By Chris Niles
UNICEF’s Chris Niles talks to ‘lost schoolgirls’ Cibar and Adla, who are among too many Syrian girls who have missed out on education for up to two years.
A version of this story was published in The Huffington Post on 11 October.
ERBIL, Iraq, 21 October 2013 – “She’s so smart,” Warfa says of her daughter, Cibar, 9, as she tries to help her to remember the English alphabet. Cibar can only get to ‘C’.
“She’s so smart,” her mother says, again, “but she’s been out of school for two years. She’s forgotten.”
Cibar, a bright, beautiful girl, is deaf. Even when times are good, she needs specialized help. For just over a month, she’s been living in Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq, one of the more than 61,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived since the middle of August – bringing the total registered in Iraq to 196,843.
Before that, the conflict kept her away from school.
Her story is tragically common.
“I want to become president of Iraq,” Adla, 15, says. She also lives in Kawergosk. She hasn’t been in a classroom in two years, either.
Adla’s oldest brother was killed in the fighting. The family crossed the border with nothing. When I first spoke to her, neither she nor her sisters had changed their clothes in a month.
Why, with all that’s happened, does school matter so much?
Adla starts crying. “Because I want to help my mother and father,” she says, quickly wiping the tears from her eyes.
But there’s no way for Adla to do that. There’s no secondary school in Kawergosk.
And there is certainly no special needs teaching for Cibar.
On 11 October, the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child focused on girls across the globe who are out of education. It’s thought around 17 million girls will never gain access to schooling – and millions more are unable to complete their education because of such factors as cultural barriers, sexual harassment and, like Adla and Cibar, the consequences of humanitarian emergencies.
UNICEF is working with UNHCR and UNESCO to gauge how big the education gap is for Syrians in Iraq, and the numbers are not good.
UNICEF has warned of a ‘lost generation’ if we don’t do everything possible to help Syrian children.
A lost generation starts when girls are put at greater risk of child labour, early marriage and violence. Because school doesn’t just educate girls, it also protects them.
But what about the long term? What will we miss if Cibar and Adla don’t enjoy the right that most of us take for granted – to pursue our ambitions, or at least to have the chance to try? At what cost, to them and to us, will their potential be squandered?
It is corrosive to have nothing to do – and there really is nothing to do in a refugee camp.
Cibar hangs out with the girls next door. They can’t sign, and she can’t speak.
Adla’s main pastime is collecting water.
At the age at which you are entitled to think you can achieve anything, to be confronted with the alternative, and in such a stark manner, is cruel and unjust.