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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 August 2007, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
Iraqi refugees struggle in Syria
By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Damascus

Iraqi girls in Syria
Iraqi children at a registering centre for Iraqi refugees near Damascus

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are failing to get an education in Syria after fleeing the violence back home.

While Syria has given all Iraqis access to its education and health services, the sheer number of refugees seeking help mean most don't get what they need.

The Syrian government estimates there are 1.7 million Iraqis within its borders. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, puts the total at 1.4 million.

UN Children's Fund, UNICEF believes around half of all Iraqi refugees in Syria are of school age.

Most are unable to attend classes because their families fled without the documents they need to enter the Syrian education system - and because of poverty.

My children have no future. They should be continuing their studies, but we cannot afford it
Adnan Abdulhamid Hassan

When Saed Shaker, 14, fled Iraq with his family, he had no idea what lay ahead. Saed has ended up selling Iraqi sweets in a suburb of Damascus with a big Iraqi refugee population. He earns 150 Syrian pounds a day (UK 1.50).

"I came with my family a year ago. I have no documents on me to be able to register at school. But I also need to work to support my family and help my father".

Saed is one of many Iraqi children who are trapped in poverty with little chance of escape through education.

Back to school

Only 33,000 Iraqi refugee children attended school in Syria in 2007.

UNICEF's deputy representative in Syria, Mark Luce says the aim is to get 100,000 Iraqi students into the school system in 2007-2008 - an ambitious target.

UN agencies have offered support and they are asking donor countries to do more. Unfortunately the USA - which is the main reason behind this crisis - hasn't offered financial support to host countries
Dr Maher al-Husami
Syrian minister
"UNICEF will provide training for teachers and help improve the school environment. UNHCR will focus on the actual school buildings and their infrastructure."

The UNHCR has already rehabilitated 11 schools in and around Damascus. It is preparing 70-100 schools for the new academic year, as well as building from scratch eight new schools.

UNHCR and UNICEF have launched a global appeal to help cover the costs for such programmes in Syria and Jordan.

Syria's public higher education system is also technically open to all Iraqis. However, as the Syrian curriculum is different from the Iraqi one, many students are unable to join.

Going private

Private universities offer Iraqis the chance to study within an international system - if they can afford it.

The Syrian International University is dedicated largely to the Iraqi community. The dean is Iraqi, as are most of the students and other professors.

Poverty and despair lead people to criminality. The social, security and economic impact of the huge number of Iraqi refugees is very clear in Syria
Radwan Nouicer
UNHCR
Abdul Nasser Khaled Hamzeh, 20, is studying computer engineering. "I had to leave Baghdad; men are targeted there. This university is a great opportunity for me. We follow the same system we used to follow in Baghdad."

Abdul Nasser is one of the privileged few who can afford the US $4,000 (UK 2,100) university joining fee.

Adnan Abdulhamid Hassan is a father of five. His younger children are going to school but they also have to earn money once classes are over.

His eldest son Omar, 21, is working in a restaurant to support the family. Adnan bitterly regrets that his son cannot continue his education.

"We arrived in Damascus two years ago; we were targeted by militias so we had to escape. My children have no future. They should be continuing their studies, but it is so hard on us, we cannot afford it".

True costs

In April, Syria asked the international donors' conference for US $256 million over two years to help cover the cost of delivering basic services to Iraqis.

UNHCR has delivered US $45 million of this so far. Syrian officials say the Iraqi refugee crisis is costing the country around US $1 billion a year.

A Syrian government minister, Dr Maher al-Husami, told the BBC at a recent health conference in Damascus, that Syria needs more outside help.

"UN agencies have offered support and they are asking donor countries to do more. Unfortunately the USA - which is the main reason behind this crisis - hasn't offered financial support to host countries."

People working with the refugees suggest that the cost should not be measured in financial terms alone.

"There is an increasing number of people who are begging in the streets, who are homeless, who are working illegally," says Radwan Nouicer from UNHCR.

"Poverty and despair lead people to criminality. The social, security and economic impact of the huge number of Iraqi refugees is very clear in Syria."


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