A lesson in defiance

Iraqi teachers brave bombs to set up trade union with British support

it is easy for British teachers to take their unions for granted. Less so for teachers in Iraq, who were once tortured and executed by Saddam Hussein's regime for saying the wrong thing in front of their pupils and who still face daily mortar attacks.

Ten members of the Iraqi Teachers' Union have spent a fortnight in the UK and hope the experience can help them rebuild an education system crippled by years of war and oppression.

Among them was Mohamed Seed Hatem, a 38-year-old Arabic teacher who was imprisoned for nine years. He said: "With Saddam you had to be very careful what you said in class because if the pupils were the children of party leaders they could pass on what you said. Teachers were constantly under surveillance and the pay was down to $3 (pound;1.50) a month. We have many disruptions now because of the violence but there is hope. Attending school is a slap in the face for terrorism, a defiance."

The teachers have been guests in the UK of the NASUWT teachers' union. An Iraqi teachers' union existed during Saddam's regime, but was controlled by the state and only open to members of the ruling Ba'ath party.

The new democratic union was set up after the Allied invasion in 2003, when thousands of teachers dismissed for opposing Saddam were offered their jobs back. Bushra Bashar Tlayyea, 42, whose husband died under torture by the Ba'athists in 1993, is the union's head of women's affairs.

She is working to introduce sport in 93 girls' schools - a potentially dangerous job as it is frowned on by local clerics.

"Building a union is critical to the identity of Iraq," she said. "When people join they do not see themselves as Sunni, Shia or Kurds. They see themselves as Iraqis, and above all, teachers."

Some Iraq schools continue to come under regular fire from rockets and need to plan their days around attacks. A pupil at a primary school in Baghdad was recently killed by a mortar round.

Its head, Khadim Nasser, 43, is a committee member of the union. Fighting back tears, he said: "I'm more afraid for the pupils than they are for themselves. My heart is in Iraq. I would rather be there doing my job than anything else."

Under fire, Magazine, page 14

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