I encouraged parents not to send children to school during ISIL, says teacher from Iraq

I encouraged parents not to send children to school during ISIL, says teacher from Iraq

17. 1. 2019

Sufian lives in the village of Johaina in northern Iraq. The 11-year-old attends sixth grade of the local primary school for boys. Sufian also joins catch-up classes and recreational activities organised by People in Need, with support of UNESCO which is administrating the EU funded project.

“I have many friends but I like Arshad the most,” Sufian says. After school he usually plays with his friends or studies. He is also good at swimming and spends many afternoons at the Dijla river. “I go swimming every day in summer with my father. We sometimes have competitions, but my father wins all the time,” he says.

Sufian’s days were not always so content. “During the conflict I did not attend school. I stayed home for three years,” he explains. “At that time my parents and my uncle taught me.” Since the area of his village was retaken from ISIL everything has changed. The biggest change is that Sufian’s school has reopened its doors. Sufian likes English lessons even though he still struggles with the language. “The most difficult for me is math, even though we have very a good teacher,“ he says.

Sufian doesn’t hesitate when asked about his future career plans: “I would like to become policeman. I will try to work hard, to help people, and to change our community for the better.”

I am working from morning to night so that my children will complete their education

Sufian is the oldest son of his father, Muhammed. His younger brothers are nine and six years old. When ISIL took Johaina village everything changed for the family. “I was a policeman before the conflict, but when they came I lost my job,” Muhammed says. “I was not able to support my children or my wife. I had no work so I just waited; it was very difficult.” The family never went far from home. Even if someone was sick they were not able to take him to the hospital.

This time was difficult for the children as well. When ISIL opened a school Muhammed sent his sons there, but they attended for only five days. “I wanted them to continue their studies but soon I took them out of school. I discussed with my children what they are learning at school and realised that ISIL changed the whole curriculum,” Muhammed says, explaining that ISIL gave the children different books. “They taught them what is war, how to be a good fighter, to encourage children to be their members,” he says. “When children stayed at home me, their mother, and their uncle were trying to teach them as much as we can for three years. But still they missed school so much,” Muhammed explains. “Education is very important because through education we can reach what we would like to be,“ he adds.

The situation is very difficult for Muhammed as he could not return to his former job and now works as taxi driver. “I am working from morning to night so that my children will complete their education,“ he says. “I hope ISIL’s time will not return. I hope for a better future for Iraq and that my children will become engineers or doctors.” 

I will design towers so that my country will be great

Bassam, 10, has three sisters and two brothers. When he’s not attending Johaina primary school for boys, he spends time with his friends Ahmed, Abdullah, and Ayman playing football. “I like football so much. I am a fan of the Iraqi national team,” he says. Bassam also spends time studying at home and sometimes his father when he is going to the market or his mother when she washes dishes. His favourite subjects at school are natural science and English. “I like lessons about flowers; I know everything about them,” he says. Bassam’s dream is to work as an engineer. “I would like to design towers and buildings in Iraq so that my country will be great.” 

ISIL education taught children how to take their own lives

Bassam’s father Salih does not want to think back about ISIL. “For three years we were like prisoners. We could not go outside; there was no education, no work, no water, no electricity,“ the 45-year-old father of three girls and three boys remembers. The situation took a psychological toll on the kids. “Their behaviour changed a lot. There was nothing for them so they became angry and fought with each other,” Salih says. Even though ISIL opened a school in Johaina village, no one attended it. “This was not normal education. For example, they were teaching them: ‘How much is 1 bullet + 1 bullet,’ or ‘Two people are going to war – what they will do?’ This education was only about teaching children how to take their own lives,” he says. Luckily, Salih’s wife taught the children Arabic and Math at home, but they missed all the other subjects. After ISIL left, the regular school opened again and Salih immediately noticed a positive change in his children. Except for Salih’s oldest son, who is now 19, all the children are continuing their education now. “When Bassam returns back from school he talks about his friends and teachers. His favourite subject is natural science,” Salih says.

“I see education as very important for my children because if they will be educated, they will have work and a better life. If not, they will be jobless with no future,” Salih says. The opening of another school will help the village because children will not have to come to school in two shifts, he adds. But the costs connected with education are still a big challenge for Salih. “I wish my children will wear very nice clothes, but sometimes I am not able to buy them shoes or bags. I would like to bring them food they like, but I don’t have money to do it for them,” he explains.

Salih’s biggest fear is that ISIL will come back. “I do not want to return to that time. I hope my children will be able to complete their education and will get good jobs.“ 

In some classes we have 70 to 80 students

Abdullah has been a teacher for 28 years. He has been working at Johaina school since 2002 where he teaches math and Arabic to 250 students. In fifth grade there are two classes with 140 students and in sixth grade there are two classes with 110 students, including Bassam and Sufian. “Both are good students with good grade. They always prepare their homework and have good relationships with their friends,” Abdullah says. The 56-year-old teacher, who has five sons and two daughters of his own, likes his job. “It is very nice to see your students who have graduated, finished certificates, and are serving their community now. Some of my former students are employees of the governorate or are at college,” the proud teacher says.

For Abdullah too, the three years of ISIL rule were terrible. “During ISIL, they opened the school but they used their own curriculum, not the official curriculum. They did not force teachers to go to school because even students didn’t go, so there were no children to teach. Soon they closed the school completely,” Abdullah explains. “We did not receive salaries for three years. It was difficult because my seven children needed a lot of things and I was not able to provide them.”

According to Abdullah, most of the children were out of school for three years and even though some of them learned at home with parents, it was too long to be away. “Children forgot most of the subjects and the level of their knowledge is now much lower,” Abdullah says. Teachers are now trying to make up for the three missed years, so during one 40 minute long class they are teaching multiple subjects. At the same time, the school is overcrowded. “In some classes we have 70 to 80 students; the minimum is 65 students in one class. This means that at each desk there are four students and they cannot even open their books. Teachers cannot properly control the classes and children cannot understand very well,” Abdullah explains.

Children are also coming to school with extensive trauma from past years. “We noticed changes in their behaviour, but it is slowly improving after they came back to school,“ Abdullah says. “It is very important that teachers focus more on students, teach them to respect to each other and to behave well at home,” he says.

Right now, Abdullah needs the renovations of the school building to complete as soon as possible, and resources like teachers, teaching materials, recreational kits and catch up classes for children. “I have a fear that the times of ISIL will come back. However I hope it will not happen,” he says.

Catch-up classes and recreational activities are very important for children

Iliyas has been the headmaster of Johaina school for the last 19 years. Before that he was an English teacher at a school for girls for three years. “I like teaching English, but I do not have time for it now because I am busy with management and supervising of the school,” the 45-year-old says. He remembers the dark times of ISIL: “When ISIL came they forced me to open the school and go to work. During first days students attended the school because they did not know anything about ISIL,” Iliyas says. “But once I realised what they are teaching children I encouraged parents not to send children to school. If they knew, they would kill me,” he says. Parents trusted him and kept their kids out of school. “School was open for a month and then they closed it because children did not attend. They took the keys of the school and used it as their office,” he says.

But even though they stayed away from the school, everyone in the community still had to follow ISIL’s orders, Iliyas explains: “For example women were not allowed to go outside and their faces had to be fully covered. ISIL were collecting children and showed them videos about killing and fighting. As a result, children became more aggressive. When a child hit another child with a pen and saw blood it was normal for them.”

ISIL rule influenced his personal life as well. For one thing, he didn’t get a salary. “There were some days we were hoping to die. I was hopeless when I realised that I am not able to meet the basic needs of my family,” Iliyas says. And he will never forget the first day when ISIL entered the village and no one knew what to expect. “I went out with my son. I saw six or seven pickups and some people were inside injured and covered with blood. They threatened people and cut the road. My son started to quiver and then became epileptic,” Iliyas says.

Since the area was retaken from ISIL the situation is slowly getting better. “When we came back to school I asked all the teachers to focus more on children’s behaviour rather than knowledge in specific subjects. Fortunately, we are seeing a lot of improvements,” Iliyas says. “I am glad that People in Need will focus on catch-up classes and recreational activities. It is very important for children.” People in Need is the only organisation that supports the school and Iliyas appreciates the assistance. “For example the distribution of kits to students solved a lot of problems at school,” he says.

In his opinion, the biggest challenge now is reconstruction of the school building. Authorities are repairing it but desks and furniture are still missing so they cannot start teaching yet. “My only fear now as father and headmaster is connected with the internet and violent games. We are doing our best to remove the ideas of killing and fighting from education but these games can harm all of our efforts,” he says. Iliyas hopes that he will see his students become doctors and engineers, like he saw in the previous generation.  


Author: Hozan Muhsin Hassan, People in Need