BAGHDAD — At age 14, Ahmad Razaq has worked more jobs than he can count. He's painted houses, cleaned office buildings and supervised a janitorial crew. Lately he spends his days washing cars for a few dollars a week outside a dingy hotel in Baghdad.
He's never set foot inside a classroom. He's only heard about school from friends. He can't read or write, and he figures he never will.
"I want to go to school, but I think it's too late for me now," Ahmad said, standing outside his family's dilapidated shack in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. "Besides, you need money to go to school."
This is the way many Iraqi children live, working for meager wages or staying at home instead of going to school. Though Iraq's Education Ministry disputes their statistics, the United Nations and aid organizations estimate that about a fifth of school-aged children here don't attend. Girls and children who live in rural areas are particularly affected.
Violence has dropped dramatically across Iraq in recent months, but fallout from the bloodshed — lost livelihoods, broken families and disrupted institutions — will linger for a long time. Children begging for money or selling cold sodas from the side of the road are everywhere in Baghdad, even during school hours. As much as anything, they bear witness to all the rebuilding that's left for Iraq.
"There are so many ways it will hurt our country's future if more children don't join school," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Iraq's parliament. "It hurts our economy, our standard of living, our entire development."
The biggest reason that Iraqi children stay home from school is money. A public education is free in Iraq, but a lot of families are too poor to afford backpacks, notebooks and proper school clothes. The cost of living has risen dramatically across the country in recent years and the unemployment rate is around 50 percent.
"I can't buy milk for them, so how can I buy schoolbooks?" asked Abeer Abdulrahman, a 36-year-old unemployed widow and mother of five. "I want to give them more, but tell me how?"
Two of Abdulrahman's children are old enough for school, 7-year-old Nora and 9-year-old Omar, but neither has ever gone. They spend their days begging on the streets with their mother.
"It's more important for my children to beg so we can eat," Abdulrahman said. "What good will education do?"
Even before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, low school enrollment was a problem. It worsened along with violence after the war began.
By late 2006, many parents had decided it was too dangerous to send their children to school. Other children stopped attending when their families were forced by sectarian violence to flee their neighborhoods. Some have re-enrolled and some haven't.
Instead of going to school, 7-year-old Shahad Tahseen and her 6-year-old brother, Nibras, sit in their grandmother's dirty one-room flat in central Baghdad. They came here from a nearby neighborhood in 2006 after their parents were shot and killed.
"We sold everything we have just to keep paying the rent," said their grandmother, 63-year-old Halema Mohammed Faraj. "We have no electricity, no water, no clean clothes. Reading and writing are not on our minds."
A shortage of schools has added to the problem. Especially in rural areas, the nearest school may be too far away for children to get there every day.
Alaa Makki, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker who heads parliament's education committee, estimates that Iraq needs to build 4,500 primary, middle and high schools to adequately meet the demand.
Teachers are also in short supply. Since 2003, more than 250 educators have been assassinated and hundreds more have left the country, according to the UN.
"Definitely, we know that attendance is the most important challenge in front of our committee," Makki said. "Unfortunately, there are others in the government who try to minimize the seriousness."
Iraq's Education Ministry badly underestimates the number of children who are out of school, Makki said. A spokesman for the ministry, Walid Hussein, said that only 6 percent of Iraqi children who should be in school are not.
"It is partly a problem of corruption and partly a problem of under-qualified people working in the ministries," Makki said. "Even if we were to put lots of money to it, things might not improve."
In parliament, he said, efforts to pass legislation that could increase school enrollment have failed. Lawmakers recently rejected a bill that would provide salaries to college students, which Makki thinks would encourage students at all levels to stay in school.
"They say it's too expensive," he said. "They don't see it as a priority. . . . For me, I think these children will grow up and have nothing, so they will turn to violence and crime and other dangerous pathways. And then we will pay the real consequences."
Husham Hassan doesn't know how old he is but he looks about 10. He spends his days selling inflatable toys at a busy intersection in Baghdad.
He said he used to go to school but he stopped a few years ago when his family left Baghdad's Sadr City district because of violence.
Asked about his future, Hassan scrunched up his nose in confusion.
"My future?" he asked, then paused.
"I will work. It will be just like today."
(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY