Student Well-Being

The Lost Years

By Mary Ann Zehr & Yasmine Mousa — March 04, 2008 12 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Aliaa Hussein: 2 years
Kerrar Fathil: 2 years
Aseel Thafir: 4 years

That’s how many years those children—like thousands more of their generation—were deprived of schooling in the difficult aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq five years ago this month.

In that time, more than 2 million Iraqis have fled their homeland, mainly to Jordan and Syria. But it’s only been this school year that Jordan officially opened its public schools to Iraqi students regardless of their legal status here.

Even though the schoolchildren who came to this neighboring Arab land with their families are now given seats in classrooms, they still feel isolated, and many lag far behind in their studies. Many classrooms have more than 40 children, and teachers are not trained to take their individual needs into account. In a Jordanian public school system of 1.15 million that is already stretched, whether an Iraqi student succeeds is largely up to him or her.

“The whole idea is bums on seats. We’re not going to say, ‘Wait,’ ” said Jonathan Cunliffe, the emergency-program coordinator in Jordan for UNICEF. “We’re going to get kids in school—bums on seats—and then deal with the problems.”

An estimated half-million Iraqis live in Jordan, according to Imran Riza, the representative in Jordan for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. About 100,000 arrived before the war that ousted the regime of President Saddam Hussein but led to a brutal insurgency and widespread militia violence.

In recent months, UNHCR officials have reported that a small number of Iraqis have returned to their homeland. Most refugees from the war remain displaced, and the security outlook in Iraq is still uncertain. (“‘Culture of Fear’ Afflicts Iraqi Education System,” this issue.)

United Nations and Jordanian Ministry of Education officials came up with a target of 50,000 Iraqi students this year when the country opened its doors to them. But slightly fewer than half that many, 24,000, are enrolled in Jordan’s public and private schools, according to the ministry.

That enrollment is “extremely low,” Mr. Riza said last month.

Video Interviews

Watch interviews of educators and officials in Jordan on educating Iraqi children who fled their native country.

Jonathan Cunliffe, emergency-program Coordinator in Jordan for UNICEF.
Najlaa Abid Al-Nashi, An Iraqi and the general director of Bird Nest, an educational organization in Jordan.
Bushra Kamil, a former English teacher at the Al-Bajool School in Iraq before coming to Jordan.
Tayseer Al-Noaimi, minister of Education for Jordan

Previously, some Jordanian private and public schools had admitted Iraqis—at least 14,000, in fact, according to the Education Ministry—on a case-by-case basis.

Officials of international nonprofit organizations estimate tens of thousands of Iraqi children are still out of school in Jordan.

The UNHCR and UNICEF—with funding from countries of the European Union and the U.S. Department of State, among other donors—started giving money this school year to international groups and the Jordanian Education Ministry to support the education of Iraqi children. The money going to the ministry is expected to pay teachers’ salaries, expand facilities, and provide training for teachers on the psychosocial needs of the refugee children.

The State Department responded to a U.N. education appeal for $130 million issued last summer by contributing $39 million to help educate displaced Iraqi children in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The U.S. Agency for International Development gave an additional $8 million in 2007 to Jordan for education assistance for Iraqi refugees. The United Nations hasn’t received all the $130 million that it requested for education. The UNHCR, for example, asked for $99 million as part of the appeal and has so far received $40 million from donors. UNICEF has received $19 million of its $31 million request.

The money is just starting to flow, and programs are just getting off the ground.

The principal of the Belat el Shuhdaa School, a public elementary school here in Amman with 310 students, said the only help she’s noticed is that international organizations are paying for textbooks and school fees for the school’s 67 Iraqi students. But at the Shmeissani Al-Qharbi School, a public school for girls, where 153 of 738 students are Iraqi, the Iraqi parents pick up the tab themselves.

Save the Children, an international relief organization, has begun to distribute free uniforms, shoes, and backpacks with school materials to Iraqis and disadvantaged Jordanians attending public schools. And other international groups, such as Mercy Corps and Questscope, have just started to include Iraqis in “informal” or “nonformal” educational programs intended to place marginalized children on a path back toward formal schooling.

Iraqi children here dream of being engineers or doctors. After all, Iraq, once home to one of the best education systems in the Middle East, has produced many engineers, scientists, and physicians. But Iraqi children often lack an understanding of how far they’ve fallen behind their peers in school.

Fifteen-year-old Aseel Thafir hasn’t been to a regular school for the 4½ years he’s lived in Jordan. He attended 6th grade in Iraq—before he and his brother were kidnapped and returned to their families in separate incidents, a relatively common occurrence since the occupation. His parents decided they’d had enough and moved the family to Jordan.

Aseel said he wants to be an engineer, “just like my father.” But his only schooling now is an informal program that provides two hours of classes each day.

Yet the educational future of some Iraqis in regular schools is also uncertain.

At 16, Aliaa Hussein, a 9th grader at the Shmeissani Al-Qharbi School, values every day she can attend school. After her family moved to Jordan, she missed 1½ years of school. She had already lost half a year in Iraq; her mother said she kept her two daughters home because girls were getting kidnapped and raped.

The family fled Iraq after receiving death threats and after Aliaa’s uncle was shot and killed, which the girl witnessed.

In this new country, Aliaa’s parents eventually paid to send their youngest daughter, Shahad Hussein, now 14, to a private school. But they couldn’t afford to send Aliaa, too, so she spent her days cleaning the family’s apartment. “I didn’t want to cry and make my parents feel guilty, but I got frustrated,” she said.

As a result of Jordan’s new policy, Aliaa enrolled in the Shmeissani public school this school year, while the U.N. picked up the tab for her sister’s private school tuition. From an age standpoint, Aliaa should be in 11th grade, but she said she doesn’t mind having been placed in 9th grade. She recently passed all her midterm exams. Still, her future is uncertain because of her parents’ financial situation.

“The day we run out of money, we will go back to Iraq. This is my worst fear,” Aliaa said.

Her mother, Mayada Kathim, is afraid her children’s education can’t be sustained. The family will soon spend the earnings from the sale of a plot of land and can’t afford the private bus that transports Aliaa to school. “At the end of the month,” Ms. Kathim said, “when I tell the driver, ‘I can’t pay you,’ is he going to let her get on the bus? No.”

Iraqis without legal residency are prohibited from working in Jordan, and many, like Aliaa’s family, are running out of money. Rather than going to school, some children work illegally to support their families.

In the informal schooling program in east Amman that Aseel Thafir attends, a number of Iraqi boys ages 9 to 16 said they work for a painter, a carpenter, a welder, a car mechanic, and a restaurant owner.

“They are used and abused,” Omar Al-Hmoud, the deputy country director for Mercy Corps, said about many Iraqi children working here.

In a recent assessment of 3,000 Iraqi families by the nonprofit organization, which provides aid to Iraqis and disadvantaged Jordanians, 762 children were found to be out of school, Mr. Al-Hmoud said. He surmises that some parents are putting their children’s education on hold because they hope to be resettled soon in another country—an elusive hope for many refugees. Other reasons include families’ financial problems and lack of transportation, Mr. Al-Hmoud said.

Mr. Riza, of the UNHCR, said only a “small fraction” of the Iraqis will be resettled in other countries.

The United States has so far accepted 3,040 Iraqi war refugees, according to the State Department. The agency’s goal for fiscal 2008 is 12,000 Iraqi refugees, but it may not make that target, said Kurtis Cooper, a State Department spokesman.

For the near future at least, Jordan’s public schools present the best opportunity for impoverished Iraqi children to get an education.

King Abdullah II issued the decree in August that opened public schools to Iraqis for “humanitarian purposes,” said Tayseer Al-Noaimi, Jordan’s minister of education.

Mr. Al-Noaimi said the “learning gap” of some Iraqi children has presented a challenge for teachers. But asked if Iraqi children should receive “special help” to make up for the time they missed, he said “we aren’t creating a parallel system” for them.

Most Iraqi students say they aren’t getting extra help from teachers. The few remedial classes available are provided by organizations such as Save the Children.

In one private and three public schools visited for this story, Iraqi students often sat at the back of the classroom. Some are faring well, and some—particularly teenagers who have missed a lot of school—are not.

Saif is a 6th grader at the private Durrat Al-Islam School who has adjusted well. He is ranked second in his grade academically. (His headmistress requested that only students’ first names be used.) The 14-year-old sat near the front of the classroom in a recent English class and often volunteered to speak. He said he missed 4th and 5th grades. When his parents couldn’t afford to send him to a private school in Jordan, he worked as a welder with his father.

Sukaina Haimour, the headmistress of Durrat Al-Islam, said Save the Children pays for the textbooks and tuition for the 105 Iraqis attending her 350-student elementary school.

Save the Children is paying for textbooks and tuition for 1,300 Iraqis at 23 private schools. But the organization will discontinue such subsidies next school year and will support Iraqi children’s education in other ways now that Jordan has opened up its public schools, said Jason Erb, the deputy country director for emergency programs in the organization’s Jordan office.

Also in the 6th grade at Durrat Al-Islam are twins Bareq and Tareq. The 12-year-olds are struggling. They sit in the back row of their classroom. After attending 1st grade in Iraq, they were out of school in Jordan until enrolling in Durrat Al-Islam this school year. According to one of their teachers, neither can read or write, and the boys themselves say they don’t know their times tables or how to do division. “I wish that I could go down [to the lower grades] to learn what I missed,” said Tareq. After school, he said, they attend extra classes in the community.

Their teacher sounded discouraged about how to help the boys catch up.

It also seems uncertain how well two brothers from Fallujah, attending the Yaqob Hashem School, will fare. Twenty of the public school’s 700 boys are Iraqi.

Mohammed Faris, 16, said American soldiers occupied his home more times than he can count. The family lived in a large home in a strategic location in Fallujah, a city located 40 miles west of Baghdad that was the scene of fierce fighting. He said the soldiers would enter the house without knocking in the middle of the night. They’d lock his family in one room, take control of the rest of the house, and go up on the roof, where they shot at people, the young man said.

See Also

His younger brother, 13-year-old Barakat Faris, who is a 3rd grader at the same school, said when the American soldiers were in the house, “we didn’t used to talk with them. I used to feel scared.”

Mohammed said he left school in the 4th grade, when his school was caught in the crossfire between American soldiers and members of the insurgency. He and his classmates used their desks for cover during the shooting. After that, American soldiers occupied the school as a base, he said, but he’s heard that it has reopened to serve students.

In Fallujah, Mohammed said, he liked school. Between Iraq and Jordan, he’s missed several years. “By the name of God, I got high marks” back in Iraq, Mohammed said. But now, “everything is messed up.” The boy said he’s been going to 5th grade for a year in Jordan.

His principal said Mohammed acts like a “tough guy” and doesn’t seem comfortable at school.

Barakat said he wants to become an engineer, but school isn’t easy for him in Jordan. He’s failing English.

Some Iraqi children who enrolled this school year have already left.

Ms. Haimour, the headmistress of Durrat Al-Islam, said an Iraqi girl, who was the weakest student in 6th grade, “suffered emotionally” and dropped out.

In addition, she said, one Iraqi boy in the 4th grade misbehaved so much that she put him out of school. His two sisters still attend Durrat Al-Islam.

But Ms. Haimour also draws attention to Iraqi students who excel, such as Saif.

Iraqis in Syria

Along with Jordan, Syria is the country that has borne the weight of the exodus of Iraqis from their homeland. Syria has always permitted displaced Iraqis to enroll in its public schools. But only a small fraction of the estimated 300,000 school-age Iraqis living there are in school. Last school year, 32,000 Iraqis enrolled in Syria’s public schools. This school year, 48,000 are enrolled. Poverty is one of the biggest reasons enrollment is so low, according to a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Syria.


Some Iraqi children have adjusted to Jordanian schools after initial challenges.

One is Kerrar Fathil, who is 11 and a 5th grader at Mohammed Al-Sheraiqi School. Two years ago, his mother sold some gold jewelry, and his uncles chipped in to pay for him to go to a private school, after he’d already missed two years of school in Jordan.

Back in Iraq, masked Iraqi men had awakened the family in the middle of the night and abducted Kerrar’s father, whom they later killed, according to his mother, Mehdia Jaber Awad. Kerrar, his mother, and two sisters fled to Syria and then on to Jordan.

At the private school, Kerrar, then 9, was placed in the 1st grade, where he’d left off in Iraq. His mother said he would come home crying because it was hard for him to blend in with the younger children.

The next year he was accepted in a public school and placed in the 4th grade. Now, in the same school, he is in 5th grade. He still struggles with English and his times tables, he said, but is doing better.

Kerrar is proud that he’s picked up the Jordanian dialect of Arabic, which is different from his native Iraqi dialect. “I speak Jordanian,” he said. “They can’t recognize me [as Iraqi] if I’m in the street.”

Like many Iraqis, Ms. Jaber Awad has applied to the UNHCR for aid or for her family to be resettled in another country. She hasn’t gotten a response. She is three months behind on paying the apartment rent and is living off the charity of others.

Kerrar thinks it would be nice to go to Sweden, where one of his sisters is living and seeking legal residency.

He is not looking back to Iraq.

Yasmine Mousa is a freelance reporter and Arabic-English interpreter. Most of the Iraqis in these stories were interviewed in Arabic.
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Lost Years


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Q&A Why Educators Need to Better Understand What Drives Kids' Cellphone Addictions
As more school and day-to-day tasks are completed on smartphones and computers, teens struggle to manage their screen time.
3 min read
Young man and woman without energy on giant phone screen with speech and heart icons above them. Addiction. Contemporary art collage. Concept of social media, influence, online communication
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock
Student Well-Being Q&A When Social Media and Cellphones Are Lifelines to Kids Who Feel Different
Like it or not, social media is an important venue for teens to find community and hone their identities.
4 min read
Young girl looking on mobile phone screen with multicolored social media icons. Finding community, belonging. Contemporary art collage. Concept of social media, influence, online communication and connection.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock
Student Well-Being Q&A ‘It’s OK to Not Be on Your Phone’: An 18-Year-Old on Teaching Cellphone Etiquette
Whether it's asking permission to take a photo of someone or dimming a screen in a movie theater, kids need lessons in cellphone etiquette.
3 min read
Photo collage of hands holding phones with communication symbols superimposed. Learning phone etiquette.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock/Getty Images
Student Well-Being How Video Games Can Combat Chronic Absenteeism (Yes, Really)
In one district, middle school esports clubs are helping to boost attendance and student engagement.
5 min read
AA studio shot of a Mario Kart diecast vehicle from the video and animated Nintendo series.