“Our girls are sitting at home doing nothing!” exclaimed Kabira, a Syrian mother of four daughters who now lives in a camp in Iraq. “They should be in school, so we are planning a demonstration.”

The women’s committee of the Arbat refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was in session. While Arbat has a primary school to accommodate the camp’s 1,900 Syrian families who have escaped their country’s civil war, there was no high school. Some 245,000 Syrians have sought safety in Iraq.

“The school administrators say it is out of their hands, and they can’t find teachers to work in the secondary school,” added Nadia, another committee member and mother. “But we will not stop until they do.”

Residents were excited when a high school was built last year, but classes never started. After generously supporting refugee teacher salaries for three years, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capacity to continue to add teachers to the payroll ran out. So the women’s committee, whose mission is to minimize risk of harm to woman and girls and ensure they feel safe in a difficult environment, took action.  

Syrian girls stay focused during their first day of high school in Iraq's Arbat refugee camp. The girls and their families have been in the camp for three years and now face cuts to education and other services.
Photo: Gona Hassan/IRC

Last December, 55 residents marched through the camp with signs delivering a clear message: Open Our Schools.

"We protested during the 16 Days of Gender Activism,” recalls Kabira, referring to an annual campaign to end violence against women and girls worldwide. “We had banners. We talked about child marriage. It wasn’t just the women’s committee—it was the whole community. Every man, every woman, sent letters and talked to the camp management.”

Girls who are out of school and stuck at home are at an increased risk of isolation, abuse and early marriage.

“We want girls to get high-school certificates and go to university,” says Maysa, another member, noting that a high school education for girls was standard in Syria before the war.

And it wasn’t just the adults in the camp protesting. Twenty students joined the march, and other girls wrote and delivered an impassioned letter to the camp administration.

“We hope you’ll hear our demands about our most important right,” they pleaded, “to complete our education despite what we’ve gone through and where we are living now.”

All the work and all the organizing paid off.

On February 14, Syrian girls eager to continue their education walked into a functioning high-school classroom for the first time. The women’s committee was trained and started by the International Rescue Committee’s women and girls community center, a private, female-only space at the edge of Arbat camp.

Every home is a school for a girl; every mother is a teacher. We will show them how to manage. We won’t let our girls go through the same things that we have.

In heated trailers lined with bookshelves, women and girls meet with social workers and participate in counseling, life-skills training, and other activities. Access to education is just one of a growing number of problems facing camp residents. Food aid is being cut and jobs are scarce. Women complain that daily life is deteriorating.

“If people can’t find food, they have two choices: they will die in the sea [going to Europe], or they will die here,” Maysa states bluntly.

Many of Maysa’s fellow residents have even returned to warring Syria, leaving behind rows of empty shelters. As governments and armed groups try to maintain a ceasefire in Syria, refugee women are vowing to continue to fight for their families’ futures.

“The suffering we face will add value to our girls’ lives,” says another mother and committee member. “Every home is a school for a girl; every mother is a teacher. We will show them how to manage. We won’t let our girls go through the same things that we have.”