Darwin Jimal’s entire family was born and raised in northern Iraq so, when he had a chance to teach English and math to children in a refugee camp in Mosul over the December 2016 holidays, he jumped at it.
“I’ve had a transformative experience here at UCC and in Canada,” says Jimal. “I wanted to go back to my roots and give back.”
Jimal has a cousin who’s a soldier with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and knew a lawyer that worked in the camps with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees-partnered QANDIL organization. That was the connection that enabled him to head to Iraq for 18 days and spend time in a camp with more than 36,000 refugees.
“There are no schools now and, even worse, the schooling was previously run by ISIS,” says Jimal. “You can only imagine what would be taught there.
“If I could leave the camp having taught some kids how to say ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye,’ and add and subtract, then they’d be just a bit more prepared when they finally leave the camp.”
Jimal also played soccer with the kids and joined two community service agents as they walked around from tent to tent to document information.
“They’d ask questions to the families, asking about their life before the camp, whether they felt safe there, and what issues they currently had at the camp,” says Jimal. “Some of the stories I’d heard were so horrific and unfathomable.
“For any worker at the camp, it was strictly against the rules to provide help to an individual family’s needs. But because I knew my time there was short, I could get away with it. I saw that one family had a little girl with broken glasses tied together with a shoelace, so I asked for the prescription from the mother and snuck the new glasses in the next day.
“I would buy items like scarves from young boys who were selling them in the camp’s market, but pay them much more than it cost. I got approval from a lawyer to allow a mother to leave the camp and visit her child with cancer in the nearby hospital. None of these things were expensive, or hard to do, and anybody with an opportunity like mine would do anything in their power to help as many people as they could.”
Despite the desolation and adversity faced by those at the camp, Jimal says “the kids I met always had a smile on their face and hope in their eyes. It taught me to be more thankful. If children there can be happy and hopeful with what they have, then surely I can.”
Jimal concedes that he was “a bit scared” at the beginning of his trip, as he had to pass through multiple checkpoints guarded by Iraqi soldiers on the way to Mosul.
“Along with this, you could hear the distant sound of gunshots, and the simple knowledge that there were members of ISIS just 10 kilometres away was chilling. While there wasn’t a close call, what scared me the most was the knowledge that at the camp there was a high chance that some of the men were members of ISIS trying to flee the area as well.”
In spring 2017, Jimal gained entrance to the direct-entry medical program at Queen’s University. Dubbed the Queen’s Accelerated Route to Medical School (QuARMS), it’s the only admission track of its type in Canada for high school graduates, granting students an MD after six years of study. Only 10 students are admitted annually.
His eventual goal is to work with Doctors Without Borders so that he can help people like those in the camp.