Will I make it through today alive?

6th July 2012 at 01:00
For children in Baghdad, going to school means facing a daily threat of bombs, sectarian violence and kidnapping. But teachers are working to restore Iraq's once-admired education system - and a group of Suffolk pupils has travelled there to lend a hand. Richard Vaughan reports

It has become worse since Saddam has gone," says Razia*, looking down and frowning as she speaks. "Even now, when we go to school we think we are going to die every day. It is very dangerous still."

Razia is a 15-year-old pupil from Baghdad, Iraq. For more than half her life all she has known is war and the terror that comes with it.

"Every time I go to school I think maybe I am going to die today, and I say to my parents `Goodbye, maybe I will not see you, but I love you so much.'"

In her headscarf and Manchester United shirt, she talks about life and death as children in Britain talk about football. She is certain she will die before she reaches college, but despite this Razia makes the trip to school every day. She does it to try to keep hold of a sense of normality in a city that is anything but normal. That, and to see her friends.

Razia's fears are echoed by her classmates, also from Baghdad, as they sit at a Youth Sport Trust event in the relative safety of a sports centre in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq.

When the last of the US troops pulled out of the country a little over six months ago, President Barack Obama said that they were leaving behind a "sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq". But while the withdrawal of the remaining US forces ended nearly a decade of unhappy occupation, stability is still a long way off as the country tries to take its first, shaky steps into an uncertain future.

Two to three bombs still go off every week in the Iraqi capital because of sectarian violence - and that is an improvement. During the height of the conflict, between 2005 and 2009, the people of Baghdad were subjected to 100 bombs a week.

The consequence is a generation of young people scarred by war and terror. But despite this, the country's schools and their teachers are relentless in their efforts to provide pupils with a stable learning environment. Now the troubled nation has to face up to the mountainous task of rebuilding an education system.

Until the 1990s, Iraq's schools were regarded as the best in the Middle East. But two decades of war, political sanctions and sectarian violence have meant that the country's education system has become a shadow of its former self.

Investment in education

However, this frankly desperate situation has not stopped people from trying to restore the country's schools. For example, an EU-funded programme has been put in place with the aim of giving pupils such as Razia reason to be hopeful about their futures.

The EUR8.5 million (pound;6.8 million) initiative, Support to Improving the Quality of Education in Iraq, is being led by the British Council, the UK government's cultural and educational aid organisation, which has been working in Iraq since 1940, apart from the odd obvious interruption.

Brendan McSharry is in charge of the organisation's work in the country. He arrives in Erbil to speak to TES straight from Baghdad, where he operates under constant security in the area known as the Green Zone.

"They (the Iraqi government) are desperate to upgrade their schools and their universities," McSharry says. "This is, you could argue, partly our responsibility. But I think it also supports the UK's aims and objectives of promoting world prosperity and security."

It is hoped that by helping to provide a better education system, the chances of a more stable nation will be greatly improved. But there is also a sense of obligation from the organisation. "We had looked after the country for so long, and then it was occupied after the second Gulf War and we think it's important that the British leave behind a positive legacy," McSharry says.

The lion's share of the work being carried out by the charity is done in the north of the country, unofficially known as Kurdistan. Ever since Saddam Hussein was deposed, Iraq's fortunes have been split. While the south of the country, referred to by many locals as "Greater Iraq", has struggled to maintain stability, the northern Kurdish region has flourished.

The Kurdish area, which had for so long been under the heel of Saddam's boot, was granted its own semi-autonomous government by coalition forces. Under these conditions, the desert city of Erbil has burgeoned. New roads are being built, bare bones of new buildings rise out of the dust across the landscape and shiny shopping malls boasting Western retail brands dot the four-lane highways.

As a result of this stability, the area provides a base for much of the British Council's work, including, for example, that of education consultant Judith Hemery.

"Iraq hugely values its young people, and wants to do the very best," Hemery says, as she sips tea on her hotel balcony. "They haven't lost the commitment to education. There is every reason to believe that Iraq is capable of once again becoming a beacon of education in this part of the world."

To help Iraq become that beacon, the British Council has been working on a three-year programme. It is currently at the halfway mark.

The scheme focuses on a number of separate areas of educational life in the hope that these will provide the foundations for Iraq's school system as a whole. For example, the initiative is working to improve the quality of school leadership, boost vocational education and increase standards in PE.

It is in the area of PE that the British Council is most advanced, partly because the Iraqi government has traditionally attributed little importance to the subject, and partly because politicians recognise the power of sport in nation building.

As part of this work, the British Council has engaged the UK's Youth Sport Trust. "The teachers soon realise what we are trying to do," says Shaun Dowling, a former PE teacher and now one of the trust's army of support workers who regularly makes trips to Iraq. "So much of the teaching over here involves the teacher demonstrating and the pupils standing around watching.

"What we try to do is teach the teachers to let go, to let the pupils lead groups and for the teachers just to supervise."

A school trip to Iraq

To help illustrate just how effective allowing pupils to run sessions can be, the British Council flew over a group of pupils from King Edward VI School in Suffolk - one of five schools in the UK to be partnered with 10 schools in Iraq - to demonstrate.

Led by headteacher Geoff Barton, the King Edward VI pupils are the first British students to set foot in Iraq on a school trip since the Iraq War started. "You can't really teach teachers how to work with pupils without having pupils there," Barton says, shrugging off what must have been the longest risk assessment form in history.

Worthy as it undoubtedly is, it does seem odd that the British Council should be focusing on this detail of teaching and learning when it is clear that the country's first priority should be building more schools. Many schools in Iraq have class sizes of 50, and most operate on a double- and in some cases even triple-shift system. This means contact time between teachers and their pupils is minimal.

Rebuilding the country's schools is high on the list of priorities for the government, according to official missives. Indeed, money should not be the immediate problem for a country awash with oil. The question is whether the government has the political will to ensure it happens.

McSharry believes that the next few years are crucial, and it all depends on the direction taken by the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. "I think that over the next five years you will see a bit more political unity in Greater Iraq," he says. "Hopefully, you will see a government that is capable of delivering public services."

There can be little doubt that most Iraqis hope this assessment is right, but confidence is not high. "One has to hope that Maliki will take a long- term altruistic view. There is certainly more stability (than before), but there are fears that maybe sectarian violence will increase," McSharry says.

In the semi-autonomous north of Iraq, political unity may be more advanced, but a school-building programme is still nowhere to be seen. Erbil alone needs 2,000 new schools, while the wider region needs 3,900.

Schools in Kurdistan are part of an idiosyncratic, hotchpotch system, where their own peculiar type of grammar school operates. Called "typical schools", they are anything but, as they cream off the top 10 to 20 per cent of children and enjoy far greater funding than their high school neighbours.

But despite the extra money, the facilities and the basic powers afforded to heads and their staff are still limited.

No freedom

Shapol Fakhir is headteacher of the Martyr Fakhir Typical School, named after her father who died in the Kurdish rebellion during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Fakhir says that the teaching profession is too poorly paid, and that she has no control over her budget.

"As a headteacher, all I am told to do is implement the national curriculum. We're just told to follow the rules," she says.

Her pupils, boys and girls in bright pink ties, play football on a grassless, rubble-strewn stretch of open ground. Most of the school is half-finished and those buildings that are completed were built with money donated from other countries. The sports hall, for example, was paid for by the Republic of Korea.

Fakhir says that she is not optimistic about the future for the school system in the region. Her pupils are the lucky ones, as they will receive the education that will allow them to leapfrog their peers, and in schools in northern Iraq this is far more important than in countries such as the UK or US.

But at least in the north of the country there is enough optimism among the pupils to contemplate life after school. Such are the divided fortunes of those in the Kurdish region and Greater Iraq that basic freedoms, such as the right to daydream about one's future, are all too often denied.

No one knows this more acutely than Ana*, who was forced to move from Baghdad in 2005 after she was kidnapped by terrorists. One day, while on her way to school in a taxi, she was taken by a group of men looking for ransom money.

"I remember the car suddenly stopped and men with guns came out," Ana says coolly. "They shot the car and then they shot the driver. They dragged me out and I was crying. They put me in their car and aimed a gun at my head and said: `If you scream or do anything, you're dead.' They then hit me with the gun and I passed out," she says.

Ana was held captive for seven days, targeted by the men because they mistakenly thought she was from a wealthy family. Ana's parents managed to scrape the ransom money together, and on the seventh day her captors let her go with a warning to leave Baghdad or she and her family would all be killed within a month. The family packed up and moved north.

Now safe in the Kurdish region, the 15-year-old is flourishing at school and even hopes to study at the University of Cambridge, before returning to help rebuild her homeland. Hers is a dream she can now hope to realise, thanks to the relative stability she has at home and at school.

And while the dedication and hard work of the British Council and its associated charities is highly commendable, it will all be for nothing until young people like Razia are allowed the peace to dream again.

* Names have been changed.

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