The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

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Controversial training for Iraqi refugees

Young Iraqis at the Mamoun Institute beauty centre in Damascus put the finishing touches to the hair of their model
Young Iraqis at the Mamoun Institute beauty centre in Damascus put the finishing touches to the hair of their model (Sarah Birke/IRIN)

At the Mamoun Institute Beauty Centre in Damascus a group of 13 men, aged 15 to 43, are putting the finishing styling touches to the hair of their models. Jamal, 18, an Iraqi refugee in Syria, is enthusiastic about the hairdressing course. “Learning about hair, cuts and colour is interesting,” he says. “And having a skill will help me find a job.”

The hairdressing course for men, funded by the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), is one of an increasing number of vocational courses for Iraqi refugees being run in Syria, despite the controversial status of such courses.

Syria has granted visas to 1.2 million Iraqis, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but this does not allow them to work, though many have jobs in the informal economy.

“The aim of the many vocational courses is to equip refugees with skills to work in Iraq or countries where they resettle,” said Carole Laleve, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which does not run courses itself but funds those run by other organisations.

“But Iraqi refugees are not legally allowed to work in Syria which makes the issue of vocational training rather sensitive,” Laleve said.

Despite this, a growing number of local and international organisations continue to develop vocational courses for Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria after sectarian violence broke out following the war in Iraq.

Humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps started work in February 2008 and French development organisation IECD got the go ahead in November 2008. Many of the courses are run through private centres and receive funding from the US government. Programmes run by the IOCC and Mercy Corps receive money from the US Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Taking the burden off the state

“Vocational courses play an important role for Iraqis and Syria as we are helping take the burden off the state,” said Samer Laham, director of development for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate which is running the IOCC’s courses. Similar schemes are run by the Danish Refugee Council and Catholic Relief Services as well as the IOCC and Mercy Corps.

The vocational courses taking place in Syria cover cosmetics and hairdressing, mechanics, electrics, mobile phone and computer repair, computing, accounting and English. Laham said the IOCC’s courses aim not just to equip Iraqis with skills but to keep them occupied and help them integrate with the Syrian population. IOCC courses have a target quota of 75 percent Iraqis and 25 percent deprived Syrians, and are run in Damascus, Aleppo and Hassakeh.

The UNHCR’s Carole Laleve said: “We stay in touch with the NGOs running these programmes so that we can keep refugees that are registered with us informed of the activities going on.”

François le Forestier, coordinator of the IECD’s activities in Syria, agrees the courses are important but is concerned that not all of them offer quality training.

“We are not an emergency organisation and we are used to running these sorts of programmes. Not all organisations here can say that,” he said. “It is easy to give someone a piece of paper saying he or she has completed a course, but we want to improve the educational and vocational training here - for Iraqis and Syrians.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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