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Iraqi schools face a desk deficit

At the al-Asil elementary school in Baghdad's Mansour neighbourhood, internally displaced Iraqi children attend class after having missed school for over a year due to violence.

At the al-Asil elementary school in Baghdad’s Mansour neighbourhood, internally displaced Iraqi children attend class after having missed school for over a year due to violence. © UNHCR / E. Ou

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept 30 (UNHCR)—While many Iraqi students were enjoying the last weeks of summer before school resumed, the classrooms of al-Asil elementary school in Baghdad’s Mansour neighbourhood were full.

Here, students whose families had been uprooted by violence were playing catch up, trying to prepare for the school year ahead. For nearly all of them, this was their first time back in a classroom in over a year.

Isra, 12, was first taken out of school by her parents nearly two years ago when it came under attack as a result of its location across the street from a government compound in Ramadi.

For the following week, her mother, Fawzia, walked Isra and her three siblings an hour across town to a school in a safe area. But then, as violence in Ramadi escalated, the walk to school became dangerous.

Fawzia described having to navigate tense checkpoints and take long detours to avoid clashes in the city streets. “In the end I just kept them home,” she said. “Honestly, we were all terrified. No one left the house.”

Those months, with the entire family confined to a small apartment, were some of the most difficult, Fawzia recalled. Her children quickly grew restless and, as the city’s economy slowed, money became tight.

The family finally made the decision to flee Anbar in January, crossing into Baghdad and sheltering with extended family.

They now live with other displaced Iraqis in a camp supported by UNHCR and its local partners. The school where Isra now attends classes is affiliated with the camp, run by the community, and supported by local businessmen and volunteers.

More than three million Iraqis have been forced from their homes since violence began to intensify in 2013. Among them, the UN estimates, are 700,000 children who have lost an entire year of school. Many others, especially young women and girls, have missed two years or more.

Access to education is often one of the first casualties as security deteriorates. Even for families who manage to flee, education can remain elusive. In some relatively safe parts of Iraq, like Baghdad, schools are overburdened; in others, like the country’s Kurdistan region, classes are taught in Kurdish, a foreign language to the Arabic-speaking majority of Iraq’s displaced.

Isra, bright and talkative in the classroom, grows quieter and more reticent when surrounded by her family in their tent.

“She used to sleep late every day,” her mother explained. “But now she’s awake in the morning even before me. She doesn’t even wait to eat breakfast.”

Fawzia said she initially encouraged her daughter to stay home and learn to use a sewing machine so she could help with the modest seamstress work Fawzia does to earn some extra income. But Isra begged to return to the classroom, and Fawzia eventually conceded.

“At school they teach you everything,” Isra said, yielding to her parents’ encouragement. “They prepare you for anything.”

Bruno Geddo, UNHCR’s Representative in Iraq, said: “It’s crucial to ensure access to education for young people like Isra.”

“There are now 3 million children and adolescents out of school in Iraq,” he added: “the keys to a better future for Iraq lie with them. If they do not miss out on education, a new generation of educated citizens could help bring about peace, prosperity and stability where there is now violence, conflict and war.”

On a hot August day, fourth-grade students at al-Asil elementary school sat behind desks arranged in neat rows. One by one they quietly rose to copy words onto a whiteboard. Ceiling fans turned on and off as intermittent power surges and cuts disrupted the generator.

During the last lesson of the day, the students were reviewing grammar, taking notes and enthusiastically calling out the answers to questions despite the heat.

“Honestly, I think they have even more motivation that our other students,” said Kawtha al-Ahmed, the school’s director. A 40-year veteran of the education system, Kawtha is equal parts warmth and grit. She smiles proudly as she chats in the hallways, listing her school’s achievements. But the moment she steps into a classroom her face turns stern; students jump to their feet and greet her in unison.

As class let out and Isra and her friends lined up to wait for a minibus back to their camp, she declared: “I want to be a doctor,” explaining that science is her favourite class. “I’d like to help people.”

In mid-September, Isra’s summer courses came to an end and regular classes at al-Asil school resumed. A handful of students from the camp are able to attend along with the regular students, but there isn’t room for everyone.

“We will find a place for everyone,” Kawtha said emphatically. But she admits that there are still too many students and too few desks.


By Susannah George in Baghdad, Iraq.