01/18/2008, 00.00
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Caritas initiative for Iraqi girls: classes to shelter them from exploitation

by Marta Allevato
In Damascus, Caritas Syria is inaugurating a new programme that will offer free instruction to more than 450 girls, without regard to faith. Often, because of economic difficulties and the lack of room in the public schools, many young female refugees are forced to work under conditions of exploitation, even including prostitution. An effort to stem the humanitarian crisis for the Iraqis in Syria.

Damascus (AsiaNews) - The young female Iraqi refugees in Damascus will soon have another chance to get an adequate education, and fresh hope to escape from the easy trap of exploitation. Next week, Caritas Syria will begin a new programme intended for all the girls between 10 and 18 years of age who have fled from Iraq. The educational courses will offer instruction in computers, English, and basic refresher classes to more than 450 students, both Christian and Muslim.

The Iraqi refugees in Syria probably exceed the 1.4 million registered by the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR). 80 percent of these are concentrated in the capital. The overcrowding creates a serious and urgent problem of education: the new arrivals cannot find places in the public schools, where classes can contain more than 40 children; others have trouble learning because of the different Arabic pronunciation in Syria. "For everyone, the solution would be private schooling", some of the parents recount, "but the costs are prohibitive for the families, who are barely ably to pay the rent". Economic problems and the impossibility of getting an education condemn many girls to have to earn their own keep in the family, but most of the time they risk exploitation, including prostitution.

The educational courses, explains the coordinator, Bassam al-Chahil, a Syrian who has worked with Iraqi refugees for years, "are made possible with support from UNICEF, and separate the students into two categories: those who already go to school but have trouble in some subjects, and those unable to obtain schooling". The programme unfolds in six-week cycles, and over the entire year it will host more than 450 students. As classrooms, Caritas has rented a few rooms in the Syriac Catholic cathedral in the neighbourhood of Bab Sharki, in the ancient part of the city.

At a cost of 50,000 dollars every six months, the courses are the latest of Caritas's efforts in Damascus to confront the humanitarian crisis of the Iraqi refugees. Caritas works in the region through funding from the UNHCR, to which it regularly presents proposals and reports on the most urgent needs. Since 2004, a programme has been underway for the distribution of aid that each year provides food, clothing, and toiletries to more than 150,000 families. The other fundamental programme is in health and medicine, for which Caritas has secured contracts with private entities for the provision of free assistance for Iraqis at their offices. So far, one hospital and two pharmacies in Damascus are participating in the programme.

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