In a cloud of dust under an old wooden barn, Syrian refugees in Arbat camp made their way back to the makeshift classrooms for the second half of the lessons run by EPOS, an Italian non-profit operating in the areas of mediation and negotiation.
In one of the tents children and adults listened intently to a lesson on nationalism and citizenship as a young Iraqi Kurdish professor spoke: “your nationality can’t be taken away from you”.
In a classroom where all the students had been forced out of a country that 50 years ago stripped 20% of its Kurdish community of Syrian citizenship, the lecture resonated with uneasy memories not long-gone.
But Mustafa, a young Syrian Kurd from Derik in Al-Hasakah was pleased to be tackling this topic: “we should talk about these things, it’s a great thing to share opinions and make our voices heard,” he said.
“Your nationality can’t be taken away from you”. “EPOS is not only a learning project,” explained Mustafa when asked if he had benefited from the lessons. “It is also an academic study of the situation of the refugees in Kurdistan,” he said.
In six months EPOS has seen 1,200 students pass through the program and obtain course certificates to validate their learning. While it is not an official high school diploma, it serves as a helping hand for future employment.
“Students have found jobs after their training because they acquire professional training, many develop new skills and the ability to express themselves, they develop a new vision for the future,” explained Emanuela Del Re, project creator and chair of EPOS.
In a humanitarian crisis where education has taken a backseat to survival or is simply not available, EPOS alongside the Italian Ministry of Foreign Relations and the Kurdish Ministry of Higher Education is working to prevent what the UNHCR has labeled as the risk of a generation of under-educated Syrians.
Salwa, a teenage girl from Qamishli, was happy to be in a classroom once again: “It has been a long time since I’ve been to school. I feel that I am important here because they’ve given me the opportunity to do this course.”
Before EPOS arrived to Arbat, Salwa formed part of the two thirds of school-aged Syrian refugees that are currently not getting an education. In a conflict where emergency-response efforts are a priority and serve immediate short-term needs, education has been largely overlooked.
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“It is about time we change our views on humanitarian intervention and focus more on the qualitative aspects,” explained Del Re who aims to build a long-term project that can continue nurturing and educating students for as long as they need.
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“This is not only for Syrian refugees, they were the inspiration but I think that this could actually bring some innovation to the world regarding this kind of intervention,” said Del Re.
As well as providing aid, EPOS has been working to bridge the gap that exists between Syrian Kurds and their hosts in the Kurdistan Region.
The Deputy Head of the Kurdish Department of Foreign Relations, Dindar Zebari called it a “community clash”.
“There have been problems, crime rate has risen and insecurity has increased in the community but we are doing our best to make sure the refugees are treated in the same way as the citizens of the Kurdistan Region,” said Zebari.
Through their course EPOS is also trying to shift an often- exaggerated view of the threatening Syrian refugee.
“We try to involve the local community as we know from previous experiences that there are a number of issues raised by the sudden presence of a large number of people in a small community. Their (Iraqi Kurds) fear is understandable but it must be channeled otherwise it develops into prejudice and stereotypes,” said Del Re.
The workshop gave the students an imaginary budgetEPOS has employed a number of professors from local universities to run the classes alongside young Syrian refugees who have been selected to work as tutors.
“It was my pleasure to join this group and give lectures on environment, I like teaching Syrian refugees,” explained Samira, a teacher at Sulaymaniyah’s Technical Institute.
The students, aged approximately between 17 and 30, listened to Samira as she lectured on environment. In a neighboring tent a group of younger students participated in an interactive economics workshop led by a member of EPOS.
The workshop gave the students an imaginary budget that they were then asked to spend on a fictitious city, in an activity aimed at developing their thinking and math skills.
Most students chose to spend the greater part of their budget on schools and hospitals, while some opted to build a green area and a mosque.
In a civil war that has displaced an estimated 7 to 9 million people and forcefully brought education to an indefinite standstill, EPOS has given the young men and women of Arbat a second chance to continue with their schooling, if only for ten days, and find a sense of purpose in an often desperate situation.
As the workshop continued among explanations and discussions about city budgeting one of the younger students was asked why he had chosen to spend his money the way he did: “We chose to open a school to make a better future,” said the boy.