Training at a Syria refugee camp for a better future

Hungry for Learning

Hungry for Learning

OLIVER QuintinTraining at a Syria refugee camp for a better future
by Quintin Oliver for Forum for Cities in Transition
21 January 2014

Even in the bright wintry sunshine of northern Iraq in January, a well-organised and newly laid out refugee camp looks and feels bleak.

8,000 refugees from the Kurdish region of eastern Syria have been billeted here in Darashakran camp by the UNHCR. Many recently arrived across the border as they flee conflict and deprivation at home; some have been moved from Domiz camp in Duhok, overflowing with the continuing trek of families finally leaving their homes, fearing for their safety.

This camp is less than four months old, so the tents are new, the pathways still compacting, bulldozers everywhere, electric wires hanging morosely, children excitedly exploring. The barbed wire fences hemming us all in appear redundant, since we are seemingly in the middle of the stark empty desert countryside, some 50 kilometres, an hour’s long drive west of Erbil, Kurdistan’s bustling main city. Blue and white tents as far as the eye can see, then breeze block ovals marked out in readiness for as many refugees again, then bleak stony, dusty infertile plains. No way out; nowhere to go; but safe … for the moment.

I had left my western comforts on New Year’s Eve to volunteer with an inspirational project run by the fantastic Emanuela del Re — an Italian dynamo of an activist, professor, mediator and humanitarian leader. She had designed an educational programme ‘My Future’ for refugees and, funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had pioneered a partnership with local Kurdish universities to deliver classes, workshops and intellectual stimulation for 18-30 year-olds in the Kurdish camps. It was online too — — no matter that broadband remained an aspiration.

The routine was simple; unable to take up any sleeping space at the camp, we stayed at a modest Erbil guesthouse, travelling each morning to pick up our rota of volunteer professors and drive across the desert, past various checkpoints and through the entrance barrier to camp; we had been allocated three huge tents, housing 75 plastic chairs, three hanging light bulbs and a whiteboard; nothing else. Within minutes, the students flocked towards us, took off their muddy shoes and sat expectantly. We had interviewed and hired ‘tutors’ from among the refugees, as our interpreters and aides; we worked in English (as an educational tool itself and ‘window to the world’), Arabic, Kurdish and local dialect Kurmanji. The sessions buzzed with an air of curiosity, mutual aid and solidarity with each other.

It quickly became clear that our target age group range was hopelessly narrow; there is a primary school on camp, but nothing beyond that; teenagers came to tell us they had not been to any classes for six months; parents begged us to take their children; unemployed teacher refugees offered to help us. We asked for a fourth tent, more chairs; our daily finish time was extended by popular demand to 18.00, and then often to complete their tasks, they pleaded to stay on later. When the electricity failed, I thought we would have to wrap up, but no, mobile phones clicked on and little beams of light enabled us to continue for another hour, as we shivered in chill night air.

Gender balance was 60:40 in favour of women, about one third of whom wore headscarves; at the beginning, the sexes sat apart at opposite sides of the tent, but soon they mixed, when they realised that our workshop style of learning accommodated group work, world cafe tables (without the coffee!), open space approaches and role-play. The tutors translated consecutively, the local professors adjusted their lecture styles accordingly; some students huddled by the white board to copy down the English and Arabic words; eager hands rose politely whenever we posed an open question.

Topics were broad — citizenship, human rights, public opinion, politics, social media, the internet, public speaking, the risks of human trafficking, and social change by social movements. We set up working groups, undertook role play, allocated challenges and tasks, sought compromise through negotiation workshops, and told stories from our experiences. The atmosphere was electric, the hunger for learning was palpable, the sense of freedom liberating.

At the end of the 12-day course, 475 certificates of attendance were issued, prized possessions for diligent students. Some confessed they only came at first for something to relieve boredom, but left inspired; others reported they learned more than ever before in the top-down didactic Syrian educational system; new friendships were established, relationships begun. One refugee explained he had already undertaken the ‘My Future’ course with Emanuela in Domiz camp from where he transferred, but asked to be allowed in again — he brought his pals along too. A woman shopkeeper apologised each day for being late, but explained she had to sell her few vegetables before her learning. another mother breast-fed in class. Others took notes and returned the next day with translations into three languages, in perfect handwriting on a jotter sheet or corner ripped from a flip-chart. One learned how to Tweet, others wrote passionate journalism about their situation — all uploaded to their own internal website

Outside our teaching tents, however, the atmosphere remained a mix between quiet dignity and sullen anger: why are we here, away from home? When will we go back? Why are we locked in and unable to leave without a pass? How can we find work? What is our future?

Our small group of outsiders was entertained royally in the most extraordinary of conditions; I have never eaten rice and beans, humous and salad, washed down by hot, sweet tea before, from the floor of a dimly lit tent with a family of five young children excitedly practising their English, swapping stories of their home village and sharing their aspirations for a better future. Humbling is overused in these situations, but humbled I was.

What does it mean? We reported back to UNHCR and UNICEF officials in Erbil, who were delighted with our positive reports, but for whom the refugee crisis seems overwhelming; for them, anything that gave hope was welcome; troubles and difficulties clearly dominated their agendas. If we weren’t reporting riots and demanding police action, then we could be dismissed. Our fear, nevertheless, is that in six months the camps will be seething with unrest. We had real difficulty controlling waves of younger children playing outside our classes; one child was trampled in the rush to liberate our juice cartons and biscuits generously provided by the excellent Barzani Foundation the local NGO on site. I had to separate teenage fist fights outside my tent one day, as frustrated youngsters scrapped and fought, in the absence of any other outlet — no sporting or cultural facilities, for example, only a small primary school and health centre. And we heard that those men (women are not permitted to leave camp apparently) entrepreneurial enough to find work in Erbil, had to pay $25 for transport, in return for a $20 pay packet.

What should be done? The UNCHR obviously do a tremendous accommodation job and provide basic education and health services; but more is needed. Where are the other complementary programmes, where are the efforts to engage, deploy and mobilise these intelligent and enthusiastic people? How can we stimulate internal action and external support?

Quintin Oliver, a political consultant with, volunteered with ; follow at