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Displaced with her family in northern Iraq, a girl dreams of education

An Iraqi family from a camp for displaced persons visits relatives in Basra.

By Blue Chevigny

NEW YORK, USA, 19 March 2007 – Sheelan, 14, has never gone to school. Neither have any of her seven older sisters. Her family is Kurdish and has been displaced for two decades, ever since the Iran-Iraq War.

Despite the efforts of UNICEF and other humanitarian aid organizations, many displaced young Iraqis like Sheelan (not her real name) are suffering from a lack of basic services such as clean water, health care and education.

Sheelan recently spoke about these challenges in an interview with UNICEF Radio via cell phone from the camp where she and her family live near Kirkuk, northern Iraq.

‘It was like we were in hiding’

When Sheelan was younger, before the war that began in March 2003, her family was expelled from their Kurdish village. “There were killings, destruction – and they gave us a choice between moving to an Arabic area or to go to the north, to the Kurdish area,” she explained. For economic reasons, her father chose to go to the Arabic area.

So the family moved to a nearby city. None of the children went to school, because her parents believed it was too dangerous.

“Our family was protective and they didn’t let us go out because they were afraid that people would notice we were Kurdish, and my older sisters would become targets,” she said. “My sisters didn’t learn how to speak Arabic, but me, I was little and I mixed with other kids.”

Sheelan’s sisters were all married by the age of 12 – “for their own protection, so no one could harm them,” she said. “It was like we were in hiding at that time.” Because she is the youngest and is coming of age in a different time, Sheelan has not been pushed into early marriage.

Still no access to school

Soon after the war broke out four years ago, Sheelan’s family moved to the displacement camp near Kirkuk, where they have remained ever since.

“After Saddam, we didn’t go back to the village because the government didn’t offer any compensation for us to go back,” she noted. “We would have to build from the ground up without any help. We couldn’t manage it, so we moved to this camp.”

Sheelan’s life now is better in some ways than before, she said, but she still has no access to schooling. “There’s a school, but for kids around age seven – not for us,” she said. “They already do three shifts of classes per day. So I suffer the consequences. I want to go to school, but there is no school.”

Though UNICEF has supported efforts to reach girls Sheelan’s age who still need elementary education, she has not yet been able to enrol.

Dreams for Iraq

Amid the ongoing violence in Iraq and a constant state of fear in her community, Sheelan sometimes loses hope and fears that she has come too far in life without an education to ever recover.

“I don’t have a future,” she lamented. “I can’t write and I can’t read. But if I had the opportunity to read and write and be a student, I would want to learn to be a teacher – to teach the next generation. I would like to send my children to school, even in wartime and in difficult times.”

Sheelan also has dreams for her country and its people.

“I wish that Iraq could be the same as other countries, that children could live the same lives as other children,” she said. “We should have better schools with better teachers, because we don’t have qualified teachers here. We deserve good educations. And I wish that the war would end.”


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14 March 2006:
UNICEF Radio correspondent Blue Chevigny talks with a 14-year-old girl who lives in a displacement camp near Kirkuk and does not go to school.

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