Iraqi schools, once renowned, still reeling from war
The US has rebuilt and resupplied Iraqi schools. But amid continued sectarian violence and attacks on educational institutions and teachers, the system still needs security and hope.
Security has improved across Iraq, and along with it attention to an education system battered by decades of deprivation, and, since US forces took over in 2003, attacks by Islamist militants intent on disrupting daily life.Skip to next paragraph
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Higher salaries are designed to keep the best teachers in the country, or entice return from exile. Budgets have increased, and the US embassy is providing teacher-training programs and other aid for which educators here say they are grateful.
But teachers say vast uncertainties remain in a system once renowned for producing top professionals, from doctors to engineers. Iraqi statistics count 31,598 violent attacks against educational institutions in the first five years of US occupation. During the peak of sectarian killing from 2005 to 2007, some 340 university professors and 446 students were killed by insurgents and militiamen.
The result has been a degradation of Iraq's fragile social texture, which teachers say is reflected in a drop in some students' willingness to learn and increased criminality. "Again we feel it is a bit peaceful [now], but underneath, no, there is something fundamental" that has changed, says one English professor who asked not to be named, and who has received death threats.
Years of exposure to violence and fear have taken a toll. "For Iraqi boys, what's the point of [getting a degree] when your life is threatened?" asks the teacher. "This is so much more of an influence. So we really can't talk about ideals because this is the fabric – this is the raw material that is to be used for education."
Another English teacher – one of a dozen who met this month with Jill Biden, the wife of the US vice president and also an educator – explained why she did not want her name in print. "Because things are not stable here still, you know," said the teacher, adjusting her head scarf. "They could kill or kidnap me."
'You can't expect miracles'
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the spirit of teachers was tested as ministries and schools were looted and bloodshed increased. In 2007, the English teacher who recently met with Biden survived a mortar shell that landed nearby and watched as sectarian violence took its toll on her mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood.
"Believe me, there was a time when you were walking in the street, and you could feel people pointing and saying, 'You are from the other side,' " recalls the teacher. "So imagine, in this situation, how creative can you be in your job when you are teaching? You can't expect miracles."
She left but returned in 2008, convinced that she had to help rebuild her country – pushing back against the sectarian impulses and years of violence.
Iraq's once-vaunted educational system has suffered for decades – and more intensely in the violence that followed the US invasion. Education is key to a stable Iraq, but requires more than supplies and new classrooms to thrive.