Autumn 1994 (2.3)
A New Imperative in Azerbaijan
by Dr. Val D. Rust
University of California, Los Angeles
Shafag village school in Goranboy region. One of 500 schools destroyed by Armenians. Photo: Oleg Litvin.
It's becoming more and more apparent that international relief organizations must get involved to facilitate education in Azerbaijan if refugee children are to have access to schooling during their formative years. More than 153,000 of Azerbaijan's 1.1 million refugees are school-aged children.
Not a single child in the entire country has escaped the effects of war. Throughout the countryside, schools have been severely disrupted. Many have been closed for months. Most children living alongside roads, in forests, railroad box cars, and "tent cities" have been totally deprived of any formal educational experience.
Education Severely Disrupted
One refugee mother in the Barda region complained that her child, now almost ten, had only attended school for 20 days in his entire life. This is typical. Even in Baku which is a few hundred kilometers from the war front, the opening of the 1993 university school term was postponed four times until the government could find housing for the refugees who had moved into dormitories during the previous summer.
By February 1994, more than 500 Azerbaijani schools had been destroyed by Armenian forces. An additional 4,000 schools had become living quarters for the refugees which, in turn, had deprived tens of thousands of local children from normal schooling facilities. Now that classroom space isn't available, hallways, closets, canteens, sports halls, empty sheds and courtyards are being used. Sometimes there's no choice but to organize three, four and even five shifts a day. Lesson periods, originally 45 minutes in length, have been reduced to 40 and sometimes even 35 minutes.
A few schools are emerging. A local Station Master in the Saatli region converted the Railway Station into a school and all 29 teachers including the principal, now themselves refugees from one of the Aghdam schools, set up a school. Their physical situation is comparatively superior to most but not even minimal materials are available.
In another instance, 1400 refugees living in a health sanitarium east of Baku have managed to set up two schools, one occupying 17 rooms and the other 15. Instruction is offered to 380 children.
It's much more difficult when there are no facilities at all, as in many of the "tent cities." The Turkish government, under the auspices of Turkish Red Crescent, has set up two large tent schools in the Barda region where they have a camp.
In Imishli, the Iranian government, working through the Iranian Red Crescent, has generously provided for tens of thousands of refugees but, reportedly, there is only one school that serves a handful of pupils. Even in Sabirabad where the German government has established 200 relatively elaborate pre-fabricated structures to house 400 families, there are no school facilities yet.
In the Aghjabadi district where refugees from Lachin have fled, more than 23,000 have located in 103 small settlements made entirely of mud dug-outs which the refugees themselves have constructed. Among this group there are nearly 3,000 teachers. Many are trying to organize some classes but there are no adequate facilities to combat the bitter cold winters, no electricity, no bathrooms, no canteens, no furniture, no textbooks, no teaching materials, no notebooks, pens or pencils.
New Projects Begin
The UNHCR (United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees) has been at the forefront in providing the first major educational relief effort in Azerbaijan. In 1994 it budgeted approximately $2 million to provide temporary classrooms and large tent structures with solid floors are now being erected which will be equipped with desks, benches, tables, blackboards, and supplies for both teachers and children. Relief International of Santa Monica, California, will be working with UNHCR to set up approximately 800 of these classrooms by the end of the 94-95 school year. Twenty thousand school children will benefit.
Then there's the problem of textbooks. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan's Ministry of Education has not been able to publish new texts; consequently, the old textbooks reflecting the ideology and content of the Soviet period are still being used. More than 55 textbook committees have been commissioned to write new textbooks, but by the summer of 1994, only 38 had been finished; 18 texts are now ready for publication. But now, budgets for education have been absorbed by the war. UNHCR has promised to print some of these books.
The educational situation in Azerbaijan remains critical. Many more projects are needed to normalize the schooling situation and ensure that the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia does not inflict irreversible damage on a whole generation of school children.
Val Rust is Associate Professor in UCLA's School of Education.
From Azerbaijan International (2.3) Autumn 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.