Iraqi mother's choice: Which child goes to school?

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 12, 2007 

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Zuhairy family lives in a freezing one-room apartment in Jaramana, a growing Iraqi refugee enclave in Damascus. There's no bathroom door, no hot water, no furniture, no heat and no privacy. Seven people sleep and eat in the same room, where a battered television set provides the only entertainment.

The mother, who goes by the nickname Umm Sundus, has fought to keep her family fed since her husband, a goldsmith, was killed in Iraq last year and the rest of the family fled here. Rent is $150 a month, but the family's main income is $100 a month, wired from a relative in Australia, and Umm Sundus is always behind on bills. There's no way of educating so many children: Adam, 4; Bahram, 10; Ram, 14; Ranya, 17; Samir, 20; and Suzanne, 22.

In Syria, residency permits are issued to Iraqis who enroll at least one of their children in school. Umm Sundus couldn't afford to send them all, so she faced a heartbreaking choice: Which child would be the one to go?

She picked Bahram, a slender boy with deep brown eyes. The other children are still asleep when he marches off to school each morning in a blue uniform with a Spider-Man patch.

"He's young, so no matter what we dress him in, whether it's old or it has rips, he doesn't understand and won't feel embarrassed," Umm Sundus explained. "For the others, I made it clear from the beginning that they couldn't go to school. I had no choice."

For the most part, she said, the other children are resigned to their situation. Sometimes, however, fights break out among the children because Bahram wants to get to bed early for school the next morning, while the others have no studies and like to stay up all night watching television.

Apart from the two oldest children, who attended university in Iraq, all the Zuhairy siblings have problems with reading and writing.

"I studied all those years only to forget it all," said Ranya, who'd hoped to follow in her big sister's footsteps by attending college. "I wish I could talk to my family about it, but I know the reasons I can't go. It'll only make them feel worse if I bring it up."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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