Kurdistan Save The Children Protects and Empowers Children

In an exclusive interview with Sara Rashid, the President of Kurdistan Save the Children, she gives a detailed insight into the activities and services provided by KSC, as well as the impact the organisation has made in children’s lives.

Can you introduce the organisation Kurdistan Save The Children and the work you do in the region?

This organisation was established in 1991, and we work in four major fields. The first one is child protection. Second one is health. The third is education, and then it’s youth development. Occasionally, when we need to, there’s a fifth programme, which is a disaster relief or emergency relief, like when flooding or earthquakes happen, something that we haven’t planned for. We try and be there for children in a multi-sectoral approach because we find that when we address one issue, it’s really important to address all the other factors that are contributing to that issue, too. In our Child Protection Programme, we work on difficult cases that children encounter like child abuse, child neglect, child labour, and children who are in contact with the law. We have these projects across Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, and sometimes our other projects are branching out. We’ve also now established an office in Baghdad this year. So hopefully in the future, we’ll have our activities based in the south of Iraq, too. We help communities who need our help. This can be camp communities, host communities, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmans, Yazidis, Muslims. Just anyone, we don’t discriminate between our services. So, all children are allowed to access any service we have. Particularly right now, we have a partner that’s UNHCR, and we do camp activities, case management, along with psychosocial support, and a lot of capacity building so that there are community structures to carry on the child protection work, even if we don’t continue to intervene in an exact form. We do a lot of training there as well, like across schools in the area or across institutions like the reformatory centres in prisons or the orphanages. We provide training for the staff there, the government staff, so that they know how to communicate with children and how to deal with them and their problems, essentially.

Another of our child protection projects is our sponsorship project. We have international or national sponsors. For example, I myself am a sponsor, and I give a monthly a donation to a girl who has either lost their father, lost their mother, or their parents have difficult financial circumstances. Maybe they’re disabled, maybe they can’t work. I sponsor them on the condition that they continue to stay in education organisation. As a donor, I am able to have communications with this child through the organisation and have updates on how the child is doing in school.

Our second programme is health. We focus on a lot of different areas in this programme, too. But essentially, our main criteria are for children to be able to access health services. A lot of the children who are referred to KSC either come directly to us themselves or they’re referred through in another institution. That might be the government institution, it might be a private hospital, it might be a public hospital. It could be just a community member who refers them our way. Usually, it’s because whatever treatment they need, they cannot access. So, either that’s because they don’t have the financial resources to access them, or it means that their case is so specific or rare that there aren’t the resources on the ground. What we try and do is we try and either provide the resources on the ground by inviting and sponsoring medical teams, international ones, to come and develop those facilities here in Kurdistan, or we do a referral and sponsoring the children to go access the services. That might be in a private hospital or abroad even. Our aim isn’t to continue to send children abroad because it’s not a sustainable approach. So, capacity building is what’s important here. Some of the cases include congenital heart disease. Children born with heart defects, children born with cleft lip and palate issues, children born with spinal difficulties, and all other issues that are even more rare than the ones that I’m telling you about. Through the longevity of our programmes, we’ve tried to build the institutions on the ground here. Now we’ve actually helped coordinate the building of a cardiac paediatric heart hospital Sulaymaniyah. It’s the first one in the region. What we’re doing there is we’re coordinating the effort between the government, the doctors, the governorate as well, so that all the resources are provided in this centre, so we don’t have to send children abroad anymore to access the service. We invite the medical teams to build up the capacity of the local staff so that they can do the surgeries on the ground here. Another centre we’ve helped establish is the Brian Sommerlad Centre for cleft, lip, and palate surgery. Now, thankfully, we have really specialised doctors on the ground because we’ve been helping coordinate their efforts with international teams over a long period of time. Now, they’re ready on the ground and they provide surgeries for these children, along with speech therapy and long-term assistance so they can communicate and talk effectively.

Another one of our projects that is in the health programme is ARA, which means hope. It’s basically our staff in the hospital wards for cancer. When children are receiving cancer treatment, our staff are on the ground to facilitate communications between the doctors, nurses, patients, and families, because sometimes it’s a very difficult disease to deal with. We find that having our staff on the ground there can alleviate some of the problems and also provide a fun and nice, relaxed environment that the children can be on the wards. Some of them have to stay a long time. It’s really important that they have a positive environment there because we’ve had so many research sent to us to say that when children are feeling good and they have hope, then they react to treatment much better and the prognosis is much better.

Photo courtesy: Kurdistan Save the Children

Our education programme, we have a few different projects here as well. One of them is we operate a school for gifted children. This school is free of charge. All of our services are free of charge. This school is for children who have particularly high intelligence. It’s built on the British curriculum, and it always has the smartest kids in the region who graduate from here, and usually, they’re in the top 10 of the entire country. That’s a project that the we’re particularly proud of. Another project that we have in the education programme is a Centre for Rehabilitating Children with Special Educational Needs. These children have often autism or down syndrome, and they are not able to integrate easily into public schools, even though that’s what the law recommends and that’s what the government policy is. But because there seems to be a little bit of a gap between these children accessing a regular school, we’ve built this centre that around 200 children go to daily to be taught on the Montessori school of how to look after themselves, how to feed themselves, how to dress themselves, how to deal with numbers, how to deal with letters, basic skills, how to walk, how to sit. It’s been a real bridge-building centre. The issue with this is that it only has the capacity for 200 children, and we have many, many more children who need this service. Often, we struggle with getting the resources to support more children on this. What we did now is we trained the school teachers on how they can improve their services to integrate children with autism. We do some mobile teamwork as well. We get the staff from the centre to go do outreach in the cities that we don’t provide the service directly so that we can try and do more outreach on this project.

Another project in the education programme is non-formal education. Non-formal education is we have specialist trainers who teach. We’re doing currently a pilot project with the government. We’ve allocated five public schools and we’re teaching them on non-formal education. That is basically how to teach children in a way that they can retain information and they can learn from information properly, including STEM education, too. It’s not just memorising the curriculum and then doing exams based on the curriculum. This is a pilot project of five projects. Hopefully, if it’s good, then we can do more there as well. We have also activity centres for kids. These kids are usually aged between 6 and 12 years old. We have one of these activities in the camp and another one outside of the camp, and then we do some summer courses as well. What these activities are for, it’s for psychosocial support. Children can access fun and engaging activities that otherwise aren’t available in the region, or they can use it to participate in catch-up classes, or if they’re not particularly good at English, then we can provide English courses. It’s quite flexible and on the demand of what the kids need.

 Photo courtesy: Kurdistan Save the Children

We do arts and crafts and music and sports, and depending on the different region, at different locations of the project. Then our fourth programme is the Youth Development Programme. We work with youths across the region. We have youth centres in Sulaymaniyah, in Khanaqin, in Kalar, Darbandikhan, in Koya, and in Shorosh. The areas that we don’t have youth centres established in, we do summer courses. We try and provide vocational training for youth so that they can access employment opportunities after these vocational courses. That can be mobile repairs or tailoring or baking for men and women, anything that is on the demand of the youth themselves. Aside from that, we do some entertainment activities. That can be something like arts and crafts or music or traditional drums, anything that the youth want to participate in. We utilise these youth centres to spread a lot of our awareness with messaging as well. One of the campaigns we’re doing right now, because there’s a lot of drug abuse on the rise in the region. We have launched a drug rehabilitation and prevention campaign with the government as well, so that we can try and make everyone aware of what the signs are of someone who’s becoming addicted and how they can access support and how to empower them to make better decisions in the future with regards to drugs.

Heathcare services at KSC. Photo courtesy: Kurdistan Save the Children

In regards of the health section, why is it necessary to sponsor international health specialists rather than hiring local ones from Iraq and Kurdistan?

The subspecialities are lacking in the Ministry of Higher Education. They are limited. We don’t have the resources. In the UK, when you want to subspecialise, you shadow a consultant doctor, you do a lot of training in that field. Often the specialists here, they go abroad to specialise in a specific field. That works in some cases. Now we have some of the gaps filled. We have a paediatric cardiac surgeon, but we don’t have, for example, paediatric anaesthetists on the ground because there just isn’t that capacity to provide that subspecialty in higher education. Also, there aren’t those expertise or teaching hospitals here that people can learn from directly. Through the medical teams, we bring the person on the ground to support the learning of the person who’s learning from them.

What are the main issues children of Iraq or Kurdistan are facing that you’re helping with? You’ve mentioned some of them. Is there anything else that the world should know of?

A major problem in post-conflict development as with anywhere in the world is that it takes time. It takes time for all the infrastructures to be at a quality level and efficient level, including education systems, healthcare systems, as well as protective services or frameworks for children and families. Children here face risks of being exploited for child labour, violent extremism, or early/ forced marriage. Youths here face risks of emigrating, substance abuse/ addictions, as well as mass unemployment which lead to feelings of hopelessness or worse, civil unrest. They now have resources, they have internet, they have TV, they know what’s happening everywhere else in the world. They don’t want to feel left out. That’s why we need to focus on bettering their future by providing specialised skills and services. We try and have new initiatives to keep youths and children engaged. That’s why something like STEM education or coding for kids, these things are important for us to keep updated. We are loaded with these issues because it’s not one area or two areas, it’s everything. It’s really hard to prioritise the gaps.

You mentioned resources. What resources does your organisation need in order to improve its service?

Monetary resources are really important. We can prioritise the needs, and that’s why it’s important to have the monetary resources through us. Whether that’s partnerships with other NGOs or whether that’s corporate funding or whether that’s an individual sponsoring a child, for us, all of that is really relevant. But aside from that, we need to keep learning from other institutions as well. We like to engage in MOUs with different hospitals, with different schools, with different NGOs that can teach us what we need to teach our children here on the ground or teach staff that interact with children here.

How have you seen the improvement of the children that have been with the organisation? Do you have any success stories?

We have hundreds of success stories, to be honest. We have so many children who we’ve sent abroad for heart surgery, and now they’re adults, they play sports, they’ve graduated from school, they come back to see us, and they’re healthy and they’re living. Without our surgery, they wouldn’t have been able to do that. Or we have children who before couldn’t eat, couldn’t talk, and now because of the cleft lip and palate surgery, they’re able to talk and eat as any other child. They have the confidence as well because of the aesthetic aspect, too. We have children from the sponsorship programme who initially had dropped out of school, but because of the donor who sponsored them to finish education, now they’re doctors. We have a lot of success stories in that field. We have children with autism who couldn’t sit in a class, and now they’re integrated in a normal school sitting with other students. We have children with down syndrome, we’ve done art exhibitions for them to show their skills, and now they’re more confident than any other child in the field. It’s really giving a lot of children this hope to keep achieving.

 Photo courtesy: Kurdistan Save the Children

In terms of mental health, has the therapy you provide improve the mental dilemmas they might have faced?

Yes, definitely. The biggest impact would be on the camp community, so the Syrian refugees or the IDPs that we used to work with, who had moved to the camps in the Kurdistan region. We did have psychosocial support for these children. We have them now still ongoing for the children from Syrian communities, but the IDPs, a lot of them have returned to their initial places of birth, so we haven’t needed to continue services for them. But with the Syrian refugees and the IDPs, you see a dramatic impact. I remember when they would first come and we do some art sessions with them. They’d all be drawing pictures of death, blood, guns and war and things that your children should not be drawing. Now it’s Bugs Bunny and love hearts and monkeys and all sorts. You see a difference in their attitude, you see a difference in their abilities and their skills. You also see a confidence with these children that we try and provide these services for, because it’s like they become disciplined as well. They know what they can achieve, so they have that confidence.

What services you provide for children with disabilities?

The main product we have here is a rehabilitation centre. Children with learning disabilities or down syndrome or any other disability are welcome in the centre, and that’s why we try and rehabilitate them. This can be through psychosocial activities, but also formal activities as well or medical activities to provide these services as a multi-sectoral approach to try and reintegrate this child. Because essentially, the belief isn’t that they have a disability, it’s just they have full abilities if the environment provides the needs for it. If there is a ramp, then a child is not disabled who is in a wheelchair. It’s that messaging and awareness that we try and raise in the public and also give the skills to these children to be their own advocate on that, too.

 Photo courtesy: Kurdistan Save the Children

Are there any other upcoming projects that you’d like to talk about with Kurdistan Save the Children? Anything you’re personally excited about?

One thing which is new in the region that we’ve just opened is a charity shop. We have our first one in Sulaymaniyah. It’s a little shop that we encourage people to come donate clothes, donate household items, any jewellery, anything that they don’t want, and we sell them on, and the income is utilised in projects. That’s something that’s exciting, but it’s something that’s very new. People are very new to it.

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