Iraq’s abandoned schools speak of a lost generation

Fathi Abdullah is twelve years old, but he doesn’t look a day over seven. His baby face is unscathed, despite years of having lived under Daesh. But his eyes tell a different story, showing a maturity beyond his years. Abdullah was nine when the militant group Daesh took over Iraq’s second largest city. With the city’s fall in June 2014, the armed group declared a “caliphate,” stretching from Syria to Iraq. 

Almost overnight, Abdullah became one of the million and a half Mosul residents subject to Daesh’s harsh laws (at least a million others fled in 2014). Daesh influenced all walks of life, including education. Mosul’s public education curriculum was replaced with one written by Daesh leaders. The group used education as a means to try to mould young impressionable minds to fit its own severe interpretation of Islam and its objectives. 

‘‘Their syllabus focused on death and destruction,” Abdullah told TRT World in early December, at a camp for internally displaced Iraqis. He had fled Mosul with his family six weeks earlier. That was after the Iraqi forces launched an offensive to dislodge Daesh from the city, with the help of Shia militias and Kurdish peshmerga. 

“Math classes would use bullets and IED’s, so for example one bullet plus one bullet would be two,” he said. ‘‘My father pulled me out of school within two months, because he did not want me to become radicalised.” According to UNICEF, Abdullah is one of 700,000 internally displaced Iraqi children who are no longer able to attend school. 

In all, some three million Iraqi children aren’t getting a formal education. The UN calls it an educational emergency that is endangering the future of Iraq’s youth. The gains made by Daesh over the past two years have further complicated the situation, disrupting education across the Iraqi territory under its control. 

In the town of Bashiqa, a few hours north of Mosul, for instance, Daesh ordered all public and private schools to be closed. Parents were forced to send children to Daesh-run madrasas instead. “What Daesh did to education there is a crime,” Talal Yasin Ali said. Ali was the principal of Bashiqa Boys’ School when Daesh took over the town in northern Iraq in 2014. 

Returning to the school two years later, the headmaster recalled how it had come to symbolise rare unity in a fractured country. ‘‘This was a place where Sunni, Shia, Yazidi and Christians could come together and study as equals without fear of discrimination. It was a place of harmony,” the principal said, with tears in his eyes. “I am heartbroken seeing it abandoned like this.” 

The visit to the school had been a deeply personal one for the headmaster. Ali’s own son missed out on two years of education after the family fled Bashiqa and resettled in Dohuk. “He just couldn’t keep up,” Ali said of his son, AburRahman. “The trauma of having to flee Bashiqa, of having to leave his friends, his home and his life behind was too much and took a toll on him. His grades after Bashiqa were low and he kept on failing classes,” the principal said. 

“Daesh fighters looted anything of value at the school, including computers and television screens. They even stole footballs meant for the playground.” The children at Bashiqa were similar to Fathi Abdullah, who had lost years of education because of war. “I want to study hard so I can make my family proud,” Abdullah said, as we walked around the Khazer camp for internally displaced where the boy now lives with his family. 

“There is a school run by UNICEF at the camp and I will start there early next year,” he said. As we visited the Bashiqa Boys’ School with the headmaster, Talal Yasin Ali, the classrooms were empty and the chairs collected dust. Long tangles of straw-like weeds had taken over what was once a lush green ground at the school. 

Smooth, flat platforms of concrete benches there jutted from the outgrowth, like flat islands breaking through rough seas. In one of the empty classrooms, we found discarded notebooks scattered on the floor. “Daesh fighters used the course books to light fires in cold nights,” Ali said. Dark burn marks were visible in open areas of the school, but it was unclear if these were the result of books being burned, or firewood. 

Ali spotted an old blue register. He opened it and quietly went through the names and pictures of the boys who were once enrolled at the school. He remembered many of them by name. “We used to have five hundred boys studying here. Now all that remains of their time at the school are these registers,” the headmaster said. 

On a wall in the school corridor, he points to a board listing the names and photos of high-achieving students from the school year of 2012 to 2013. That would be the last time such a board was mounted, before the school closed. “Mohammad’s family fled to Germany. 

And this is Mustafa, he now lives at a camp with his parents,” the headmaster said, pointing at the picture of high-achieving children who had been honoured on the board but who were now residents of refugee camps in Europe or at camps for the internally displaced in Iraq. 

by Ali Mustafa, Faiza Ahmed, Hakan Hocaoglu, Dervis Eray

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