Host community students back in class at a rehabilitated school in Dohuk, Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Photo: UNICEF Iraq/2015/Mackenzie

Rehabilitating schools for host communities in Iraq

It’s early afternoon at Nisseben School in Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. A bell signals the end of a break and students hustle back from the football pitch to class.

Muhannad Al Issa, a UNICEF Education Officer, watches as students stream past him into the newly painted hallways.

“This school used to be full of displaced families,” he says, taking in the scene. “You can’t imagine how different it was.”

Schools become shelters

Last September, the school transformed into a temporary shelter for 54 vulnerable families fleeing violence in Ninewa Governorate. Up to nine families shared each classroom, hanging laundry in the hallways, preparing meals in the courtyard, and sleeping where students once studied. Almost 500 host community students who normally attended this school had to miss class.

In Dohuk alone, according to the local Department of Education, 686 school buildings — or 60% of all schools in the Governorate — were occupied by internally displaced people (IDPs) when the school year began. Students elsewhere in Iraq faced similar circumstances.

A displaced family shelter in Nisseben School in August 2014. Photo: UNICEF Iraq/2014/Al Issa

In his office in Nisseben School, Principal Zaya Yokhana shakes his head as he recalls opening the school doors to families steaming in from Ninewa last August.

“It was painful for me to see,” he says. “Painful to see these desperate families, but also because I was worried for my students.”

Yokhana was especially concerned about the impact of a delayed school year on the grade 12 class.

“They need to start school on day one, or else they’ll miss their exams,” he said.

Grade 12 students in Iraq must pass a Final Ministerial Exam to obtain a high school graduation certificate. Yokhana recalls speaking with the Dohuk General Directorate of Education in September to ask how to continue classes without classrooms.

“ ‘You have to find a way.’ That’s what he told me.”

Mobilizing for school rehabilitation

With support from UNICEF, education stakeholders around Dohuk did just that. After IDPs moved to new camps, Parent Teacher Associations in 334 schools mobilized to clean and rehabilitate the formerly occupied buildings — no small task after months housing so many families with nowhere else to go.

The Dohuk Directorate of Education and UNICEF facilitated this work through small-scale direct cash transfers, with generous funding from the Government of Kuwait. Support to Parent Teacher Associations in Dohuk for school-based rehabilitation and upkeep continues, through contributions from the Government of Germany.

“It was a remarkable collaboration,” Muhannad says. “For the first time, parents were actively involved in school rehabilitation, rather than the private sector.”

In addition to the work in Dohuk, UNICEF rehabilitated 248 schools in other parts of Iraq. UNICEF education partners, including UNESCO, DRC, IRC and NRC, repaired another 140 schools. By December, 350,000 host community students were back in class at 722 rehabilitated schools around the country.

Daniel, 14, in English class at Nisseben School in May. Photo: UNICEF Iraq/2015/Mackenzie

At Nisseben School, this means that students like Daniel, 14, rushing off to English class with an overstuffed backpack, are back on track to complete their school year.

“We’ve caught up on our classes,” he says with a smile. “We’re happy to be back and to see the school clean.”

As for the grade 12 students, against the odds, they too have caught up. In the fall, Principal Yokhana convened class in the school’s laboratory — the one room not occupied by IDPs. He smiles as he explains that the grade 12 students are at home this week studying.

“We made sure they’ve caught up,” he says. “Now it’s up to them.”

Lindsay Mackenzie is a consultant with UNICEF Iraq.

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