Education impacts your entire life. That’s why Catholic University is offering Christians in Erbil the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Along with many who stayed and rode out the turmoil, there are countless Christians returning to Iraq nearly eight years after ISIS took everything. These Internally Displaced People are often returning to homes and businesses that have either been destroyed, or taken over by someone else.They are in sore need of tools to restart their lives, like apprenticeships and educational opportunities. Many are not finding the opportunities for a bright future in the communities which they are returning to, putting the region at risk of another mass exodus.
There is a true gap in educational opportunities, both in Iraq and in areas across the Middle East that have hosted refugees from Iraq and Syria, in primary and secondary education. In a 2017 survey of Syrian refugees, it was reported that only a third of their children were enrolled in school. Since then, educational access has improved, but is by no means perfect; nor is it completely free in every area.
Secondary education and university have even poorer attendance rates, as many refugees must drop out of school in order for theirs and their families’ survival. Apprenticeship is another important postsecondary form of education that is needed for Internally Displaced Persons, as well as those who remained, to establish their lives in Northern Iraq and the Nineveh Plain.
Nineveh SEED has many programs to help Iraqi Christians rebuild their lives and livelihoods. There is a AFRRME sponsored chicken farm, as well as a bakery in Qaraqosh, greenhouses in Karamles, a beekeeping operation in the Sinjar and the Maqloob mountains, an olive oil factory in Alqoot, and a bulgur wheat factory in Teleskuff. Still, educational opportunities are needed for Christians, Yazidis, and other displaced minorities as they return to, and even remain in the region. There is a genuine risk that those who returned or remain on the Nineveh Plain will once again leave for better opportunities elsewhere.
Education, especially postsecondary education, will allow Iraqi Christians a wealth of advancement not only in Iraq, but around the world. In order to incentivize Iraqi Christians to stay in and return to Iraq, the Catholic University in Erbil is offering a program to fund the educations of those who have lost everything. The university is working with humanitarian groups like Aid to the Church in Need to provide 1.7 million dollars in “Pope Francis Scholarships.”
This comes a year after Pope Francis’ 2021 visit to Iraq and the Middle East, in which he was “moved to the deepest part of his soul,” by the plight of Christians across the Nineveh Plain and the Greater Middle East. According to Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, it was “possibly the most significant trip of the pontificate.”
Francis expressed “support” not only to “the Christian communities of Iraq and of the region who have been persecuted and suffered” but also to “the other persecuted communities such as the Yazidis for whom he has enormous sympathy.”
According to the Archbishop of Erbil, founder of the university, this scholarship will help keep Iraqi Christians in Iraq and give them the opportunity for a bright future.
“The CUE model encourages the whole family to stay and not to emigrate; their children will have an excellent education to obtain work and therefore a future in Iraq to support themselves and their parents.”
“If young Christians can be given an opportunity to gain a good education, then they will remain. ACN has already done everything possible to help the Christians to remain in their native land, by investing in the reconstruction of their homes, their churches and essential infrastructure. Now is the time to invest in the young people of the country,” said Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need, an NGO that also helps support efforts to reintegrate Iraqi Christians into their homelands.
The CUE currently has 280 students in four different years, working to obtain degrees in courses that vary from Architecture and Medical Laboratory Science (MLS), to accounting and English. More departments such as Pharmacy will open next year allowing even more choice for students to be able to come to the university. Crucially, though, students are exposed to a Christian ethos and Catholic Social Teaching they cannot find anywhere else in Iraq.
Under the banner of the “Pope Francis Scholarship, a cohort of 128 students, comprising 113 Christians, 12 Yazidi and 3 Muslims, supported by ACN, have started the academic year of 2022/2023.
CUE currently has 280 students in four different years, working to obtain degrees in courses that vary from Architecture and Medical Laboratory Science (MLS), to accounting and English. More departments such as Pharmacy will open next year allowing even more choice for students to be able to come to the university. Crucially, though, students are exposed to a Christian ethos and Catholic Social Teaching they cannot find anywhere else in Iraq.
Since it was founded in 2015, the Catholic University in Erbil has enjoyed great success, and is already ranked 41 out of 250 higher education institutions in Iraq. All teaching and study is in English. Archbishop Warda hopes to see it climb into the top 10 within a few years. But alongside academic excellence, the valuable fruits of this university are the promotion of social cohesion and interreligious harmony in a country still recovering from nearly two decades of conflict and persecution.
These efforts are not unlike AFRRME’s efforts to provide primary and secondary education to the refugees served by our Olive Tree Center in Madaba, Jordan. Our General Greer Scholarship Fund is designed to provide educational opportunities for children in primary and secondary school that will give them an excellent foundation for post-secondary learning at universities like Catholic University and other institutions around the world.
In most of the western world, the vast majority of children attend K-12 schools. Not everyone is so privileged, however, and this is a disparity we see very often with the refugees we work with. Out of the 7.2 million refugee children throughout the world, only 3.7 million have the opportunity to attend school. Globally 91% of children attend elementary school, whereas only 63% of refugee children have this opportunity. Of that 63%, only 24% attend high school.
The situation is even bleaker as refugee children get older. Around the world, 84 percent of adolescents go to secondary school, while only 24 percent of refugee teens have this opportunity. As these young people get older, the barriers that prevent them from accessing learning become harder to overcome.
Education protects refugees and their children from forced recruitment into armed groups, child labor, and sexual exploitation. Education empowers refugees by giving them the knowledge and skills to rebuild their lives and communities. We are passionate about providing education to those displaced by sectarian violence, to prevent these outcomes and encourage all of those we serve to pursue bright futures.
AFRRME supports all efforts to help Iraqi Christians rebuild their lives through education. Our own unique programs, like the General Greer Scholarship Fund, are helping displaced Iraqi Christians seeking refuge in Jordan an opportunity to attend school. Will you say a prayer for Christians and other minority religious groups seeking primary, secondary, and post-secondary education in the Middle East? Will you offer your support to ensure that the children of Iraqi refugees can get the kind of education that will allow them to pursue honest trades and university educations?