Fifteen-year-old Mahmoud Nafa sits in a tent in the Kilo 18 displacement camp in Anbar in western Iraq, with his six-month-old cousin in his lap. Surrounded by his family, it’s easy to see that they are close. The baby gurgles happily as Mahmoud smiles at him, masking the sorrow that hangs heavily in the air. His smile is wide, but it’s hard not to notice that the skin around his left eye is lighter than the rest of his face. A stress condition, his grandfather says.
Three years out of school
The last time Mahmoud went to school was three years ago. His family stayed in their home town of Al Qa’im even though it was held by the IS group. Leaving would have meant abandoning the plastics factory, the family’s only source of income, and the large house where all 18 family members lived together. So they stayed.
Then the IS group announced that they would recruit all boys over 11 years old.
Mahmoud’s grandfather, Yacob, paid a smuggler USD 400 to ensure a safe passage for him and his grandson out of Al Qa’im. The rest of the family followed two months later.
“All the young people left earlier – nobody stayed,” Yacob recalls.
Missing out on education
Beside him in the tent sits his daughter, Mahmoud’s aunt, embracing her four children. The eldest is ten years old.
“My children haven’t even enrolled in school. It’s a big problem for the future. Our children are under threat and our main problem is to put them in school,” says their mother. In Iraq, more than 760,000 children have missed an entire year of education. Their situation is tragically common.
Kilo 18 camp is located in one of the harshest environments in the world. In the summer, temperatures top fifty degrees Celsius. In the winter, dust storms or torrential rain occur almost every week. Anbar, the governorate where Nafa and his family live, is the last area in Iraq to be under the control of the so-called Islamic state in Iraq.
Across Iraq, nearly 3.7 million children are in the same situation as Mahmoud and his cousins. They attend school irregularly – or not at all.
The consequences of neglecting children’s education are obvious in Kilo 18, especially among boys. There is no secondary school in the camp, so teenage boys wander around the tents. Some of them try to earn money for their families by carting goods across the camp, but most have nothing to do. Fist fights break out frequently.
It’s a situation that is relatively new in Iraqi culture. Iraq is a country with a proud educational heritage. It boasts some of the best universities in the Middle East. Some teachers will continue to teach even when they aren’t paid. In the 1970s, it was one of the best places in the Middle East to be a child. If Iraq had progressed at the same rate as many other countries, by 2011 it would have achieved the Millennium Development Goal of school enrolment, according to UNICEF. But the conflict has taken a terrible toll on young generations and completion rates of primary education have plummeted since 2015 in Iraq.
According to Hollyn Romeyn, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) education specialist in Iraq, teenage boys who become idle and disengaged from schooling, are far more likely to seek out a feeling of belonging or power through unproductive or even violent means.
“Boys who are forced to join fighting forces from a young age are highly unlikely to return to the classroom at any point in their lives,” she says.
Providing hope and a future
To provide hope, and a future, to children like Mahmoud who are marginalised by the current conflict, NRC has extensive education programmes in displacement camps across the country. We operate school support centres, or annexes to formal schools, that provide displaced children with catch-up classes and recreational activities.
NRC has also been authorised by Iraq’s Ministry of Education to provide overflow classrooms, substitute teachers, teaching and learning materials and administrative support in Anbar and Mosul. Where NRC provides education programmes, attendance rates in schools are consistently above 90 per cent for both male and female students.
In Anbar, particularly in camps like Kilo 18, the education that is provided falls woefully short of the need. NRC is the only international humanitarian organisation in Anbar supporting both non-formal and formal education to recently displaced children, but we cannot cover all children. For both boys and girls, this is disastrous in different ways.
A lack of education or livelihoods for girls can pressure many families to marry their daughters early, for financial gain or to protect them. In other cases, young women who are uneducated are forced into marriages or even trafficked.
In areas controlled by the IS group, Iraqi formal schools were closed. Some were converted to the IS group’s schools. Boys and young men who attended these schools were exposed to an extreme and radicalised curriculum, with little to no mainstream learning objectives, and were expected to join the fighting forces. The traditional Iraqi pedagogy was replaced with tactics designed to control children and to increase their exposure to violent extremism, while forbidding music, art and recreation. Displaced boys and young men from these areas who worked for the IS group or attended its schools show signs of indoctrination and anti-social behaviour.
“The best hope for a post-IS, peaceful Iraq is to invest in education, for both boys and girls,” says Romeyn. “For boys it is particularly important that they can achieve recognition and success in their communities without taking part in violence. Quite simply, they deserve a choice whether to pick up a pen or a gun,” she says.