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In the shadow of ISIS

International Winner: A classical Christian school does its work among the shattered families and displaced children in Iraqi Kurdistan

The Iraqi Kurdistan flag is raised during the Medes school dedication ceremony. Photo by Mindy Belz

In the shadow of ISIS
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DOHUK, Iraq—Crest the hill and the tents of Khanke IDP Camp stretch far into the distance, rectangular specks of white laid out in rows across the hillsides as far as the eye can see.

IDP stands for Internally Displaced Person. Close to 2.5 million persons in Iraq have become IDPs since the march of ISIS, or Islamic State, began in 2014. The displaced have fled their homes, cities, and towns. As fighting enters its second year between the militants and an array of Iraqi forces—including Kurdish peshmerga and Assyrian and other militias, with the United States and its allies providing air cover—the IDPs have less and less hope of returning to the life they once knew.

For a place epitomizing the limbo these Iraqis live in, Khanke was a buzz of activity the day I visited. Young children played together in streets of dust. The women hung laundry in a stiff breeze under the morning sun on lines strung outside their tents. Local officials in suits and white dress shirts strode down a hill to a fenced compound, where the sounds of children singing rose up from a newly poured cement courtyard. The suits were on hand for a ceremony to mark the opening of Shivani Medes School—the first refugee school to operate in fully erected classrooms for Yazidis, a population targeted by ISIS for annihilation.

Shivani means Shepherd, and the Medes Shepherd School grew from a trio of schools operated in Iraqi Kurdistan for more than a decade under the leadership of Iraqi pastor Yousif Matty, with support from Nashville-based Servant Group International. Shivani opened in March with 350 students. By the end of the school year more than 1,000 children of IDP families attended.

“The soldiers fight with guns, but you are fighting with pens and with your mind,” Matty told those gathered for the dedication. In a world of sectarian and religiously driven violence his ministry crosses those lines: There he stood, a Christian Arab addressing Yazidis, Kurds, Muslim officials, and a few Americans among the students, teachers, dignitaries, and visitors on hand for the event last spring.

After Matty spoke at the dedication ceremony, high-school students from one of the other Medes schools sang traditional Kurdish folk songs to the accompaniment of an oud, a traditional Iraqi lute (see video clip below). One group moved to the center of the courtyard, hoisted the flag of Iraqi Kurdistan up a pole, and formed rows to stand and salute. A student led in prayer, and more singing followed.

Hundreds of young Yazidi schoolchildren rimmed the courtyard. They stood outside their classrooms, 15 prefab units ringing the central courtyard, already equipped with desks and chairs. One mother in the camp said her children had been up the night before, too excited about the day’s events to sleep. The opening ceremony held a particular thrill for students who had lost everything: At the end of the event each student received a new backpack.

Of the 2 million plus IDPs across Iraq, about 654,000 are children ages 6 to 17. Many reside in camps like Khanke, which use generators for electricity and hastily dug, often inadequate wells for water supply. Trucks bringing food and the necessities rumble constantly over dirt or gravel roads.

Education under such strained conditions takes a lower priority. Nearly a half million children, or 70 percent of the school-age IDP population in Iraq, remain out of school, according to the UN. Islamic State militants “are the enemy of education,” said Nisret Jemal, the assistant manager of the Khanke camp. “It’s very important to plant a school while ISIS is attacking us.”

Opening and filling a private school is an accomplishment. UNICEF has built a school on the other side of the camp but it sits empty, its students still meeting in tents. The UN agency has had a harder time recruiting teachers, and many parents prefer the bright new classrooms, Yazidi teachers, and Christians administrators of the Shivani school.

For Yazidis in particular, the needs are enormous. Since last August, ISIS has dislocated or killed nearly all the 500,000-700,000 Iraq Yazidis, a cloistered group of religious adherents who practice some combination of Zoroastrian, Muslim, and Christian rituals dating to the 12th century. Their numbers in Iraq represent nearly all the Yazidis living anywhere in the world.

Thanks to ISIS, the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, once 300,000 strong—a city of Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims—is empty, as are other villages. In August 2014, ISIS chased tens of thousands up Mount Sinjar, where hundreds perished of hunger and thirst. Their plight prompted President Barack Obama to order aerial drops of food and water on Mount Sinjar, then to order airstrikes against ISIS. By then Islamic State fighters already had killed thousands of Yazidis. They took captive thousands more mostly women and girls. Many of the schoolchildren at Khanke watched as ISIS brutalized their parents or siblings.

Khanke IDP camp currently houses about 20,000 Yazidis, and you will have to search hard to find one intact family. In one tent, a mother mourns a daughter ISIS captured. In another, the father and all the sons are absent: ISIS gunned them down as they fled Sinjar. Many survivors, students included, saw beheadings and executions. Dozens of the 350 Yazidi children attending Shivani are orphans. Eighteen students have no relatives of any kind for school officials to locate. Zero. None.

Other fractured families in the camp have taken in most of those orphans. One Kurdish security guard at the camp cares for an orphaned boy named Achil, perhaps 12: He knows nothing of his family’s whereabouts. He didn’t speak for weeks when he first started school, but now participates in class. “Everyone is insecure,” Matty explained: “Nervous politicians, nervous parents, nervous teachers, and nervous students.”

The crisis forces new cooperation across sectarian and religious lines. “No person, no country, no humanitarian organization alone can supply this level of need,” Matty noted. Churches spared in the ISIS onslaught are stepping in to aid the Yazidis. So are groups like Matty’s and overseas Christian aid groups, helping them alongside the 150,000 or more ISIS-displaced Christians.

A year ago Matty had no plans to serve Yazidi students and their families. The one-time Kirkuk Evangelical Church pastor opened in 2001 his first school in northern Iraq, the Classical School of the Medes. Following the model of classical Christian schools in the United States, the school provides a broad, college-prep, K-12 education in English. It became popular among Kurdish Muslim parents wanting their children to be proficient in English, able to take international examinations, and compete for college entrance at the best schools in the region, or in Europe or the United States.

The Kurds, threatened with genocide themselves in the 1980s and 1990s under Saddam Hussein, prize educational opportunities for their children and don’t trust the central government in Baghdad to provide for them. The Kurdish regional government’s tolerance toward non-Muslims has become more apparent since ISIS split the country in two and Kurdistan became the only safe haven for Christians. The Kurdish regional government administers and provides security for the Khanke camp.

The Shivani school is not in the same classical Christian school pattern: Classes use existing Iraqi curriculum and some are in Arabic, explained Erik Aulie, an American who serves as field manager for the Shivani school: “This is really a ministry to children, providing the schools, and it’s a ministry to the education department and to the Yazidi community.” This spring Yazidi children attended three days a week and displaced students from Mosul attended the other three days—more than 1,000 children in all.

Aulie said a “good spirit” prevailed among what appeared competing interests using the same facility. School is scheduled to begin again in October, after the hottest months. (The classrooms have no air conditioning.) “We would love to be able to provide English instruction and other things we do at the other schools, but that is not our job description right now,” Aulie added. “This is a means to serving the community where it’s hurting, and establishing a track record that may lead to other things later on.”

Matty has long worked with support from American churches and Christian nonprofits. Servant Group International (SGI) provides the majority of that support—curriculum, training, and American teachers who supplement mostly Iraqi faculties—to the three existing schools plus the new Khanke school. Matty provides an Iraqi face of leadership, integrates the schools with the local economy, and makes work with local governments a priority.

Since the schools opened, SGI has provided more than 80 Christian teachers in the three main schools. The new school at Khanke “is not really a change in direction,” said SGI executive director David Dillard, since the role of his group “is to help believers in Iraq serve their nation,” particularly by establishing and strengthening school programs. Of SGI’s $1.04 million budget, about 75 percent goes toward supporting the schools in Iraq.

Tensions flared in 2012 for the schools when a great-nephew of then Iraqi President Jalal Talabani shot and killed at the Sulaymaniyah campus teacher Jeremiah Small, 33. The killer, one of Small’s students, then killed himself (see “A rush of life,” March 24, 2012). The campus closed for several weeks and American teachers left, but it then reopened and some American teachers came back, including Aulie, who helps to run the new Shivani school.

The schools now employ about 150 locals, so parents can earn a living and not require a government stipend. (Since ISIS invaded Iraq last year, officials have delayed salaries and subsistence payments for government employees.) Matty tells Kurdish officials, “As Christians we want to cooperate with Muslims. We want to live with you, not at the edge of life, we want to be at the heart of Kurdistan. We don’t want to be lazy, we want to work for the good of the community.” Officials reciprocate, Matty says: They “have more understanding for private activities, like ours. The Ministry of Education advisers do not interfere as before.”

Listen to Mindy Belz’s report on the Shivani Medes School on The World and Everything in It.

Read profiles of other finalists and runners-up for the Hope Award for Effective Compassion.

Mindy Belz

Mindy is a former senior editor for WORLD Magazine and wrote the publication’s first cover story in 1986. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.



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