A Refugee Camp’s Self-Organized Education System

Over a period of 24 years, despite violent attacks and unbearable conditions, the residents of Mexmûr refugee camp in Makhmour, southern Kurdistan/northern Iraq, beginning with lessons written on stones and dust, managed to create their autonomous education system with their own means – from kindergartens to adult academies.

Between 1993 and 1994, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people were forcibly displaced from their homes due to the Turkish state’s oppressive policies implemented through violence, imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Due to the systematic village destructions, tens of thousands of people were forced to seek refuge in southern Kurdistan/Iraq. Before settling in Makhmour, the people, who are originally from the Botan region of northern Kurdistan/Turkey, settled in camps like Şeraniş or Bihêrê in the early 1990s.

Struggling to survive under life-threatening conditions, the refugees had to come up with creative solutions to provide their children with education. Among the first efforts were the opening of basic educational courses. Because the children had no notebooks, pencils, or books, things were written and drawn on stones. Upon increasing assaults and threats, the people had to move to the Etrûş and Geliyê Qiyametê camps.

Between 1994 and 1997, the population of the Etrûş and Geliyê Qiyametê camps increased to 15.000. One of the most urgent issues that arose at the time was children’s education. Eventually, 10 to 15 people, who had not yet finished their teacher’s training, began working as educators. A relatively functional system was established in difficult conditions and with very limited means. Without books available to them, people started teaching what they knew. In the cold winter months, the teachers were educating children in tents without basic equipment.

Nevertheless, an elementary school system was developed in the framework of the limited conditions. In 1996, the first elementary school was opened in Etrûş Camp. The school was named after the women’s movement activist Zeynep Erdem (Jiyan), who lost her life during an attack on the camp in 1995. 400 students were enrolled during the first educational year of the camp.

As the educational system was being built step by step, attacks on the camp increased so that in 1997, the Etrûş and Geliye Qiyametê camps were emptied. Many of the camps’ inhabitants moved to the Ninova area, while others settled in Qesrok, Sêmêlê, Hesenîkê and other regions. Education continued for a while in Ninova. However, the camp was once again evacuated in 1998 so that the refugees first moved to Nehdarê and then eventually to Makhmour (Mexmûr) in the Mosul province.

Mexmûr was the final destination. The name of the camp was changed into Şehit (Martyr) Rüstem Cudi Refugee Camp later. Since the camp was now further away from the Turkish border, as well as from the influence of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), there was less pressure on the camp than before. From 1998 until now, in a period of 20 years, life has been resurrected in many ways. One of these aspects has been the realm of education.

In 1998, with the participation of the entire camp community, the students and teachers made their educational facilities out of stone and earth. Chairs and desks were made from mud. Amid these unbearable conditions, due to international pressures, the Iraqi government at the time, as well as the UN eventually provided limited and basic humanitarian supplies to the schools.

There are currently 12 schools for the thousands of students. These include 5 kindergartens, 4 elementary schools, 2 middle schools and one preparatory school. So far, 200 students have graduated from the Şehit Koçerîn preparatory school that was founded in 2000, many of whom afterwards attended university in southern Kurdistan. In 2014, under the umbrella of the Şehit Ferhat Kurtay Academy, the Şehit Kato Institute was opened – a new step was taken in the education system of the camp. The students get a two-year education at the institute. While the first year consists of basic education, the second year provides vocational training, including teaching, communications, health etc. Students graduate from the institute by receiving the education system’s formal diploma.

Currently, approximately 3.500 people at the camp attend education in the elementary, middle and preparatory schools, institutes and academies, 350 of which are children in kindergartens. Since 2005, students from Mexmûr started going to universities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. At the moment, around 200 Mexmûr students are enrolled in such universities, studying subjects like law, politics, medicine, physics, biology, communications, sociology, languages, psychology or geography. More than 500 people from Mexmûr have thus graduated from university already and many of them returned to Mexmûr to work as teachers or doctors.

The 200 teachers currently working at the camp were brought up in the camp’s education system themselves. Upon graduating from university, some of the citizens of the camp returned to work as teachers for their community’s schools. Apart from the teacher’s training at the institutions, teacher’s conferences are organized every two years at the camp to advance their level of educational training. Students and teachers discuss the educational content and structural issues, alongside the obstacles and developments of the past period, after which suggestions and new agendas are proposed.

The subjects that are being taught at the camp include sociology, physics, chemistry, biology, jineolojî, ecology, culture, physical education, history, mathematics, economy, and philosophy. They are all taught in the children’s mother tongue.

In the first years, the camp’s education system did not have books or other means of communicating knowledge. As a result, books and other material were manually written down during summer break. Once computers could be supplied to the camp, the books, prepared in Kurdish, were compiled electronically before going to the print. All the books were prepared by the camp’s teachers. Logistical issues arose however in terms of the material’s reproduction, due to a lack of printing means at the camp.

Before 2005, the United Nations provided basic support by supplying school uniforms, notebooks, pencils, and similar items. But in the recent years, neither the UN, nor the KRG provided help to the schools at Mexmûr camp. All students study with their families’ means.

Education in one’s native language, a right that was historically denied to the Kurdish people, is taken seriously in Mexmûr. From kindergarten to the institute, the language of instruction is Kurmancî Kurdish, which is the dialect spoken by the community. The middle schools and preparatory schools teach in Soranî Kurdish, the main dialect in the region. English and Turkish are also taught as formal subjects.

Şirin Çetin has been working in the construction of the camp’s education system since 1993 and is the spokeswoman of the Mexmûr Language Education Committee. Stating that their aim is to create and build an educational system for the children of their own people, she describes the many obstacles that the camp faced along the way. Pointing out the increase in the numbers of both, students and teachers, Çetin expresses that with the books and means available to them today, the students were able to attend any university they wanted, after years of struggling to make ends meet. Even if not totally, the regional government now formally recognizes the refugee camp’s education system and admits its students to higher education in the region’s universities.

The educational system is founded on the notion of Democratic Autonomy and prioritizes raising the community’s consciousness above all. “We try to secure solidarity between the peoples through education. We want to illustrate that domination, power, and force are not desirable things. The state system is not a system that aspires to secure society’s freedom or success.  We want the society to be able to administer and govern itself autonomously. And we believe that this will advance everyone collectively. We are flexible. For instance, our system of two year ago already differs from our current system. Now we separate the educational institutions from the places where the educational material, i.e. books are being produced. We want to remove all the systems that constitute obstacle to our students. That is why we are committed to improve their pedagogical experience by changing those experiences and methods that burden and impair their development.”

Şirin Çetin views the teachers as a fundamental dynamic of the camp’s education: “We take in teachers depending on the conditions of any given time. Depending on the situation, we take in volunteers and knowledgeable teachers. We used to employ middle schoolers as teachers as well. But now we have our own students, who matured in our own system. That is why we only employ those as teachers now, who studied preparatory school. Since our students began going off to university, a large number of people emerged that could work as educators. Thus, we began hiring school graduates as teachers.”

Despite all the remarkable developments, there are still many shortcomings and obstacles. Çetin describes the camp’s needs in the following manner: “Around the world, the recommended number of students in a classroom averages 20 people. Because we don’t have enough space, we have 35 classes of students. A teacher needs approximately 15 to 16 hours to prepare and teach their subject. However, because the number of our teachers is low, ours are often forced to teach for 20 hours. We need equipment for experiments in chemistry and physics. Because we don’t have the means, we can’t teach these subjects in the quality we would like. Our students are deprived of very simple things. That is why they sometimes experience difficulties when starting their university education.”

Stressing that the schools have not received any aid in years, Çetin explained: “We were accepted as political refugees and yet we do not receive any help for our efforts. The students study with their own means. If the families don’t have enough means, they decide not to send their children to school. They sometimes appeal to the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq but mostly in vain.”

While the regional government acknowledges the school diplomas of the camp, there is nevertheless discrimination against the students, as emphasized by Çetin: “They have political motivations for this. They are afraid of integrating our students into their schools or giving them job opportunities. Those, who study natural sciences, experience fewer obstacles than those, who graduate from literature or political science. That is because doctors or engineers are not seen as having a subversive impact on the government’s hegemonic system.”

The usage of the Kurdish language needs to be considered in the light of the historic oppression and criminalization of the language by states that systematically violated this fundamental right to the Kurdish people. As a result, although Soranî Kurdish has established itself as a language of instruction, literature and science over decades due to the relatively stable conditions in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the Kurmancî dialect, particularly due to state suppression and assimilation policies, is still perceived by many as a “backward language” that cannot be employed in theory, science and literature. This is of course due to specific notions of modernity and progress.  With the efforts being made in Mexmûr however, as stressed by its educations, the question of whether the community’s language has value for complex, abstract notions or scientific terminology is no longer up for debate.

Their quest to further improve the education system of Mexmûr led the committee to open a research centre for the purpose of researching education systems and methods around the world. “We are anticipating a new phase in the near future. It is crucial for us to be up to date with scientific developments. In this sense, we must benefit from all the experiences worldwide. A new step was taken and nearly 100 teachers have been tasked with this research endeavour. It is possible that we will change many things upon conducting our research.”