Since the start of the civil war, more than 200,000 Syrian Kurds have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Over half of them are children who face challenges finding ways to get back in school.
At 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night, 10-year-old Hamdiya arrives for work at a busy intersection in the center of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
"We come here every night," she said. "We sell chewing gum and the Koran. It depends on the day but we make 7,000 or 8,000 dinars (4-5 euros; $6-7). Sometimes 20,000. In the daytime, we sleep."
Hamdiya’s brother peddles tissues in the roundabout at the junction of 100 Meter Road and Mosul Road
Hamdiya's family came to Kurdistan from the Syrian city of Qamishlo six months ago, and at the beginning of this academic year, the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, announced that it would provide free schooling to all Syrian children living in the region.
But for children like Hamdiya, it's not that simple.
"I want to go to school here, but I don't have a bag, I don't have a pen," she explained. "When I was in Syria, I went to school. But here I have to work. My father is sick; my uncle also can not work, so we have to come here. I give the money to my aunt for expenses."
Crowded out of camp
Although schooling, food, shelter and other basic services are available in the region's refugee camps, Hamdiya's mother, who accompanies her daughter every night, said the family spent four months in a camp and left because of overcrowding and poor conditions.
Hamdiya (center) with her mother and sister before beginning the night shift selling tissues to motorists
"We were 15 people in one tent," said the girl's mother. "When the wind came, our tent collapsed. It was also very hot, there was no electricity, no water; our children got sick. So we left the camp.”
According to the United Nations, 77 percent of school-aged Syrian children in Kurdistan living outside the camps are still not enrolled in school. While economic reasons often play a role in keeping them out of school, there are other factors at work, explains Sasha Ali, a community services officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR.
"We have to find ways to ensure these children don't have their education disrupted," Sasha Ali said. "One of the biggest challenges is space in already existing schools. The other challenge is that most Syrian children were educated in Arabic language in their own country. There are, however, very few Arabic medium schools in Kurdistan, which means we have to expand these Kurdish language schools with extra Arabic instruction, evening shifts and catch-up classes."
Ali was speaking at a "Back to School" event in Erbil put on by the UN and KRG in a bid to encourage Syrian refugee children living outside the camps to continue their education.
But challenges remain, even for those children who have gone back to school.
The Arabic-language Zahawi School in the center of Erbil is accustomed to accepting refugees, as it has many students whose families came to Kurdistan to escape the violence in Mosul, Baghdad, Kirkuk and other parts of Iraq.
Thirteen-year-old Nosheen is from the Syrian city of Hasaka. She started at Zahawi in October and was happy to resume her studies, she said.
"In the beginning they said they wouldn't accept us, and I didn't go to school for eight months," Nosheen said. "I want to go to university and be a doctor. But I want to go back to Syria. Everyone is very kind, but I miss my family and friends.”
Trouble with transport
Nosheen lives nearby and can walk to school, but other students have to come by taxi from the other side of the city and can't always afford the journey. School manager Peyman Halal Aziz says she pays for some of the students' transport herself.
"I help them from my honor; some of them, not all of them, because I don't have enough money," the school manager said. "I can help five, not all of them. But I'm sad for them.”
The bigger problem, she says, is overcrowding, and the school is waiting for temporary containers they can use as overflow classrooms.
"They need a quick solution to build more classrooms, and we need other teachers," Aziz said. "They promise they will give us teachers and containers but still no answer. It's very slow.”
Since the start of the school year in October, Zahawi has received more than 500 Syrian students, and new students arrive every day.
"Daily I receive student from Syria. Every day," Aziz said. "I must take them because it's the decision of the government that we must receive them. I'm very tired, but it's my job, and I receive them with pleasure."
The Kurdish government and UNHCR are working to open additional schools across the region and aim to have all Syrian students back in the classroom by the end of 2014.