Anas and his ride back to school

Anas and his ride back to school

Oct 1, 2019

Anas Abdullah Abbas is seven years old and he loves going to school, especially after experiencing what it was like to not be able attend class, learn and share with his teachers and friends and play.

“I like going to school to attend activities and classes. They teach me the alphabet and my favorite subject is Arabic.” Anas proudly explains the words he has learnt: bab (door), dar (house), baba (father), dada (child)… He says his grades were 10/10 in his last Arabic exam. “Mr. Mahmood teaches us Math and Arabic and he is my favorite teacher because he is kind and shows me so many things.”

He lives in Qabr al Abid village, in Ninewa Governorate in Northern Iraq. In the future, he would like to keep living there and become an Arabic teacher, “but I would like to teach children who are in fifth or sixth grade, because at younger ages they wouldn’t understand,” he explains.

His aunt helps him with his homework and his grandmother claims he does not get food unless he has finished his school duties first. “When I come back from school, I wash my hands and eat my lunch. My favorite food? My grandma’s threed or ثريد [bread, okra soup and rice].”

“I have friends at school. My closest one is Anas. Yes, we have the same names! But he is Anas Hussain and I am Anas Abdullah. Omer and Haitham are my friends too.” In the afternoon, he and his cousins like playing Jamid, “a game where if I touch someone he will freeze and cannot move; when another person touches him, he unfreezes and he is free again and can move. No one is better than me in this game, I always win.”

An atrocious recent past

Over the past four decades, Iraq has experienced severe economic and social decline, further aggravated by periods of political instability and armed conflict, including the war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Ajiba is Anas’ grandmother. Two of her eight children were killed by terrorist groups. One was killed in 2012, while Anas’s father was killed in 2014 when ISIL occupied their village. “The murder of [Anas’ father] was a big shock for all of us,” Ajiba admits. “It was very difficult to accept it. Anas was a little child when his father died, but still he recognized him. They were very close and whenever his father went to work Anas would start crying.”

Ajiba feels she is still mourning. “During the war, Anas did not go to school because he was underage. But Anas’ cousins were in 2nd grade and attended school for the first few months, because we were afraid of not sending them. After some time, we took them out; they were teaching them about weapons and how to be a sniper.”

At that time, schools remained open in the village, but only children from families that supported ISIL were attending. The boys were out of school for three years and when they went back after the liberation of the village, their grades were not very good and they had trouble following the classes.

Learning and teaching against all odds

Ajiba is a clear believer in the importance of education and she sees how her grandchildren – including Anas – are benefiting from going back to normal. “School prevents children doing bad things in the streets,” she says. “Education is very important for all. Without it, it is difficult to get a decent job. Also, if people don’t know how to read and write, they are lost, like me. I can’t read and this had a big negative impact on me.”

Education as a self-defence weapon

Talal confronted terrorist ideology that was spreading in Iraq himself even before ISIL arrived, in his position of teacher and headmaster at Anas’ school. “I was trying to talk to the children to keep them away from that dangerous ideology.” Just a few days before ISIL took over the village, Talal explains. “They raided my house at night while me and my family were inside,” as they knew he was a freedom and peace defender.

Once the village was liberated, the “most difficult part” began for Talal. He went back to school with the challenge of promoting cohesion between children and families that had supported ISIL and those who didn’t and fled. “All of them are children, and I found it is my responsibility to work to change their extremist ideas.”

This sentiment is more than words: “I received too many complaints from the village and my relatives to not allow the children of ISIL enter the school, but I didn’t listen to them, because they are just children and are innocent. After hard work, I have seen some results. For example, in the classroom they were divided: students whose fathers were ISIL members were sitting in one part of the room, and the rest in another part. In particular, there was the son of a policeman and the son of an ISIL supporter, and they did not agree to sit or play together. I was continuously advising them [to change their attitude], until one day I saw both of them sitting at one desk, laughing and discussing. This was a big achievement.”

The project targets:

Talal also thinks that the activities organized by People in Need with support of UNESCO and funded by the European Union helped teachers become more motivated and have more tools to deal with children in such a specific context. At the same time, extracurricular activities and catch-up classes have helped keep students motivated to keep attending formal school, like Anas. This is part of a countrywide three year project, coordinated by UNESCO, that works with supporting young people displaced by war to re-enter schools and receive extra support in catching up on their missed years of education.

As a reaction to having lived in conflict, Talal tells us, when Anas came back to school "he was introverted, he didn’t play nor talk to others.” “When he started to come to the activities we organised with PIN, we tried to include him and make him participate more and more.”

People in Need’s education programmes support children to start school again, to make-up missed classes, and to help cope with the trauma that they have experienced. A lack of education infrastructure is also addressed with the rehabilitation, expansion or construction of schools.

Ana’s education has been supported by the project “Access to inclusive quality primary and secondary education for IDPs and refugees in crisis-affected areas in Iraq.” This project is funded by the European Union, with technical support from UNESCO, and is implemented by People in Need. Learn more about our work on education in Iraq.

Author: Hozan Muhsin Hassan