DAMASCUS, Syria — Illiteracy is spreading rapidly among refugee children from Iraq, with at least 300,000 young Iraqis not attending school in the countries where their families have sought safety.
Alarmed aid workers in Syria and Jordan report that a growing number of children can't read or write because cash-strapped parents have withdrawn them from school to cut down on expenses. In many cases, displaced families can afford to send only one of their children to school, creating a painful gap between educated children and their illiterate siblings, humanitarian workers say.
UNICEF, the U.N. education agency, is beginning a census to determine the size of the problem. There's no program in place yet to deal broadly with the issue. Aid workers admit that the development surprised them, in part because Iraq once boasted some of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East. The Iraqis' legendary thirst for knowledge is encapsulated in an Arabic saying, "The Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish, the Iraqis read."
"We are finding that a lot of participants in the youth programs we're running — a very high number, sometimes up to 30 percent per class — are illiterate or close to illiterate," said Jason Erb, the deputy country director for emergency programs in the Jordan office of Save the Children. He said that more than 90,000 Iraqi children were out of school in Jordan.
"In the initial rounds of some of our programs, we expected children to read and write, so we'd have all these activities that involved writing things on the flip chart or having them read a case history," Erb said. "They couldn't do it."
Iraqi teachers and professors in Damascus have begun offering free remedial lessons so Iraqi children make up for years lost to war, but they're finding far more students than they can accommodate. In Syria, some 250,000 Iraqi children, about 76 percent of the school-aged Iraqi population here, are out of class this year, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
"The last time my kids were in school was 2003, right before the American invasion," said Hanaa Majeed, 32, an Iraqi refugee in Damascus who can't afford to send her two sons to school. "They can barely read. I buy books and try to teach them at home, but it's not the same. My boys see other kids with backpacks on, going off to school, and they ask why they can't go, too."
Education is a point of pride for Iraqis, the descendants of civilizations that invented cuneiform, one of the world's first writing systems.
Iraq's illiteracy rate began to climb during the 1990s, when sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime decimated the education system. Schools lacked textbooks, pencils and other materials. Teachers were so poorly paid, Iraqi parents recalled, that they sometimes offered better grades in exchange for bribes to supplement their salaries.
After Saddam's regime fell in 2003, the U.S.-led occupational authority earmarked millions of dollars to rebuild Iraq's education system and schools. But the unanticipated insurgency rendered much of that work useless. With car bombs exploding near playgrounds and militants roaming neighborhoods, many parents kept their children home rather than risk their lives sending them to school.
Now, with violence at home and economic hardship for those who've sought safety outside Iraq, education has become a luxury that many are unable to afford.
Even refugee children who are enrolled in school struggle to keep up with unfamiliar Arabic dialects, aid workers said. The trauma of being forcibly uprooted from their homes and neighborhoods in Iraq also diminishes their ability to learn. Most Iraqi children also have witnessed or experienced horrific acts of violence, aid workers said.
"A whole generation is missing out on its education," said Sybella Wilkes, the Damascus-based U.N. spokeswoman on refugee issues. "Nothing has prepared Iraqis for being refugees, for running out of savings. For the first time in a generation or longer, the priority is basic survival."
Illiteracy is growing fastest among displaced Iraqis, humanitarian workers said. An estimated 2 million people have fled sectarian bloodshed within Iraq, and another 2.5 million have sought refugee in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and other countries.
As displaced families scrounge for food and shelter, educating the children becomes difficult, even in countries such as Syria and Jordan, where Iraqi children can attend public schools for little or no fees and needy families are eligible for U.N. assistance with books, uniforms and transportation.
Many Iraqi parents are so poor that they can't shoulder school costs, especially with several children to a family. In addition, parents often rely on older children to help support the family by taking on odd jobs and helping at home. Only 35,000 Iraqi children are enrolled in Syrian schools; 20,000 are enrolled in Jordan.
"I have a 13-year-old who can't read or write," said Azhar al Haidari, 47, an Iraqi who can afford to send only two of her four children to school in Damascus. "It destroys me. He needs to start from A-B-C, but he's too embarrassed. He says he's too old to learn now."
Haidari and her unemployed husband rely on their sons, Bassam, 13, and Ayman, 14, to bring in cash by doing odd jobs for shopkeepers. After household expenses, the couple can just barely pay school costs for their daughters, Mary, 8, and Inam, 11.
Haidari said Bassam was so jealous of his sisters' ability to read and write that he stormed out of the apartment if he saw them with books.
"The other day, I was going over dictation with the girls and Bassam started yelling at me, 'What's the difference between me and an animal?' " Haidari said. "He quits jobs on the spot when they ask him to fill out forms. He's humiliated. He feels he has no future."