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Education in Exile


by Nikki Gamer

Iraqi and Syrian refugee children in Jordan receive support through a K of C partnership with Catholic Relief Services

Refugee family from Iraq

Lana, 8, and her mother, Joanne, are pictured at their temporary home in Jordan. The family was forced to flee their home in Qaraqosh, Iraq, when ISIS invaded the region in 2014. Photos courtesy of Catholic Relief Services

Equipped with a few colored pencils and a blank piece of paper, 8-year-old Lana quietly drew a picture of a smiling princess. Her face hidden behind two thick brown braids, Lana leaned into her work with the concentration of a surgeon. She looked at peace.

No one would guess what Lana had endured the previous year. Lana, her parents and three siblings are from the northern Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, regarded as the Christian capital of Iraq and home to Christians for more than 15 centuries. In August of 2014, fighters of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS or Daesh) invaded the region, giving inhabitants a brutal ultimatum: convert to Islam, become a slave or hostage, be killed or flee.

Lana’s family fled, together with the vast majority of their neighbors, many of whom belonged to minority groups – Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims, whose beliefs and religious practices meant they would be persecuted by ISIS. Some were killed in flight. Others managed to find safety in Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region further north in Iraq. Lana and her family made it to Jordan. Arriving with only a few belongings, they had to start life anew.

Families like Lana’s need help and hope, and they are getting it thanks to U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS), together with Caritas Jordan, which is the official relief organization of the Catholic Church in Jordan.

In November 2015, the Supreme Council donated $500,000 to CRS for the expansion of programs in 18 Catholic schools in Jordan. Thanks to this support, CRS and Caritas are getting children back into the classroom and providing tutoring, teacher training, and other key aspects of schooling, such as transportation, parent-teacher activities and counseling.


The current refugee population in Jordan is estimated at 1.4 million Syrians and 60,000 Iraqis.

Both Syria and Iraq have continued to experience unspeakable violence, even as the Iraqi army’s October offensive against ISIS fought to regain control of Mosul, Iraq’s secondlargest the city, and liberated towns on the periphery, including Qaraqosh.

The majority of the refugees are children who have experienced trauma and have already lost out on years of education. Their families will likely remain displaced for a significant amount of time.

“It’s important having our Syrian and Iraqi children in school because many have been out of school for years,” explained Lana Snobar, counseling unit coordinator for Caritas Jordan. “One day, hopefully, if they get back to Syria or Iraq, they will be educated. They will have some knowledge about English, Arabic or math, or anything that could be useful in the future.”

That is why CRS and the Knights have worked together to provide education and tutoring for refugee children at schools managed by local Catholic partners throughout Jordan.

The classrooms are similar to many found around the world, with desks, blackboards and chairs, along with boisterous children who are eager to learn. But for a majority of the Syrian children, who have been out of school for a long time, there is catching up to do.

In the case of 8-year-old Omar, his family was forced to flee their home in Damascus, Syria, because of violence stemming from the six-year Syrian civil war.

Omar’s mother, Kenda, said that before the family left Syria, they had been living in a constant state of fear.

“We had to move many times to avoid the bombs, and we were scared all the time,” she said.

The trauma that refugee families have endured has had a profound impact on the children. After fleeing their homes, both Lana and Omar became distraught and withdrawn, as memories of their recent past were too often dominated by images of harrowing violence.

“We try to understand that they are living through a really hard time,” said Snobar. “They have really bad memories, and it’s not easy.”

The trauma can affect every aspect of the children’s lives, Snobar added. “It may manifest itself in physical symptoms, like stress or upset stomachs. It may also result in aggressiveness, sadness or a desire to run away.”

With funding from the Knights of Columbus and other donors, CRS and Caritas Jordan are able to provide much needed help.

“Through our psychosocial activities, such as puppetry and other games meant to engage the children, we’re trying to help them identify and cope with the symptoms that they are suffering through,” explained Snobar.

Refugees from Syria now in Jordan

Eight-year-old Omar (right) joins other children at a Catholic school in Jordan. Omar’s family fled their home in Damascus, Syria, due to the ongoing violence of their country’s civil war.


Tutoring programs have helped Lana and her siblings thrive in class. But because of what they endured as ISIS entered their hometown and war disrupted their young lives, they need more than academic work.

“Education is crucial to refugee children, as it is for any child,” said CRS Jordan Program Manager Maggie Holmesheoran. “But because they have experienced so many difficult things, counseling services and additional care are very important.”

The result of such work is evident in Lana. She has a renewed enthusiasm for the artwork she abandoned along with her home. Now, her prolific handmade designs – paper tree cutouts, drawings, and prints made of dried leaves – line the walls of her family’s small and otherwise bare apartment. For birthdays, Lana has been giving family members homemade cards.

“On every occasion she surprises us,” said Lana’s mother, Joanne, as she held up one of her daughter’s creations. Joanne is convinced that the school activities have breathed new life into her family.

Hassam, Lana’s father, nodded in approval.

“The way Caritas teaches the children makes them more creative,” he said. “As parents, we are gratified.”

“These classes help Lana have more self-confidence,” Joanne added. “When she comes home she’s eager to show us what she’s learned.”

Lana, who had returned to her work, looked up and brushed her braids aside. The smile on her face was as big as the one on the princess in her drawing.

Omar, whose favorite subject is math, has also become enlivened by his studies. He shyly shared that he wants to become an engineer when he is older. His parents and five brothers and sisters happily support his new dream.

“He studies all the time preparing himself for classes,” said his mother, Kenda. “I wish for a good future for all my kids.”

Kenda found that education awakened a part of the family’s life that had been missing for a long time: a sense of normalcy. “My children are very happy,” she said. “They feel safe and secure.”

Lana and Omar epitomize what Catholic Relief Services and the Knights of Columbus hope to accomplish with this educational and psychosocial support. They, like many other refugee children, live in overcrowded, rundown apartment buildings in urban areas throughout Jordan. Caritas social service centers in cities like Amman have child-friendly spaces where the children can play games and take part in activities that encourage creative expression, develop social and interpersonal skills and strengthen self-confidence.

“Seeing your children educated is a source of deep pride and is key to a parent’s feelings of success around raising a child,” Holmesheoran explained. “To see them educated, to know that those things are taken care of and that they will have access to opportunities because of their education – I think every parent wants that.”

NIKKI GAMER is a writer for Catholic Relief Services, which is based in Baltimore.