucus, which is led by Quigley and Rep. David Reichert, D-Wash. It was co-hosted by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, Global Citizen, Global Campaign for Education-U.S., Shared Studios, UNICEF, Children First, and A World at School.

“My future is unknown,” Omar told the lawmakers, who were gathered in a Capitol conference room packed with onlookers Sept. 7. “Now that I in camp, I live in a tent, I don’t have a future, and I don’t go to school.”

“My future is unknown,” said Omar, 15 who lives in a refugee camp in northern Iraq. “Now that I’m in camp, I live in a tent, I don’t have a future, and I don’t go to school.”

The Debaga camp, which was built for 5,000 families, as swelled well past capacity since fighting accelerated near Mosul earlier this year, displacing tens of thousands of families. The camp’s school has been converted into a shelter to accommodate the newcomers. UNICEF is building two new schools at camp, although they are expected to only be able to accommodate about half the camp’s children.

Tafra, who teaches refugee children at Basirma camp in northern Iraq, said she is weighed down by a feeling of hopelessness that she can’t do more to comfort her refugee students.

“The hardest thing for me every day is when children come up to me and say, ‘when are we going back home?’ and they have a tear in their eye,” she said. “I don’t have an answer for them, and it breaks my heart.”

“I can’t do more than kissing them and patting them on the head and telling them everything is going to be OK, that’s what I do for the children in school.”

Tafra also knows the pain personally, as her husband and two children reluctantly left for Germany. 

“When I think about that, when I think about the needs of my children – they need me as a mother – and I can’t be there for them,” she said. “We all have been through a lot, and it has affected us psychologically.”

Malak is a cheerful, bright 11-year-old girl from Baghdad who fled with her family to Erbil. She is among the only 50 percent of refugee and displaced children worldwide enrolled in school. But she is desperate to return to a normal life, asking the congressmen what they can do to improve the situation in Iraq. 

McGovern, who praised her for asking a “good question,” said the answer is far from simple, calling it a serious challenge for the United States and the international community. 

“With regards to education in particular, in these very difficult times, we need to help provide aid so we can create safe education spaces so that young people have an opportunity to learn,” he said. “Then hopefully, as we look to the future, when the violence hopefully comes to an end very soon, to give Iraqis basically the support that they need to form an education system that they believe in, that respects all the different sectors of Iraq and that provides everybody with a good education.”

The U.S. House of Representatives in early September took a step toward helping ensure that children worldwide have access to quality education – including those impacted by crisis and conflict – when it passed the Education for All Act. The bill, which is awaiting action in the Senate, would direct the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a comprehensive U.S. strategy to promote quality universal basic education.

There is also hope that two high-level summits in New York the week of Sept. 18 dealing with the refugee issue – one organized by the United Nations with the other convened by President Barack Obama – will produce substantive solutions.

But McGovern said that while the U.S. and the international community have a moral obligation to help secure lasting peace in Iraq, it’s up to the Iraqi people to “demand a good, quality education system for all.”

“And we all will support you in that effort,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. 

Quigley, a former school teacher, said he often reminded his students to ignore anyone who said they couldn’t change the world. 

“I know for you two that’s going to be more difficult, but it’s still very possible,” he said. 

McGovern agreed, saying that after listening to Malik and Omar, “I think I speak for everybody in this room that I feel pretty confident that if these two are future leaders then Iraq will be in pretty good shape.”

JRS Global Education Initiative

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