Displaced Iraqi Yezidi children greet Catholic Relief Service workers and a delegation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Bishop Oscar Cantu during a visit to Shariah Collective, Iraq, Jan. 17. CNS photo/Dale Gavlak

Education a priority for church agencies aiding displaced Iraqis

By  Dale Gavlak, Catholic News Service
  • February 12, 2015

SHARIAH COLLECTIVE, Iraq - Young children happily sing songs in Kurdish and Arabic, play interactive games, learn to count and how to read and write under a big colorful tent. Meanwhile, teens and pre-teens study more serious subjects.

It's all part of a pilot project called Child-Friendly Spaces that Catholic Relief Services and Caritas are using to help Iraq's religious minority children heal after being traumatized by the violence and displacement experienced at the hands of Islamic State militants.

With most of Iraq's displaced youth out of school because there are no places in existing institutions, CRS and Caritas staff members said the key to restoring hope is helping them resume their education.

"Of course, the people are affected greatly by the war and crisis after IS attacked and took control of their villages. They are very worried about the future," said Omar, a project officer for the program who is among the displaced from the strategic Iraqi town of Sinjar. He and others asked that their last names not be used because of fear of repercussion from the militants against family and friends.

"The spaces are to fill the empty time, rather than have children bored or playing in the streets. Now they have a place to organize their time," he said at one of four child-friendly spaces run by the program, about 30 minutes from Dohuk.

About 1,100 children are involved in the program, said Hani El-Mahdi, CRS Iraq country representative.

"The plan is to set up eight more child-friendly spaces. They all started with private donations. We also need to increase the scale and attract some more private funds," El-Mahdi explained.

"Definitely the children have missed this school year, but we don't want them to miss the next school year," El-Mahdi added.

Islamic State militants attacked Mosul in June and its surrounding villages on the Ninevah Plain and Sinjar in August, thrusting 800,000 displaced Iraqis into the Kurdish region.

A delegation of U.S. Catholics -- led by Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, in conjunction with CRS -- visited northern Iraq Jan. 16-20 to see international church agencies' work among Iraq's internally displaced Christians and other religious minorities.

A number of the displaced, such as Omar, are working with CRS and Caritas, sharing their knowledge of what people are experiencing and suggesting ways to help.

The displaced include Christians who taught at the University of Mosul and Muslims and Yezidis, who worked for the United Nations or have professional degrees and are using their expertise to help other displaced minorities.

Yasser, a Christian from the predominantly Christian village of Qaraqosh, said he owned two homes and two businesses before fleeing with his family to a tiny village outside of Dohuk. There, his family and those of his three brothers all share a small, cramped dwelling.

"IS stole everything we had," Yasser said. "If we were to return home, we might just find walls. IS is now booby-trapping the houses so if the owner returns and opens the door, the house will explode."

Life in a remote village is also difficult, CRS workers said, because "we don't have hot water because the electricity isn't good in the village."

"But more importantly, my two children cannot continue their studies as there are no nearby opportunities. Now they just sit at home," Yasser said.

Sarah, a Muslim from Mosul, also helps CRS. She had to cut short her studies when the militants took over Iraq's second-largest city.

Although Mosul is best known for the Islamic State's expulsion of Christians who had lived in the region for 16 centuries, Sarah said Muslims also suffered hardship under the group's radical brand of Islam, and that's why she fled.

"IS doesn't respect anybody there, Sunni Muslim, Christian or Yezidi. We saw what they did to the people in Raqqa, where IS has its base in Syria, and we knew we had to escape while we could," she said.

She described her future as bleak and doubted whether she would be able to return to Mosul; she said people will have become distrustful because of the violence perpetrated by the militants.

Yasser agreed.

"There is no culture of peace in the world. Instead we see the opposite," he said. "People have changed inside. We should work for peace."

Kevin Hartigan, CRS regional director for Europe and the Middle East, said the agency is committed to supporting education for the displaced youth.

"We will be working with all the other actors, with the U.N. agencies, the local government, the Ministry of Education, the church, church schools, partner agencies and religious congregations to try to find a number of solutions," said Hartigan, who also was in Iraq to see CRS programs.

"We need to look at every way we can be useful to the different local actors that are trying to expand education so it might be improving physical infrastructure, buildings, training teachers, providing funding for the creation of new schools and equipping of them," he told Catholic News Service.

Providing curricula in both Kurdish and Arabic poses another challenge to the agencies. The displaced Christians mainly speak Arabic, while a number of Yezidis and other religious minorities speak Kurdish.

"We have to be open to everything," Hartigan said. "We will take the lead of the local government and the church to decide how to manage these issues and will support whatever solution or consensus the Iraqis come to."

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