During my most recent trip to Iraq, I visited the Haven Center, an educational facility run by our partners at the EDGE Institute. TentED and EDGE will soon launch a two-month education program for 50 displaced Yazidi children.
Shariya, where the Haven center is located, is a windswept town bordered by gentle hills to the east and grain fields to the west. To the north is Dohuk, capital of its namesake province; to the south, Mosul, de facto capital of ISIS in Iraq. In a region where it’s not hard to find a house older than the United States, I was surprised to learn that Shariya is a relatively new place. Seeking to exert greater control over the Yazidi people of this region, Saddam Hussein forcibly relocated many of them from their nearby mountain villages to Shariya, where his troops could keep a close watch over them. Sadly, that is not a new development. For centuries, the Yazidi, a minority religious community that is indigenous to Iraq, have suffered from systematic discrimination and routine violence because of their syncretic faith.
Forced displacement is what created the town of Shariya and forced displacement is what’s transforming it—a dark irony that is all too common in the modern Middle East. The once-tranquil municipality is now a sprawling encampment of tens of thousands of displaced Yazidi. Most live in the government-run camp on the edge of town. Those who could not secure space there have overflowed into “informal” settlements in the open spaces. A few with the means to do so simply rent houses. With that, the square-shaped town has come to represent the full range of displacement—from camps to rented homes and all the mundane misery in between. In short, with its huddled Yazidi masses, Shariya is a chaotic territory that defies the neat bureaucratic classifications favored by governments and NGOs.
The Haven Center occupies a nondescript building in the center of Shariya. Inside, one of the coordinators, Sami, greeted me in excellent English, a swift indication that he would be my interpreter for the visit. His features—short, faded hair, prominent eyebrows accentuating piercing eyes, and a firm chin—combined to radiate a seriousness of purpose.
Sami and I got to talking. I had many questions that I rattled off.
Is the education secular? Yes. (That is of supreme importance for me.)
Where are the volunteer teachers from? The displaced community.
Maximum capacity of the facility? About 50 per day.
Boys and girls have equal access? Yes.
We went back and forth that way for some time before walking through the facility. Evaluating a program is more than asking a list of questions, collecting a set of metrics and checking a bunch of boxes. A proper evaluation requires full use of the senses.
The place was spotless. A generous amount of sunlight poured through the windows. Academic posters and charts and student-made artwork competed for space on the busy walls. Carefree girls and boys ran about, obviously comfortable. In one room a bunch of kids were wrestling around on thick wool blankets and causing innocent mischief. In the other, we interrupted a dance party.
Later, Sami, another staff member, and I strolled through one of the informal settlements, a hodgepodge of tents and cement shacks. It was high noon and hot, and few people were out. I chatted briefly with a man who seemed to enjoy practicing his halting English on me. I enjoyed it, too. I made a few general inquiries, although truth be told, they were half-hearted. Everyone in a refugee camp has a unique story, but they often share the same ugly plot. Answers to my questions are in many cases tragically predictable. I find displays of sympathy by visitors such as myself to be an unhelpful form of emotional pandering. Mostly, I listen with a vacant expression and nod at the right moments. Then again, maybe a simple show of sympathy is just what some people need.
I walked into a small snack shop where I ended up buying a beer. Random! It was time to go. Time to leave the uncomfortable reality of the camp behind—a memory to be shared and recounted, but not relived. Westerners like me have the luxury of detaching ourselves from this sort of misery whenever we like. We briefly experience it on our own terms, then go back to our regular lives. But hopefully at the intersection of privilege and deprivation, one can find a measure of compassion.
The gentleman and I shook hands before parting ways. I then thanked Sami and his buddy, got in my car and returned to my cozy hotel.