Iraq: often referred to as the birthplace of civilisation. Today in its second city, Mosul, history has been reduced to an estimated 8 million tons of conflict debris. In a scene of an apocalyptic nature lie the ruins of 5,000 homes.
Beyond dozens of cordoned-off areas where yellow caution tape reading “unexploded bomb” whips and cracks in the stiff morning breeze, a solitary figure emerges. His feet dance, navigating the mountains of rubble, contorted steel and broken glass in the Nabi Jarjis neighbourhood before he arrives at Al-Ekhlas primary school. Usama, 11, points up to his former sixth-grade classroom.
Now seated at his old desk, where five years ago he enjoyed a full range of classes, he explains how sad he and his fellow students were when the school closed as Isis rolled in, occupying the city in June 2014. After the fall of a dictatorship in 2003, Iraqis had high hopes of a new country based on democracy and human rights, only to discover that establishing a democracy is not simple. In 2014, they were confronted with a new form of dictatorship under the self-declared Muslim caliphate – Isis – which seized control of Mosul. These new state actors promised hope, prosperity and freedom but instead returned Mosul and the country’s next generation to the dark ages.
Close to one million of Mosul’s residents were forced to leave thanks to deteriorating living standards, lack of employment, as well the restrictive policies and horrific atrocities inflicted by the regime.
Children like Usama were faced with school closures. The new state actors had installed an entirely new ideology, banning subjects such as history, philosophy music and arts, instead focusing on their harsh interpretation of Islamic law and weapons training. Teachers were forced to attend retraining sessions; those who did not comply and pledge allegiance to the regime were tortured or worse.
In a survey of 451 households in west Mosul, 88 per cent of children attended school before the arrival of Isis, but only 2 per cent did thereafter, of those who remained. Nearly all the families who stayed after June 2014 kept their children out of school in fear for their safety and the indoctrination they would be exposed to.
The Department of Education in Ninewa district, which includes Mosul, indicates that approximately 130 schools were completely destroyed in the conflict and 350 are in need of rehabilitation.
But Educate A Child (EAC) – a global programme run by the Education Above All Foundation (EAA) – and Unesco in Iraq have partnered to assist children who face barriers to education, including conflict.
Their Accelerated Learning Programme classes (ALP) condense as many as three years of studies into a single year to enable them to return successfully to mainstream education.
Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for education at Unesco, explains: “Our partnership with Educate A Child in Iraq is not only about reaching out-of-school children, but providing them with safe learning environments, trained teachers and building up the resilience of the education system.
“Over three years, the project has reached 37,000 out-of-school children, trained over 1,000 teachers, set up 346 accelerated learning programme centres and rehabilitated more than 100 schools. Through this partnership, we have supported the government to develop a national curriculum framework and develop a national teacher training strategy. Building on these achievements, the current phase aims to reach 150,000 out-of-school children, many of whom are internally displaced, and to enhance the capacity of all those involved in delivering inclusive quality education. Thanks to steady commitment over a decade, this partnership exemplifies the possibility of a solid and sustainable approach in a complex protracted crisis situation.”
Weekend ALP classes are also made available to children who work during the week to provide for their family – an educational lifeline.
Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair and founder of EAA, explained at the UN Human Rights Social Forum in Geneva last month: “Prolonged armed conflict has led to irreversible destruction of education. Let me be clear about that, I don’t mean collateral damage. I mean deliberate attacks on education. Deliberate attacks on basic human rights … Where there is no education, there will be no nation. If we do not turn the tide, we will continue to pay a high price.”
Mosul will take decades to rebuild and clear of the countless mines and IEDs. The world cannot reverse what has happened in Iraq, it cannot give Usama and other children back those lost years, but it can ensure that collectively, through partnerships like those between EAA and Unesco, their future will be brighter.