In Iraq, Education will save Children’s Lives

In late December 2016, I was fortunate to spend two weeks with my courageous International Rescue Committee (IRC) colleagues in Dohuk, Iraq, who work to ensure that Syrian refugee and internally displaced (IDP) Iraqi children have access to high quality education services. The purpose of my trip was to conduct a routine quality assurance visit. However, I must admit that I felt like a bit of an imposter given that Dohuk is located a mere 75 kilometers from Mosul, a major ISIS stronghold which Iraqi, Kurdish and other coalition forces are in the process of retaking — and where hundreds of thousands of people face some of the most treacherous moments in their lives.

During one of my first days in the IRC Dohuk office, I was preparing for a workshop doing mundane things such as preparing my flipcharts. My emergency response and security colleagues were kind enough to let me prep while they simultaneously debriefed on the previous day’s security assessment, where they had gone to newly accessible areas near Mosul to better understand clients’ needs and the type of humanitarian support necessary. They reviewed pictures of the different types of improvised explosive devices (IED) and other explosives that ISIS has left behind and discussed the dangers that these devices pose to families as they start to move back home and hope to send their children back to school. The juxtaposition of my routine visit with the ongoing emergency so nearby led me to write this blog post which pleads for an education response in newly retaken areas. Education, for Iraqi children, is not a luxury that can wait until other survival needs are met — it can save their lives.

Mosul Displacement Background & Current Humanitarian Response

Since mid-October 2016, almost 200,000 people from Mosul have been displaced, mostly to IDP camps to the south and east of Mosul. Latest reports indicate that 580,000 people were living in the 41 neighborhoods that have been retaken from ISIS. These communities are still at risk from mines and other explosive devices. ISIS-constructed, IEDs, and booby traps, are designed to cause extreme harm; booby-traps were crafted in everyday items, such as children’s toys, and are sensitive enough for a small child’s hand to set off. This is just one of the many challenges facing displaced populations in and around Mosul. Their homes have been damaged and access to basic services not fully re-stored, yet many still wish to return home.

Education can literally save children’s lives (and their families’ lives)

Children are overall one of the least served vulnerable groups in this response. For children in Iraq’s IDP camps, over 31,000 remain without services. In and around Mosul, while more than 70 schools have already reopened, many children have missed out on at least two years of schooling, and have experienced high levels of psychosocial distress, heavily impacting on their learning.

Studies show that education is frequently one of the top three things parents and children ask for in emergencies. One displaced father told the IRC Iraq team, “My dream is for my children to be educated — to get certificates and have a future. I want them to give benefit for the community and for themselves. And to be successful people in life.” The same has been observed in Mosul where IRC Child Protection colleagues indicate that many parents have been asking for an education response for their children. Education is not always recognized for its relevance in emergency response, as evidenced by its chronic underfunding — last year it received a mere 1.4% of all humanitarian funding — but it is a vital part of humanitarian response and can save lives.

Education can help conflict-affected children, like those in Mosul, cope with the consequences of conflict by providing a secure, predictable, and nurturing environment. Having access to education offers children hope for and a sense of control over their future. And quality programs can build children’s resilience and help them persevere and thrive socially, emotionally and academically. In the case of Mosul, education can also go a step further and provide the school personnel, teachers, students and even parents with crucial life-saving information related to mine awareness. This is something that is currently going on in some select newly retaken locations. Schools can therefore become the nexus of safety awareness for an entire community.

Call to Action — Mosul Education in Emergencies Response

So what do we need as an Education in Emergencies field to ensure that children in and around communities near Mosul are physically, socially and emotionally safe and can reach their full potential?

  • Provide Adequate Education in Emergencies Funding, which is needed for quality programs that provide access to safe education, that help children acquire the skills they need, especially related to land mine awareness and other essential outcomes. Just 10% of the education response has been funded, though it’s not clear what rapid education assessments have been done to determine the need and the funding coverage.

Once funding is committed, how do we ensure that children are safe and thriving?

  • Conduct Rapid Education Assessments to better understand if/how schools are functioning and the support that is needed to school communities in newly retaken areas. Safety assessments in school also need to be conducted to ensure that school buildings adhere to minimum standards of safety once children are in school.
  • Work with Grassroots Explosive Awareness Initiatives in order to create safe, protective, and viable trajectories for children to get to and from school in newly retaken areas. However, humanitarian organizations need to be cautious and avoid providing assistance in locations that have not been properly cleared of explosive devices, which could lead to a pull factor and potentially jeopardizing the safety of community members.
  • Ensure Education in Emergences Coordination so that education services are responsive and promote school and classroom environments that help children persevere and thrive socially and emotionally, as well as catch up academically. Programs may be needed for teachers, children, and parents to build upon their innate resilience and recover from the impacts of extreme adversities and toxic stress. An education response that focuses on Iraqi children’s physical, mental, social and emotional safety needs to be prioritized. EiE actors need to coordinate, not create parallel interventions that oftentimes compete with one another

I believe that multiple voices are needed in order to mobilize commitment and action at the national and international levels for a proper education in emergencies response to this ongoing crisis. My hope is that this blog can provide another perspective which shows how a focus on education in newly retaken communities can actually save children’s lives as well as help them recover from severe adversities that they may have faced under ISIS occupation or after returning from displacement.


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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