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Home Fires

Schools in Azerbaijan’s refugee communities are often cramped, under-equipped, and poorly heated, but they carry the torch for a homeland their students have never seen. A TOL multimedia presentation. Part three of a series.

русская версия

 

by Abbas Atilay 17 March 2010

This is the third in a series of articles on the challenges to education in post-conflict societies.

 

Estimates of the number of refugees in Azerbaijan range from around 600,000 to more than 1 million, between 7 and 12 percent of the country’s population. Most are from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions, now controlled by Armenians and subject to a tenuous cease-fire. There are some 200,000 displaced children in the country’s schools, according to the Education Ministry – a generation born, raised, and schooled in what amount to refugee townships.

 

The government claims significant progress in recent years in housing and providing services to refugee communities, under plans mapped out in 2001 and 2002 and funded from state oil revenues and foreign donations. The last of the 12 emergency camps that housed displaced people closed in December 2007. But the government acknowledges that tens of thousands still live in makeshift settlements and dormitories. Poverty and unemployment are significantly higher among refugees than among the larger population. International refugee organizations routinely report that sanitation, health care, and education in these areas are poor.

 

The government has built 160 schools and kindergartens in refugee areas since 1993, when the biggest wave arrived, according to the state committee dealing with refugees and displaced persons. Bayram Huseynzade, a spokesman for the Education Ministry, said more school construction is planned.

 

 

“We are aware of the situation in refugee schools, but this problem is not only with refugee schools,” Huseynzade said. “About 500 schools [nationwide] are located in buildings that are in a state of emergency.”

 

For the government, the long-term solution is resettlement of Karabakh refugees in their former homes, a key Azerbaijani demand in international talks over the territory. “The problems of the forced migrants will be resolved when they return to their homes,” Sanan Huseynov, spokesman for the state committee on refugees, told the Institute for War & Peace Reporting last year.

 

The message is reinforced at refugee schools around Baku visited by TOL, at which the Karabakh conflict and its aftermath are ever-present. In contrast with other schools, there are no posters or charts full of math and science information. Walls are lined with photos of war, martyrs, and refugees, and portraits of President Ilham Aliyev and his father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev. Teachers said they decorate the schools this way to keep up memories of their homes and their hopes of going back.

 

Also unlike their non-refugee peers, who learn relatively little about the conflict, these pupils memorize the date of every significant event related to the war and occupation, and even act them out in skits. None has set foot in Nagorno-Karabakh, but when asked, they invariably reply that someday they expect to return.

Abbas Atilay is a correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Azerbaijan Service in Baku. 

 

 
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