Replacing the Label “Refugee” with “Graduate”

There are some milestones you just have to celebrate. 

Earlier this year we introduced you to a group of students in northern Iraq who were working hard to finish their last year of high school. They almost didn’t get that chance—prior funding had dried up, and there was no way for the school principal to pay for 20 teachers and a bus to bring students to school six days a week. We stepped into that gap and covered costs for the school year, and now, with final exams finally completed, we had the chance to celebrate with the students.

Displaced by War

We all know that education is important. But it is doubly important for children displaced by war. These graduates, some dressed up for graduation in their traditional clothes and some in the teenage uniform of jeans and t-shirts, are all Syrians displaced by a civil war the world has largely forgotten. Displaced as children, they started life over in a different country, with a different culture. They left behind houses in Syrian towns and villages and landed in refugee camps furnished with tents.

Families have undertaken the exhausting process of rebuilding their lives from scratch, but for most, life is still far from easy. Most have learned enough of the local language or dialect to get by. Nearly all have improved their housing situation, and have exchanged canvas tent walls with concrete blocks. But jobs are still difficult to come by, and usually found through personal networks and word of mouth. Trust is key. No matter how long refugee families live in an area, they will never have the same kind of networks or level of trust as local job seekers. 

When life is turbulent, school provides a place of normalcy for children, many of whom have experienced violence, hunger, isolation, and other incredibly stressful situations. School also helps prevent exploitation and reduces girls’ vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, and child marriage.

For many of the students who walked the stage and received diplomas last week, having a high school diploma means the difference between a life of manual labor and access to further education and better jobs. A high school diploma is no small achievement.

What’s Ahead?

A handful of these students will go off to university. Many will enter the workforce and get jobs to help support their families. Some of the young women will help at home until they get married and care for a home of their own.

Regardless of the path ahead, each student has already accomplished something amazing. They shook off the label “refugee” and took on the label “student”. They studied hard and made the most of every opportunity offered to them. They earned their diplomas and have created a stepping stone for the future—all with the support of our community behind them.

Students in Kurdish class, learning to perfect their grammar, always worked hard for top grades. Photo by Erin Wilson/PLC.