Iraq — Q&A with International Rescue Committee Program Director Aidan Goldsmith
The International Rescue Committee restarted programs in Iraq in November 2007 and Aidan Goldsmith recently arrived to head up the relief effort. He shares his thoughts on the bleak humanitarian situation in Iraq and how the IRC is working to improve conditions for some of the most vulnerable families.
Five years after the start of the war in Iraq, how would you describe conditions for Iraqi people who have been displaced by violence?
Over 2.5 million people are internally displaced by the ongoing conflict and they need help now more than ever. It would not be a stretch to describe the situation for ordinary Iraqis as dire and as time goes on, the circumstances are not improving. Both uprooted families and the communities hosting them have few services that are functioning. There are pressing needs in all essential services including water, shelter, sanitation, food, health care and work opportunities. Women and children are especially vulnerable. Violence against them is on the rise and they are suffering in all sorts of ways as a result of the deteriorating health and education systems.
Are children able to go to school amid the ongoing violence?
Schools that are open are strained beyond capacity. In areas with huge influxes of internally displaced people, students now have to go to classes in shifts. What this means it that children are now getting little more than three hours of schooling a day, in classrooms with as many as 60 pupils. The reality for many of the kids is even if they are attending school, they have very little opportunity to learn.
In volatile areas of the country, it is not uncommon for parents to keep their children home from school because of violence on the streets. They are afraid their children could get caught in the cross fire.
Our concern is that the longer kids are out of school, the less likely they will return and that’s a situation that we want to avoid. Children who drop out of school or can’t go because of violence are missing out on the only social and emotional support systems available to them. Among other things, they will have fewer work opportunities down the line.
We’re really afraid that there’s going to be a generation of children who missed out on primary and secondary education. That’s going to have a major impact on Iraq’s future recovery.
What is the IRC doing to help children who have fallen behind in their schooling?
We’re starting programs in northern and southern Iraq that aim to help children catch up on missed schooling. We’re especially targeting displaced children because they are having the most trouble keeping up.
This summer, we are running accelerated learning classes for three months at Qalawa Camp in Suleimanyah in Northern Iraq. Families have been living there for as long as two years. Most of the children there have been in and out of school depending on the levels of violence in their communities of origin. Many of these kids have restarted school in Suleimanyah, but are now way behind for their age. So we want to do everything we can to help them catch up. There are hundreds of children in the camp and absolutely nothing for them to do over the summer, so this program will also provide recreational activities, sports and art classes.
We also just received a donation from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to rehabilitate three congested schools in Najaf and Karbala that are hosting more than 2,000 displaced children. So we hope to begin work on new classrooms and other renovations this summer and launch accelerated learning programs for children who are behind in their studies soon after.
We’ve identified more than a dozen other schools in and around Najaf that need help to accommodate influxes of displaced kids and we’re looking for assistance to do that.
We’ve already completed construction of new classrooms at an overcrowded school near Erbil in Northern Iraq. The school’s student population had more than doubled in size as more and more displaced families fled to the area.
You’ve spent time speaking with Iraqi families. How come they are not returning home?
Despite the fact that they are living in abysmal conditions, the vast majority of displaced Iraqis do not want to return to their communities out of fear of the violence that awaits them. Many of the displaced have had family members killed as a result of sectarian violence or have witnessed events too horrible to recount. Their fear is genuine and runs deep. Also, many of their homes have either been destroyed or occupied by other families since fleeing, so they don’t necessarily have anywhere to return to.
What impacts you the most about the stories you hear from the people you are assisting?
The most heartbreaking thing is how much their lives have changed for the worst. Baghdad used to be a thriving city where people of all ethnicities lived together in relative peace. Many of the Iraqis I have spoken to cannot believe how divided and violent the country has become. Iraqis were hard working and highly educated. So many families have lost everything including loved ones, homes and businesses as a result of the conflict. They have lost faith in the government and feel the authorities have provided little help, leaving them to fend for themselves in squalid conditions. Thankfully community members that are hosting them have been generous in providing things like clothing and household items. But generally, they are living day-to-day, waiting to see what happens, and with little optimism that anything will change soon. It is not surprising that many are traumatized and living with a profound sense of hopelessness.