Classroom Chaos

by 

Report, Institue for War and Peace Reporting, Sep 5, 2007

Iraqi children are desperate to study after the isolation of the Saddam years, but a special report by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting shows that violence, poverty and prejudice threaten to condemn their generation to ignorance.

The IWPR stories pick out occasional rays of hope but details how, even in relatively peaceful Kurdistan, Iraqis have a lot to do before they can say their children are receiving a good start in life.

While sectarian clashes regularly force schools to close, sometimes for days, inter-faith hatred has spread among the pupils and staff.

"There are two rooms in my school for the teachers, one for Sunni and the other for Shia," said one headmaster quoted in an IWPR story from Baghdad. "They seldom meet without squabbling over the political situation in Iraq, so I decided to separate them to ease the tension."

Around 4,500 university lecturers have fled the country since 2003. A source at Basra university said 362 lecturers had been killed in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Najaf since the insurgency began.

"We frequently need to let students out early when an emergency occurs, even if it's after only one or two classes," said a 27-year-old teacher from a primary school in southern Baghdad. "All of these problems are confusing for students. They're worried."

In Basra, in the Shia-dominated south of the country where you might expect the ethnic uniformity to keep such inter-faith clashes to a minimum, conflict between militias is common.

The protests facing lecturers are often banal, but no less deadly for that. One student with links to an Islamic party attacked a lecturer in Basra because he refused to mark up his grades.

No one dared intervene, and the professor was forced to pull out a pistol and fire warning shots to scare off his attacker and disperse the crowd.

Iraq's education system was once the equal of almost anything in the Middle East, a rare bright-spot in Saddam Hussein's brutal rule. But a decade of war with Iran, then the first Gulf War and a decade of sanctions left it in ruins. Only half of Iraq's children were in school by the end of the 1990s.

International donors made restoring education a priority after 2003, but in an atmosphere when college professors carry guns, it's hardly surprising that reconstruction has taken second place to just staying alive.

Even in Kurdistan, in the north of the country which has been spared much of the violence that has plagued Iraq, the schools and universities are stuck in the past.

Mariwan Hama-Saeed, Kurdish editor for IWPR's Iraq program, writes how his year group battled for a modern education, but without success.

"We frequently petitioned and agitated for both basic services (it's difficult to study when there isn't electricity or water in your dorm) and modern curricula. If you only study curricula from the 1950s, you will think like you're in the 1950s. Since I have graduated, the protests have only grown, yet nothing has changed," he wrote in a comment piece.

Elsewhere in northern Iraq, however, there is hope.

Under the old regime, Kurdish children like Tara Emad were forced to speak Arabic at school.

"My teacher always reproached me for not speaking Arabic well," the 10-year-old remembered.

Now primary schools allow pupils to learn in languages other than Arabic. In the Kirkuk region in 2007, 305 schools offered classes in Kurdish, 148 offered them in Turkoman and four in Assyrian.

But like everywhere in Iraq, money is tight. Kurdish schools blame the government in Baghdad for failing to support study in minority languages. Back in Basra, buildings are in urgent need of repair and lack basic resources such as books, chairs and desks.

Teachers' salaries are low and barely cover their transport to work, let alone living expenses and rent. Most are forced to take on a second job to make ends meet.

Perhaps nowhere is this lack of resources more marked than in Ghadhari, in the province of Muthanna. Its pleas for a school were unanswered so it took matters into its own hands.

IWPR trainee Hussein al-Yasiri found that the tribesmen - who scrape a living breeding sheep and camels, growing a few crops, making bricks and occasionally smuggling - built a school for themselves out of mud and wood.

The al-Hudaibiya primary school has few classrooms, no glass in the windows and scant furniture, but it represents progress. The school, and dozens like it in other villages, may be ramshackle but it is better than nothing.