Forget the past to build a future

16th January 2009 at 00:00
Iraqi education minister on UK visit tells of unimaginable barbarity faced by teachers and pupils during insurgency

During exam time, terrorists walked into a school in Baghdad, picked a pupil at random and decapitated him. They left his head on display outside the school building.

This was one of a succession of similar incidents during the recent insurgency in Iraq: it was not uncommon for teachers to be murdered in front of their classes, or pupils in front of their teachers.

Khudeir al-Khuzaie, the Iraqi education minister, acknowledges he has a lot to do. He is working with a population that, for several years, has seen little value in education.

This week he visited Britain with a delegation aiming to improve Iraqi education. They were attending the Learning and Technology World Forum in London.

"Wherever you go in the Islamic world, you see the fingerprints of Iraqis," said Dr al-Khuzaie. "Iraqi universities used to graduate doctors and engineers of international standard."

"But, after Saddam Hussein came into power, he turned Iraq into a camp for military conflict. Young learners had no hope for the future, because of the wars."

Since Saddam was overthrown, little has changed. No schools have been renovated since 1986.

And, in addition to the terrorist threat, teachers have had to contend with sudden influxes of refugees from conflict zones: class sizes regularly swell from 30 to 70 in a single day. "We've had to choose between overcrowded classes and students out on the street with no education," said Dr al-Khuzaie.

Radhwan Sultan, of the British Council in Baghdad, said: "At some stage, most of the jobs were as policemen or security guards. And you know kids and weapons.

"But now there's a ban on plastic toy weapons. And there's been a 200 per cent wage rise for academics. So it makes a difference whether you have a degree or not."

Mr Sultan and Rasheda Zaher-Draey, of the Kurdistan education ministry, also visited Northern Ireland to observe how it has coped in the aftermath of sectarian violence. They were particularly impressed with the integrated schools, which bring together Catholics and Protestants.

Kurdistan, which avoided the worst of the recent violence, has seen large numbers of refugees from other parts of Iraq. New schools have opened specifically for these refugees, with lessons in Arabic instead of Kurdish.

"The teachers are Kurdish," said Ms Zaher-Draey. "But they give Arab pupils food, clothing, pocket money. The reconciliation in schools can affect the whole of society. We're building a country together."

Dr al-Khuzaie's ministry is now revising the curriculum, expunging Saddam and his achievements, pictures and ideas from textbooks. The new books, he hopes, will be acceptable to everyone, from the mullahs to the Marxists.

And English will feature prominently. At the moment, many children learn the language by picking up phrases from guards in Baghdad's Green Zone.

"When France came into countries in our region, it dealt culturally with the people and left cultural bridges," Dr al-Khuzaie said. "Britain and the USA didn't do that in Iraq. They came in by force and left without building bridges.

"But the greatest gift of God is forgetting. People forget wars and pain. There's still an opportunity for England and America to change people's memories from the smell of gunpowder to the smell of ink."

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