“The whole country’s a refugee camp; everyone’s just looking for a way out.”
Over the last few years, the Shrewsbury School community has given generous support to the Ankawa Foundation, supporting refugees in Iraq.
Iraq has been a war zone for as long as I can remember. The first Iraq war started while I was at prep school, and conflicts in the Middle East have rumbled on ever since. There is a whole generation of children who have grown up without any kind of stability or security; a whole generation of children whose education has been compromised or interrupted. Some of you – as you force yourselves back into the daily grind of school life in September – might think that sounds like a pretty good thing. But if you fail to give a child an education, you give them a gun.
In 2018, Bashar Warda, the Archbishop of Erbil, approached the Foundation with a request. The region is now relatively stable; ISIS has been driven back to a tiny territory in the south of Iraq and displaced people are starting to return to their homes and communities. However, Archbishop Warda believed that the greatest factor in the success or failure of the rebuilding programme would be the quality of the education system. Education not only enables young people to access jobs and financial security but is also proven to combat radicalisation. His request therefore, was simple: could we help train teachers to deliver an international curriculum? With the right teachers, he believed, he could build a ladder out of war and poverty for his people.
With a certain amount of trepidation, we took a deep breath and said yes. At the start of the summer holiday, therefore, a group of five UK teachers – including Shrewsbury’s own inimitable Head of Spanish, Trish Henderson – flew to Erbil to deliver a fledgling teacher training programme to a group of Iraqi teachers.
One was in her forties. Her childhood home had been bombed in the first Gulf War. She had been driven from Bagdhad by Saddam and from Mosul by ISIS – all without chipping one of her immaculate, inch-long acrylics. She expressed her horror at the state of my nails and insisted on giving me a proper manicure – because “when all you have left is self-respect, it matters”.
One had studied at the University of Mosul. When ISIS came, his family escaped to Sweden. He cannot get a visa to visit them and may never see them again.
One was 25, with biceps wider than his neck (Iraqis never do leg day). When we said we were glad to see the refugee camps closing as people returned home, he said, “The whole country’s a refugee camp; everyone’s just looking for a way out.”
Our training programme was designed to help these teachers provide an education that will rebuild their country; as well as EAL classes, we provided resources on curriculum planning, classroom management, safeguarding and pastoral care. However, as is so often the case with volunteering, we found that we learned far more than we taught; not only about the region and about educational philosophy, but about the tenacity of a community that has bent so far without breaking. The courage and commitment we witnessed was humbling: an important reminder of how incredibly privileged we are, and how absolute is the moral imperative to share that privilege with others.
If you would like further information about the Foundation’s projects, or to donate to our work, please visit www.ankawafoundation.org.