Violence still taking toll on Baghdad education

Fifth grade students take their final exams at the Arif al-Basri Primary School for girls in Baghdad's al-Karrada neighborhood in Iraq, May 22, 2008. (Raviya H. Ismail/MCT)
Fifth grade students take their final exams at the Arif al-Basri Primary School for girls in Baghdad's al-Karrada neighborhood in Iraq, May 22, 2008. (Raviya H. Ismail/MCT)

BAGHDAD — Murtadha Abdul Zahara is in his final year of high school and must take examinations to begin college next year.

The problem is he hasn't been to school since March 23, because it's been closed due to violence between Shiite Muslim militants and U.S. and Iraqi security forces in the Sadr City neighborhood where he lives. So now he waits.

"We didn't finish the textbooks we had," said Zahara, 19. "All of Sadr City doesn't know what is going to happen with final exams."

The end of the school year in Baghdad is similar to those in other countries. Final examinations, graduation parties, playing some catch up. But for all its similarities, many of these schools also contend with the sobering realities of being in a war zone.

Students are absent for long periods because of violence. Parents keep their children home because they fear kidnappings or other threats. Schools shut down for days and weeks at a time when violence surges, meaning courses can never really be completed.

Yet students are still required to fulfill their final exams, whatever the violence. For students like Zahara it's a time of anxiety.

"I'm worried about my future because it depends on this year," he said.

When American forces invaded Iraq more than five years ago, rebuilding the country's education system was a massive priority. U.S. officials touted the thousands of schools that had been repaired and repainted. Hundreds of millions of U.S. government dollars went to companies to provide support and training to Iraqi educators.

But whatever progress Americans had hoped for vanished as first the Sunni Muslim insurgency and then sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites exploded. A recent visit to schools in different Baghdad neighborhoods shows the price the violence has taken.

"During the past five years attendance has not been regular," said Juhaina Mahmoud Ahmed, a teacher at the Tabari Primary School for Girls located in the east part of Baghdad known as New Baghdad. "Being late or absent because of lack of security, explosions, killing and kidnappings has become the norm."

New Baghdad has been the scene of sectarian violence for five years, and even in the calmer Baghdad of today, bodies turn up on a regular basis. With Iraqi troops entering Sadr City for the first time last week, there are growing fears that militants will flee to New Baghdad.

Ahmed said only 50 percent of enrolled students actually come to class, with parents deciding that teaching their children at home is safer.

"The violent atmosphere we live in does not help the children to do their best, neither does it help teachers," she said.

To make matters worse, the school has closed its kindergarten and nursery, meaning teachers with young children have had to quit their jobs.

"This doesn't help maintain a very high standard of teachers either," said Tabari's headmistress, Jinan Ahmed Ismail.

The Tabari school is old and has fallen into neglect. There's no electricity and not enough drinking water. The American refurbishing project never reached it.

Classes such as physical education and art have been canceled, so students can get home earlier in case of violence. The twice-a-year picnics and field trips to the amusement park are out of the question.

"Now there is nothing except serious lessons, heat and fear," said Ahmed.

At the Arif al Basri Primary School for Girls in the Karrada neighborhood, where sectarian violence has never taken hold, education is on a sounder footing. The students were taking their final exams in spacious and airy classrooms where with ceiling fans turned to help ease the 90-degree heat.

"We have very distinguished students, the education process is normal and its taking place as it should," said the headmistress, Baydaa Jassim. "It is necessary that we should hold up our standards so Baghdad can continue to be a shining star."

Still, it's obvious that violence and lack of services has taken its toll. A generator sits at the school's entrance, for those frequent times when the electricity fails. The staff takes up a collection to pay for its fuel and maintenance.

And a parent, while praising the school as "one of the best," also provides only her nickname, Umm Ayah, mother of Ayah, lest her real name create a security problem.

Jassim, however, remains proud of the efforts she and her staff have made to keep the school open.

"If anything, the different conditions that we have seen have been like an incentive, giving us a push to maintain high standards," Jassim said.

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