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Lessons in war: Iraq's public education in crisis

Students attend class in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, on Monday. Many students forego school because they encounter too much violence on their walk there.
Students attend class in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, on Monday. Many students forego school because they encounter too much violence on their walk there.Karim Kadim / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Saif Abdul-Karim’s path to school is often blocked by car bombings and gunbattles. Many of his teachers have quit. Most of his classmates have dropped out, fearing abduction.

As high school seniors across America giddily try on prom dresses and plan graduation parties, Iraqi students consider just making it to school a cause for celebration.

The security situation is so shaky that some schools have canceled graduation ceremonies and many have closed for weeks at a time. Education officials are in talks with the security services, tribal leaders and politicians to ensure schools are protected when students take final exams next month.

The education crisis mirrors the breakdown of nearly all public institutions across Iraq.

Educators fear, however, that the collapse in schooling will have some of the deepest repercussions for the country, leaving a generation with little education and little hope.

“Iraq’s future is at risk,” said Waleed Hussein, the spokesman for the Education Ministry. “Its children are prevented from getting educated just as the country is in dire need of moving forward.”

Abdul-Karim, a 17-year-old high school senior, senses his envy of American students deepening as the war in his homeland rages. “They can get and do many things, while here we are living in a tragedy,” he said.

Studies interrupted by fighting
Students and educators in Baghdad and in other violence-plagued areas of the country tell harrowing stories of the challenges they face trying to reach graduation day.

Mustafa Ali, an 18-year-old student in Sadr City, says it is difficult for him to study at night — or even to sleep — because of the sound of explosions and gunfire in his Shiite neighborhood from clashes with U.S.-led forces or rival Sunni gangs.

Wajeda Ahmed, the principal of Dijlah primary school for girls in the mostly Sunni Mansour neighborhood of western Baghdad, said the school has no power or drinking water. Nearby roadside bombs and car bombs have damaged the school’s doors and shattered many of its windows. About 25 percent of her students have left because their families have fled the violence, she said.

Mousa Halim, principal of a high school in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, said a firefight several weeks ago between U.S. soldiers and the radical Shiite Mahdi Army militia outside the school sent students and teachers scrambling to take cover.

“The top priority was to send the students home without any casualties,” he said. “We had to make them jump over the low wall at the back of the school instead of taking the risk of leaving from the main gate near the clashes.”

It took another week before he was able to coax the staff and students back to school, he said.

The general breakdown in society has also eroded traditional classroom discipline. Several students linked to the Mahdi Army threatened their teachers if they did not help them pass exams, Halim said.

“The situation was better” under Saddam Hussein, he said. “There was security and the students used to respect their teachers.”

On Monday, students at the Sahel Ibn Saad high school in Sadr City had to study in the faint sunlight coming through dirty windows because of a power outage. Their desks were cracked and chunks of paint had chipped off the yellow walls.

A Quranic verse pasted over the blackboard in one class read: “God, make this country peaceful.” Next to it was a picture of Muqtada al-Sadr and a quote from the anti-American Shiite cleric calling on Iraqis to unite to force out “the occupiers.”

Abdul-Karim, the high school senior, said four of his teachers at the school quit because of the violence and were replaced by new college graduates with no experience. Only 300 of the school’s 800 students show up anymore, and many of the classes are mostly empty, he said.

Unable to safely get to school
He makes it to school only three days a week because violence often blocks his path. His grade point average has plunged from about 80 to 65, he said. Nevertheless, he hopes to attend college next year and plans to become a journalist to “report the truth and the misery of my people,” he said.

Another student at the school, Ahmed Shawal, said he wanted to be a doctor — “but in such conditions I don’t think I’ll be able to achieve my ambition.”

While many schools are indirectly affected by the violence, others are intentionally targeted, said Hussein, the spokesman for the Education Ministry. Last week, gunmen broke into a primary school in Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, grabbed a teacher and his wife and killed them execution style in front of the horrified students, he said. The motive of the attack was not clear.

More than 300 teachers and Ministry of Education employees were killed last year and 1,158 were wounded, the ministry reported. A U.N. report released last month said the killings continued “at an alarming level” this year.

The attacks have paralyzed the government’s plan to build 1,000 new schools this year and even forced it to close existing schools across the country, Hussein said.

Ahmed Qassim, a 19-year old student at Nissour High School in the northern city of Mosul, was forced to miss three exams during the first semester last year because the bridges linking his house to his school were sealed off. He had to miss the whole second semester because of insecurity.

Now he is repeating his senior year.

Always playing catch-up
With the unrelenting security concerns regularly forcing classes to be canceled, many of his teachers are making up for lost lessons by passing out handwritten lectures to be studied at home, he said. Others are charging for private tutoring sessions at students’ homes to fill in the gaps. Qassim said he has already paid about $55, a substantial sum here, for four private lessons.

The school has abandoned its traditional small graduation ceremony for fear it will be targeted by extremists, Qassim said.

If he manages to graduate, he hopes to leave Iraq, but worries that his education has suffered so badly he will never be able to compete with students abroad.

Though he seethes with envy when he thinks of the relatively easy life of students in America, he hopes eventually to get a scholarship there.

“I want ... to show the Americans the difficulties I had to overcome because of their government’s policy,” he said.