Can Education Slow the Exodus Of Syrian and Iraqi Christians?

As heavy fighting continues across the Nineveh Plain, some Christians displaced by the Islamic State have given up the dream of returning home and joined the stream of refugees leaving the war-torn country. Others remain in Iraqi Kurdistan, clinging to the hope that they can someday go back to their villages.

“When we fled our convent in Qaraqosh in 2014, we thought we’d be gone just a few days; then we could go home. But now it’s been almost two years, and the future is uncertain. Some of the displaced want to return home as soon as they can. Others have had enough, and they want to leave for good,” said Sister Maria Hanna, superior of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena.

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The Dominican sisters opened a school for displaced children in Ankawa last August with 500 students. By April, Sister Hanna said, the enrollment had dropped to 445. The others have left the country with their parents. And the numbers continue to drop.

“We’re preparing the children for the future, but we don’t know what that future will be,” she said. “There are no good choices. And the most poor have even fewer options,” she said.

Displaced young people here are not of one mind about their future.

Rand Khaled, 21, is confident she’ll go home to Qaraqosh, from which she fled in 2014. “I have friends who’ve gone to the U.S.A. and Australia. All of my uncles and aunts have left the country. We keep in touch on Facebook, and they’re always asking me why we aren’t leaving,” she said.

“But why should we leave? I want to live in my country, become a teacher in the university there. I want to stay at home and make my dreams come true. We need only safety to return. We have lots of hope but little security. And so we wait,” she said. While she waits, Khaled studies accounting.

One of her classmates sees the future differently.

“We all want to leave here as soon as we can. In Europe it’s safe. There is freedom and no ISIS, no bombs in the streets,” said Alsajed Asaad, a 21-yearold Muslim student who fled Tikrit when the Islamic State captured the city in 2014.

“I don’t want to return to Tikrit even if ISIS goes away. My uncle is in Finland, and I have friends who have gone to Germany, Sweden and Turkey. They say life is good there, that they are respected, that there is peace and safety. Of course I want to leave here,” he said.

Khaled and Asaad study at Hamdaniya University in Ankawa. It’s a newly independent version of what was formerly the Qaraqosh campus of Mosul University. To help with the onslaught of displaced students, the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Irbil provided land and classrooms so that 1,400 students can take classes in Arabic.

The Catholic University launched its first classes in December in a sprawling new facility in Ankawa. Teaching is in English and follows an international curriculum. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil said it will help displaced Christians and others to prepare better for their future, whether that is back home or in exile elsewhere.

“Just as we’ve helped with shelter and food and health care, it’s our mission to provide education. And once the displaced get a solid education, that will ensure a better future wherever they end up,” he said. “Most people who leave here leave because of the future, not the past. We only ask that they think twice before they leave. The new university gives them an alternative to think about. It gives them a choice.” 

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