Amid Iraq’s turmoil, some children find solace in the classroom

This story was originally posted by UNICEF MENA

By Anne Kindrachuk, UNICEF Emergency Specialist

Takiya camp, outside Baghdad: Entering an IDP camp is never easy, and certainly not in Iraq: besides the multiple levels of clearance, visitors have to navigate other unforeseen hazards - an inexperienced policeman stationed at the gate, for example, or a sudden security warning (one of these had forced a UNICEF field mission to beat a rapid retreat just a few days before our visit).

So nobody was very surprised when we arrived at the entrance to Takiya camp and were told we had to wait.

The camp sits on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, and is (the hopefully temporary) home to more than 900 Iraqi families displaced by the ongoing conflict in nearby Anbar province. That’s just a tiny fraction of the 274,000 people who have fled Anbar since early April, many of them with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

In this early phase of the Anbar crisis, UNICEF was among the agencies who were on hand to deliver life-saving help to these desperate families, who included many women and children. Packages of water, hygiene materials and dignity kits helped sustain them as they travelled, often on foot, seeking sanctuary from the conflict.

We had the chance to reflect on this during the 30 minutes delay before we were allowed into the camp to see the IDPs’ situation for ourselves.

Takiya camp has provided some normalcy to the lives of the people now sheltering there. But conditions in most respects are dire -- especially in the sweltering 50 degrees Celsius heat which had not even peaked for the day.

People were vying for what shade was available. Some had managed to secure some blocks of ice – something that must have seemed almost a luxury in these temperatures. Sanitary conditions were poor, and the tents seemed overcrowded.

But something was missing as we descended from our vehicles. Where were the crowds of children, who normally welcome visitors to camps like this with shouts of “hello, how are you?’ After all this was July, the start of summer vacation time.

The answer came when, after zigzagging our way through the sprawling camp, we finally found a larger tent, housing the UNICEF-supported school.

Even from outside you could hear the noise. And inside, the classrooms were packed, with two or more children to a desk.

And those children who weren’t in the school were waiting outside for the next shift to begin. One of the teachers explained that because of the demand, the school operated classes in three daily shifts, beginning at 7 am and ending at 6 pm. In this way, a total of 1,200 students have the chance to attend grades 1-12.

Such is the enthusiasm of the newly-displaced IDPs that they are studying during what should be their summer vacation in order to make up for lost time.

“The entire community here want the children to continue learning throughout the summer so that they don’t have any more interruptions in their learning,” one parent told me.

Judging by the expressions on the faces of the children we met – the young boys eagerly demonstrating their writing skills on the chalkboard, or those clutching their recently distributed UNICEF backpacks – it seemed they were just as enthusiastic to be studying even in vacation time.

Amid the conflict and mayhem that Iraq is currently witnessing, it was as positive an image as one could hope for.

© UNICEF 2015