DAMASCUS, Syria -- Illiteracy is spreading rapidly among refugee children from Iraq, with at least 300,000 young Iraqis not attending school in the countries where their families have sought safety.
Alarmed aid workers in Syria and Jordan report that a growing number of children can't read or write because cash-strapped parents have withdrawn them from school to cut down on expenses. In many cases, displaced families can afford to send only one of their children to school, creating a painful gap between educated children and their illiterate siblings, humanitarian workers say.
UNICEF, the U.N. education agency, is beginning a census to determine the size of the problem. There's no program in place yet to deal broadly with the issue. Aid workers admit that the development surprised them, in part because Iraq once boasted some of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East. The Iraqis' legendary thirst for knowledge is encapsulated in an Arabic saying, "The Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish, the Iraqis read."
"We are finding that a lot of participants in the youth programs we're running -- a very high number, sometimes up to 30 percent per class -- are illiterate or close to illiterate," said Jason Erb, the deputy country director for emergency programs in the Jordan office of Save the Children. He said that more than 90,000 Iraqi children were out of school in Jordan.
The above is from Hannah Allam's "Illiteracy increasing among Iraq's refugee children" (McClatchy Newspapers) on the Iraqi refugee situation and while 90,000 is an alarming number, it is not 300,000 [IRIN estimates that Syria has twice as many Iraqi refugees as Jordan]. Allam explores one family's experiences in Syria in "Iraqi mother's choice: Which child goes to school?:"
The Zuhairy family lives in a freezing one-room apartment in Jaramana, a growing Iraqi refugee enclave in Damascus. There's no bathroom door, no hot water, no furniture, no heat and no privacy. Seven people sleep and eat in the same room, where a battered television set provides the only entertainment.
The mother, who goes by the nickname Umm Sundus, has fought to keep her family fed since her husband, a goldsmith, was killed in Iraq last year and the rest of the family fled here. Rent is $150 a month, but the family's main income is $100 a month, wired from a relative in Australia, and Umm Sundus is always behind on bills. There's no way of educating so many children: Adam, 4; Bahram, 10; Ram, 14; Ranya, 17; Samir, 20; and Suzanne, 22.
In Syria, residency permits are issued to Iraqis who enroll at least one of their children in school. Umm Sundus couldn't afford to send them all, so she faced a heartbreaking choice: Which child would be the one to go?
More Shi'ites are thought to have gone to Syria. The UN is not recommending it is safe for refugees in either country to return to Iraq. On the differences of refugees and for refugees in the two countries (Syria and Jordan), IRIN notes:
In contrast, the majority of Iraqis in Jordan are well off with established businesses in Amman and other main cities. The Jordanian government allows Iraqis to own property and invest in the stock market.
Sectarian violence remains the biggest threat for us because relatives in Baghdad say the Shia militias have not stopped random killings of Sunnis. The fact that most Iraqi asylum seekers in Jordan are Sunnis makes it difficult for them to return, according to members of the Iraqi community. "Sectarian violence remains the biggest threat for us because relatives in Baghdad say the Shia militias have not stopped random killings of Sunnis," said a Sunni Iraqi businessman from Rabia in Amman, who wished to be identified only by his first name, Samer.
Those who remain in Iraq find an education crisis brought on by the chaos and violence, the 'brain drain' that has seen so many leave if they are able to and the constant targeting of educators in killings. Ahmed Ali examines the situation in the Diyala province in "Education Becomes the New Casualty in Baquba" (IPS):
The alarming security situation in Diyala province north of Baghdad has killed off much of the education system.The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had at first brought hope. Salaries were increased; a newly appointed primary or secondary school teacher was given 200,000 Iraqi Dinars, about 150 dollars a month.
In September 2006, the Ministry of Education increased teachers' salaries by 20 to 50 percent in an attempt to entice them to stay in their jobs.
But in Diyala capital Baquba, 40km north of Baghdad, lack of security means many teachers have quit, and children are not going to school. This is a trend across Iraq. According to a report released last year by the non-governmental group Save the Children, 818,000 children of primary school age, representing 22 percent of Iraq's potential student population, were not attending school.
"We suffer so much because of the problem just of going from home to school; no one can easily move in the streets," Layla Hussein, a secondary school teacher told IPS in Baquba. "The militants are everywhere."
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