75 children, 40 degrees, one classroom: People in Need urgently gets to work restoring education in Iraq after ISIL
Canvasses of sand-covered tents sit slumped in the hills outside Mosul, in Northern Iraq. These abandoned tents recently bulged with families displaced by the conflict between the Iraqi Government and its allies against the so-called Islamic State (ISIL). We are 40 kilometres away from Mosul, on the way to the village of Bawiza where People in Need (PIN), with funding from Iraq Humanitarian Fund (IHF), is getting to work restoring education in schools which have been under ISIL rule since 2014.
On the way to the school, the debris of bombed houses, bullet-riddled shops, decimated bridges and the skeletons of burned cars show where the frontline lay just months ago. Checkpoints, soldiers and military vehicles are a constant reminder that the situation here is returning to normal slowly.
500 Children in Seven Classrooms
After another hour of driving and countless checkpoints we reach a school in Bawiza where PIN and IHF support started a number of days ago. As we arrive, children rush between four portacabins and three classrooms, peering out of broken windows curious to see who has come to visit.
"At the moment we have over 500 pupils, including children from displaced families and returnees. The number may even increase before the school year officially starts at the beginning of October," says Abdul Razzaq Abd Khidr (50), the deputy headmaster of the school who has been working there for over a year. “It all depends on how many displaced families will return back to their places of origin,” he adds.
Currently over 500 children are crammed into just seven classrooms, most of which are portacabins without ventilation or windows. With temperatures over 40 degrees on a September morning, the classes must be interrupted regularly to let the pupils breath outside. "The school currently operates in just one shift which means we have on average 75 children in each class," Abdul Razzaq describes. "At the beginning of the school year we will have 18 teachers, but only 4 of them are official, graduated teachers, the rest are volunteers or lecturers," he adds.
There are many needs at the school. The students desperately need more classrooms, a school fence, a proper playground and sanitation facilities, as well as some transportation support for pupils who struggle to reach the school due to long distances. The majority of students do not have textbooks, notebooks, pencils or school bags. "Every class shares just one or two copies of textbooks," says Omar Hameed Misar (28) who teaches 300 students between second and fifth grade.
PIN together with IHF is now involved in a back to school campaign, co-organizing recreational activities for children and catch-up classes before the official school year starts. "Next week we will deliver school materials and equipment for pupils. We would like to be involved in small rehabilitation and sanitation projects in the school," describes PIN project coordinator Antony Esmaeel Aseel.
One of the biggest challenges the teachers and pupils face now is not visible at first glance. It is concealed in the minds, hearts and souls of everyone who has lived here for last three years. The area of Bawiza was captured by ISIL back in 2014 and controlled by the extremist group until February this year, when Iraqi forces and their allies retook the area. Three years of oppression has affected every part of life, and education was no exception.
"During the rule of Daesh [Arabic word for so-called Islamic State] just 13 children attended the school. All of the others simply stayed at home without any education," describes the deputy headmaster. The situation for teachers was also very different because they were forced to come to the school without salary. "Back then, I taught here just basic literacy - how to read, write and count," he explains.
"I was coming to school dressed normally but they complained that I should have a long beard and trousers cut short above the ankles. Sometimes I came in dishdasha," says Abdul Razzaq, who has been working in education since the eighties. The school re-opened soon after Iraqi forces retook the area and the pupils came back to their desks in mid-March. Most of them had been completely out of the education system for almost 3 years and witnessed the horrors of life under ISIL rule.
"This is a big issue we are facing now. For example, if someone was in first grade when Daesh came in 2014, his level of knowledge is still at a first grade level but now he should continue in the fourth grade and we must quickly teach them basic things like reading, writing and counting," explains Abdul Razzaq.
"I have been attending the school since March and I really like drawing and maths. Before the school opened I just used to play with my friends," says seven-year-old Muntadher. "I did not attend school before. But I have been coming here since the very first day in March," says eleven-year-old Nuhar, promptly adding that her favourite subject is Arabic.
Bring Children Back to Life
After three years out of school, children slowly adjusting to classes. "Children do not absorb the information easily now due to their hard experiences in the past," says teacher Omar Hameed Misar. "I will try to bring them back to a normal life,” says Omar, as he explains how he deals with children's trauma and how training in psycho-social support will help him.
PIN together with IHF are training teachers in psychosocial support so that they can better support children living with trauma. "Psychosocial trainings are very helpful and we are already seeing the positive impact of them for our students," says Abdul Razzaq. He emphasizes that the students can be distracted, aggressive or not focused during class. "We are trying to teach children how to love their country, we are talking about the future and hope, what jobs they can choose. We are showing them how they can support each other and how teachers can help them," says Abdul Razzaq.
Despite all these problems, the children are still motivated to come to school. "We really appreciate the support of People in Need. We need to recover from this situation as soon as possible and you are helping us to bring more students back to normal life faster," says Abdul Razzaq.
“This is a school where you will be able to see and feel the difference very soon,” Antony Esmaeel Aseel explains. And he is right. Even today the very presence of a bustling school means that children and their parents are thinking differently. "I love everything in the school. My favourite teacher is Mr Mohammad, he is in charge of awareness classes," says seven-year-old Habib who wanted to talk to us about her school.
People in Need and Education in Iraq
The scale of violence and displacement in Iraq in the last three years has significantly disrupted the education system. Many factors impact upon access to and quality of education in the country, including: overcrowded schools; shortages of qualified teachers; the lack of financial resources to pay teacher salaries and buy school materials.
With rising poverty rates, a bulging youth population, high unemployment rates and significant gender disparities, Iraq cannot afford to lose a generation of children and young people through poor access to education. PIN’s activities in support of education across the country focuses on psychosocial trainings, non-formal education (e.g. Catch up classes) or support to teachers. PIN activities include: summer school projects; school rehabilitations; provision of teaching and learning support to teachers and students; and Education in Emergency related trainings for Governmental institutions and NGOs.