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Paying the Price

Facing uncertain future, Iraqi refugees sacrifice for education

Erbil, Iraq, (CNA): Less than a mile away from the local coffee shops, fancy restaurants, and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, some 60,000 displaced Iraqi Christians are taking refuge, tucked away in the mostly Christian neighborhood of Ankawa.

Having fled the violence of the Islamic State, some 150 Christian families have begun to settle into their new surroundings, which typically take the form of tents and shipment containers.

Displaced from their hometowns due to ongoing violence in Mosul, Tikrit, and Qaraqosh, they are accepting their temporary new living conditions, while realizing that for the foreseeable future, this is their life.

Despite the uncertain future that these families face living as refugees in Erbil, they make an effort to ensure that their children will receive an education.

The refugees in Ankawa have many needs – basic living conditions sometimes prove a challenge, such as ensuring food, drinking water, and hygiene. But amid these struggles, the refugees also strive to ensure that education of their children remains a high priority.

“They are very aware of how important education is for the already uncertain future their children face, and they want more than ever to make sure that they receive an education,” stated Sheelan Gebrael, a local Christian activist who works to help Christian and Yazidi refugees receive an education.

Some of the Christian refugees do not speak the local Kurdish language – one of the main reasons why they have trouble joining the government-run Istar school nearby, which has a mainly Christian attendance.

However, the refugees do not allow the language barrier to deter them from educating their children. Around 150 families have claimed a few abandoned classrooms and an empty lot in the back of the Ishtar school. These reclaimed classrooms are now being shared by the Christian refugee families in the Ankawa neighborhood.

In addition, the Iraqi Christians in Ankawa are utilizing two large tents which were set up by the U.N. to improve their living conditions. Instead of using them for housing, these families decided to turn one of the tents into a classroom, so that their children would have a space for their education.

Although they lack most of the materials that are necessary to make multiple classrooms, the refugee community makes due with what they have and make plans for improvement in the future.

One tent has been successfully turned into a Sunday school for religious education and also doubles as a functioning Kindergarten classroom. The young women of the refugee community take turns teaching the classes – everything from basic academic formation to the details about their faith.

The displaced Iraqi Christians are not stopping at the development of their classrooms. They hope to adapt the other empty tent near the classroom to make a playground for the children.

“Their hope is that, with the help of fellow Christians, they will be able to implement the other tent and build a playground in what today is just a patch of dirt and weed,” Sheelan told CNA.

A fund to help with the ongoing education of the refugee children has been set up through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. More information can be found at