Iraqis surrender to despair

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Students and teachers are giving up on education as basic survival becomes their priority. Adi Bloom reports

SHIVERING in an unheated classroom in southern Iraq, 12-year-old pupils leaf through textbooks older than they are.

"Since the 1991 Gulf War, there hasn't been any major renewal of textbooks," said Margaret Hassan, head of the Care International aid agency in Baghdad. "Think what's happened in science and medicine in 12 years."

Before 1991, education was highly prized in Iraq, with tangible rewards - those who were successful could go on to study abroad and return to lucrative salaries.

Now, in a classroom in Hamza, pupils sit among empty desks and out-of-date equipment. A third of Iraqi children do not attend school, a survey by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) revealed. Many are needed at home, to help support families. Others have succumbed to the despair sweeping the country.

"People think, what's the point? If you're a doctor, and you've spent six years studying medicine, you will earn around $10 (around pound;6) a month," said Ms Hassan. "That's not enough to support yourself. So people begin to question the value of education. The kinds of values that have been ingrained in society for generations are being eroded."

The school in Hamza is a large building. But funding shortages mean there is neither heating nor air conditioning. Temperatures in the sparse concrete rooms can tumble to freezing in winter and reach 50C in summer.

All schools have desks and blackboards, brought in through the United Nations oil-for-food programme. Children must supply their own paper and pens, however, an expense beyond many parents and a problem with which their teachers are likely to empathise.

"A teacher's salary is about $8 a month," said Ms Hassan. "Buying the monthly food ration for a family takes a large chunk from this salary."

Most teachers wear second-hand clothes and live in spartan conditions. One of the Hamza teachers has to leave a gas hotplate running all night to keep the night frosts at bay in his two-room concrete home.

"There was a time when teachers were well-regarded in Iraq," said British-born Ms Hassan. "That's no longer the case, because there isn't the status that comes with it. People are just worried about how they're going to survive."

Care International: 0207 934 9334, www.careinternational.org.uk; Unicef: 08457 312 312, www.unicef.org.uk

International, 20

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