By Claire Hajaj
AMMAN, Jordan, 9 October 2007— The first day back at school for students at Baghdad’s Al-Amal Primary School is a reason to celebrate. Children squeal with excitement as they see old friends. The playground, so bare and empty over the summer holidays, has filled with colour and sound.
Last year was one of the most difficult in recent memory for for students here. Lessons were cut short by violence. Many teachers left. Classrooms and washrooms fell into disrepair and water was cut off. But this year, students and teachers have reason to hope.
Tamarra, 11, a serious-minded sixth grader, knows what it’s like to be hungry for an education. “I love my school,” she says. “But last year we could not always come to class because of the explosions in my area. My mother was afraid for me, so I missed many lessons.”
A desperate struggle to learn
The first day in the classroom is a small miracle for Tamarra and her family, who still remember how hard she struggled to learn during the past year.
Child-friendly classrooms and school materials are a rarity in Iraq.
“Our difficulties were huge,” she says. “Continuous power cuts made it hard for us to do homework or prepare for our exams. There was no light so I could not see to study my books. And the weather was so very hot, without any air conditioning or fan. Many nights I did not sleep and then I was too tired to go to school the next day. It was terrible.”
School facilities were another problem for students – many have deep scars from years of neglect and conflict.
‘Totally unfit for learning’
“Our children had to study in conditions that are totally unfit for learning,” says Al-Amal School Headmistress Hala Hani. “There was no water and little electricity. And we couldn’t maintain a regular teaching schedule for even 10 days at a time, because so many students and teachers were leaving. Everyone was upset and frightened. It was chaotic.”
The toll on learning, not just in Baghdad but across the country, is reflected in last year’s exam results. Iraq’s Ministry of Education reports that only 28 per cent of all Iraqi 17-year-olds took their final exams this summer. And of those that did take the exams, only 40 per cent passed.
The toll that conflict took on education is reflected in the fact that only 28 per cent of all Iraqi 17-year-olds took their final exams this summer.
Restoring classrooms and hope
While conditions facing many Iraqi students are still grave, help arrived over the summer. UNICEF has sponsored a school restoration programme, through a special Integrated Community-Based Initiative for Children, which aims to rebuild Iraq’s essential community services.
Tamarra noticed a difference immediately.
“When I came back to school I saw that we had running water to drink,” she says. “We also have new toilets and new desks. We have balls and sports equipment for the physical education classes, and art supplies and school materials for the students. These things make a big difference to us, and they help our performance and our pride in the school.”
A victory for Iraqi families
“Every child in school is a victory for Iraqi families,” says UNICEF Iraq Chief of Education, Learning and Development Mette Nordstrand. “With so much uncertainly around them, a well-functioning classroom is their best source of hope.”
Tamarra echoes this feeling. She believes that if she stays at school, she can become a doctor in a more stable future. “My mother’s education has inspired me. I am determined to come through this painful time and succeed so we can grow up to be strong people,” she says.