Children relax during a break at the kindergarten run by the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Siena in Ain Kawa, Erbil. (photo: Don Duncan)
A young student runs to greet his father after class. (photo: Don Duncan)
At 8:30 a.m., a new facility for the children of displaced Iraqi families is abuzz with the sound of young voices and teachers.
From one classroom comes a singsong drone wishing the children a good morning in Arabic. “Sabah al kheir” comes the greeting, lilted at the end to suggest a question. “Sabah al noor,” the children reply, wishing their teachers a good morning in return.
In all five classrooms of the kindergarten, the day begins with the “first circle,” where teachers welcome the children, prayers are said and songs are sung. Prayers often include requests God return them to their former houses and villages, or that clothes and food be sent to those displaced Christians still living in precarious shelter.
From another classroom, melodies of Arabic nursery rhymes interspersed with ones in English can be heard. A slow, accented rendition of “One Potato, Two Potato” floats through the air at one point.
In the middle of this cacophony, Sister Ban Saeed is busy at a desk in the administrative office — a room with a curtain dividing it in two. The other half serves as the staff kitchen.
A Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena who trained as a Montessori teacher in Adrian, Michigan, and followed that with a master’s degree in early childhood education, Sister Ban is the engine behind the new kindergarten that this community of Iraqi Christians has so sorely needed since ISIS expelled them from their homes in August 2014.
“The kindergarten is a big help to families here,” she says of the school that opened on 17 March. “We are getting children out of their homes for a few hours a day. Since the displacement, most homes in fact contain two or three families, so it has been a very difficult situation. This kindergarten helps bring happiness to the children and to the parents as well.”
As with many other services, kindergarten was something most Christians had access to in their hometowns and villages across the Nineveh Plain. But since their abrupt expulsion, that entire infrastructure has disappeared. In the initial months of the crisis, the need for essentials such as shelter and health care was the central focus; now, secondary services such as education and child care are slowly beginning to return to the picture, doing much to ease the suffering and anxiety of the displaced families.
“The school has a calming effect on the children,” says Sister Ban. “Even the parents are saying their children feel safe and they feel happy and they are learning lots of things.”
In a classroom upstairs, the children learn about professions and jobs. In each room, two volunteer teachers lead class; in this case, the two alternately hold up flashcards and ask the children to name the job depicted on each card.
There are 140 children in total in the school, all between the ages of 4 and 6, overseen by a staff of 12, including Sister Ban, in a repurposed house. CNEWA, the Canadian charity SALT, and other funders help cover the cost of rent and supplies. Presently, the school is looking to expand to accommodate a waiting list of some 50 children.
Subjects taught include Arabic, English, geography, mathematics and art. But one key subject, especially now, is Peace Education — another subject Sister Ban studied in the United States.
“We need to focus now on peace and how to create and sustain it through education,” says Sister Ban. “It’s really important because we are seeing that the children now have conflicts among themselves. Some use foul language and much of this behavior is due to the trauma of displacement. We are teaching them how to use grace and courtesy and how to be nice to one another.”
The morning flies by. Class runs from 8 to noon, by which time the grounds are flooded with parents coming to pick up their young. Children play on the swings as their parents exchange a word with the sisters or teachers. Once the parents are ready to go, the children bound out the gates, their bags bouncing on their backs.
As with other aspects of the displaced Christians’ lot in this new setting, things have improved since the early, desperate days of displacement. Still, the constant message is that while things are slightly better than before, the needs are still great.
“I really need money so as to be able to pay the teachers, who are working on a completely voluntary basis,” says Sister Ban. “These are also wives and mothers and they have to eventually start bringing home a salary. We can’t continue living on a voluntary basis.”