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At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic

Breaking the cycle: Iraqi refugee students in Syria need help to go back to school

Support from UNICEF and European Union

By Rob Sixsmith

DAMASCUS, Syrian Arab Republic, 6 July 2010 – Lulls in conversation with 16-year-old Iraqi refugee Gailan are soon filled with the gentle inhale-exhale of sleep. Outside, the Damascus streets are silent, except for the shuffling of those woken early by the intense morning heat.

UNICEF VIDEO: 30 June 2010 - Rob Sixsmith reports on the situation of young Iraqi refugees in Syria who must work rather than attend school.


Gailan has just worked a 16-hour shift in a textile factory. He snatches sleep as his two sisters ready themselves for school. Both girls have been studying since dawn – determined to capitalize on the opportunities offered to Iraqis by a strained Syrian education system.

But with a 10-member family to support, education is a luxury that Gailan cannot afford.

Family flees conflict

“I hate it, but I am jealous of my sisters,” he says. “Life is not comfortable for me, and it’s unfair especially that I need to study and have to work because my family depends on me.”

© UNICEF Syria/2010/Sixsmith
Some young Iraqi refugees in Syria, like Gailan, 16, must work to support their families.

Gailan and his father were the first members of their family to flee the conflict in Iraq in 2008. His father had been kidnapped by a religious militia and then caught in a separate market bombing. Heavily medicated ever since, he is incapable of working; even the simplest movements are a struggle. 

Gailan was also caught out by a country unravelling.

“Iraq was not good. Our house, our car, everything was blown up,” he confides. “I was kidnapped at school. For one month they humiliated me, they tortured me. After a while I didn’t care – because I thought they’d just kill me in the end.”

Difficult life as a refugee

Escorting his siblings to school through a chaotic Damascus suburb gives Gailan time to reflect. Though Syria offers him a haven from the continued instability in Iraq, his life as a refugee is difficult. Even simple rights, such as his right to security, are not ensured. Often entrusted with money by his employer, he was recently kidnapped by a criminal gang looking for ready cash.

© UNICEF Syria/2010/Sixsmith
Many Iraqi refugees still rely on UN aid to help them survive in Syria.

In addition, Gailan works at least 15 hours a day, six days a week for 1,500 SYP (about $35). The mind-numbing janitorial work contrasts with the hopes that his father, Abu Rashid Rashid, holds for him.

“I was hoping for so much for Gailan – an engineer or a lawyer,” explains Mr. Rashid. “Of course, I am proud of him now. I feel he has a certificate from real life, because he is such a great man to sacrifice himself for his family.”

At 16, Gailan has had to mature quickly – a sense of responsibility that has combined with a fractured childhood and missed opportunities to ferment into a potent depression seething just under the surface.

“All the Iraqi boys round here work too. I don’t know about them but I have thought of committing suicide as this is not a real life,” he admits. “I used to be so aggressive when anyone talked to me. But all that matters now is the time when this finishes and I will be able to continue my studies and settle down for good.”

Partnership for education

Financial constraints prevent a great many young Iraqis in Syria from studying. The gap in Gailan’s own education is now five years – an extended absence that is very difficult to bridge. To help get dropouts like him back into schooling, UNICEF and its partners – including the European Union – have initiated a programme of remedial classes and out-of-hours vocational workshops.

It is a programme of support for those who have a multitude of reasons for not attending school and one very powerful reason to return – their desire.

“I am desperate for education,” says Gailan. “Before, I wanted to be an engineer. Everybody loves to build their country. I want that chance again.”

Watch for part two of this story, which will provide more information on efforts by UNICEF, the EU and other partners to help young Iraqi refugees re-start their education.



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