Neglected under ISIS, schools in eastern Mosul overflow with students once again

Just weeks after the eastern part of the city was liberated, schools are scrambling to accommodate eager learners. Education suffered badly under ISIS, which imposed a curriculum filled with violent viewpoints and drove away students fearful of being forcefully recruited. 

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Girls fill their classroom at the Al Muthanna Primary School in eastern Mosul as school resumes after nearly three years of Islamic State rule and a jihadist curriculum in Mosul, Iraq.

Classes are overflowing at Al-Muthanna primary school in eastern Mosul, just weeks after Iraqi security forces ended the self-declared Islamic State’s nearly three-year reign here. 

The melodic chanting of schoolchildren is punctuated by mortar fire shot from a nearby military base, as the battle to liberate western Mosul rages just across the Tigris River. But even that sound is welcome to those busily trying to resuscitate an education system stunted by a jihadist curriculum and IS’s unforgiving regime.

“This noise, when we hear this, we are happy because they are attacking IS – we are so happy!” says an English teacher who gave her name as Fatima, as the mortars let off another volley.

Education was a key casualty of the occupation, which began in June 2014. Some residents describe threats to teach the new IS curriculum or be jailed; others talk of how they were forced to stay at home for years, drinking tea and nervously smoking as the world outside changed unrecognizably. Students – also often locked as safely as possible behind closed doors – slowly gave in to despair as opportunities disappeared.

For residents of an ancient Iraqi city long renowned for the quality of its education and its historical embrace of ethnic diversity, it was a devastating loss.

“In the IS time, the oxygen was different,” says Fatima, referring to the suffocating existence under the jihadists. Now, she says, “it’s a new life."

IS’s curriculum emphasized prayer and mosque life – and perpetual war. Primary school math books taught that one bullet plus one bullet equals two bullets, and older children were indoctrinated in the virtues of IS and their jihadist “holy war,” in which killing all “infidels” was a required test of faith. 

“We need at least five to 10 years to return and clean out what IS has done to our education and our society,” says Mahdi Saleh Marie, a professor of modern European history and historical texts who taught at Mosul University – which became an IS base, was renamed “Islamic University,” and is now largely a burnt ruin, part of its library reduced to ash.

“The main IS goal was to destroy education, to make their caliphate,” says Professor Marie, who refused to teach during the IS era and kept a low profile. In charge of a city of some 2 million residents at its peak, IS was unable to force all students to go to school, or all teachers into class.

“IS came smoothly, kindly, but after two to three months, their mask was gone, and people directly recognized the purpose behind their actions,” says Marie. His eldest son, a college engineering student, was fatally struck by shrapnel from an IS mortar that hit near their home in January, just hours before their neighborhood was freed from IS.

“There is no limit for them,” he adds. “They are trying to teach how to fight, how to kill anyone in the world who is their enemy. Christian, Jewish, even us [Muslims]. If you are not with them, you are their enemy.”

A violent curriculum

The Save the Children charity last November warned that more than 1 million Iraqi children in Mosul had been “out of school or forced to learn from an IS curriculum.”

That curriculum includes a text for 6-year-olds titled, “The Islamic State is Remaining and Expanding,” according to a late-2016 report by the Iraqi Institute for Development (IID), a local peacemaker organization that first formed in Mosul in 2003. 

Math books ask students to calculate the number of explosives that can be produced by an IS bomb-making factory, notes IID. One problem asks students to figure out how many Shiite “unbelievers” – Muslims deemed heretics by the Sunni extremists of IS – can be killed by a suicide car bomb.

The plus sign was apparently forbidden, because IS saw it as symbolizing a Christian cross.

“This will have a significant impact on the minds of children … and will lead to the emergence of a new radical, violent, and bloody generation,” concluded IID.

Childlike joy

Yet today, the students’ smiles are irrepressible.

“Look at our children, they have come here with pleasure, despite the risk of [IS quad-copter] drones and bombs,” says Ahmad Maree Khatab, a high school English teacher with purple-tinted glasses and a carefully trimmed goatee, as he waits for his two sons to finish class at the primary school.

“They are happy despite the war, despite the threat of IS, because IS is ignorant – they were not educated,” says Mr. Khatab. “All our sons refuse, refuse, refuse this [IS] curriculum. It’s about killing, it is against humanity … it spreads killing, kidnapping, and hate. 

“Their curriculum is just IS, and you must kill everyone else,” says Khatab. “Our children – most of them were shocked by IS, and with the help of God we will defeat them.” 

A tough road for high-schoolers

The Resalah Islamiya High School for boys, where Khatab teaches, exemplifies how the IS legacy is difficult to erase.  

The building sits on a main road, and did double duty as an IS base. More than a month after Iraqi forces declared eastern Mosul liberated, all the windows are still broken, and there is diesel fuel smeared in hallways, classrooms, and the director’s office – evidence that IS tried to burn the place down.

“Now all the classes are full, take a look,” says Assam Mohsin Jalili, the gray-mustachioed director in a black fez cap, whose name adorns the list of past directors painted on a board in the office. Two tall sporting trophies from earlier days sit high on a shelf, having survived IS. A sizable chunk of ceiling plaster has fallen, and sheets cover the diesel spill on the couch. 

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Classes have resumed at the Resalah Islamiya High School for boys in eastern Mosul. 'I never believed we would be back,' says one student who struggled during the IS years.

“Now if you talk to students, they feel very bad and sad, because 2 ½ to 3 years of their lives are gone,” says Mr. Jalili. Before IS came, 1,100 young men studied here. Four hundred fled with their families, and soon after, IS came to the school and vowed to recruit 400 of those who remained.

“They wanted to talk about jihad,” recalls Jalili. “The next day only 20 students came.”

That figure finally grew to 40 – all of them, says Jalili, “sons of IS.” The staff of 40 teachers were given a letter with a choice to teach or not. Feeling safer with a collective decision, they all refused, along with Jalili, and were sent home.

Now he pores over a list of teachers. Some are still displaced by the events in Mosul; three weeks ago he closed the school for three days because of IS shelling from the west.

Mosul education is “empty right now,” and students are returning with “bad in their hearts and their minds” after the IS experience, says Jalili. For 1,100 students, he so far has received just 50 English books and 250 Arabic grammar and 250 literature books from the Iraqi Ministry of Education.

“If I give one grammar to Abdul, I give one literature book to Mohamed,” he laments.

The fact that western Mosul is still largely in IS hands makes everything uncertain. One bright light is the hundreds of education kits that arrived from UNICEF with notebooks, pens, and paper.

First in line to collect his, ahead of a gaggle of noisy young men, is Omar Ahmad, a tall and slight 21-year-old.

“I never believed we would be back,” says the student, wearing a fashionable white sweater and a stylishly slicked back hairstyle. He says he doesn’t care that the windows are all broken, or that the buildings are in disrepair, because “it’s my future.”

He and his schoolmates recount tedious months trapped inside, to avoid IS enforcers or recruitment. They had books, and watched a lot of movies.

“It’s very difficult. You just couldn’t go out,” says Farouk Firas, a friend of Mr. Ahmad in the UNICEF supplies line. He spouts American-accented lines from US movies, and says being back in class “feels like hope.”

“We have this feeling of being left behind,” says Mr. Firas. “Psychologically, it’s hard to recover.”

“The worst is that we feel we lost our futures in the war,” adds Ahmad. 

Reopening doors

Reopening the door to those futures is the aim of educators at the nearby primary school, who in many cases say they were forced to teach. 

Before IS, as many as 500 students learned here. That number plummeted to 50 during jihadist rule, but has grown again to 650 to accommodate pupils from ruined schools. Boys’ classes are held in the morning; girls’ in the afternoon.

“All the parents were afraid to send their children,” says Montather Omar Mohamed, deputy director of the boys’ primary school, and a 32-year teaching veteran. The school opened in the mid-1970s and has produced many teachers, engineers, and doctors. Behind her desk, 20 framed certificates adorn the wall.

IS “changed all the program, about assault and killing. It was so extreme,” says Ms. Mohamed. In the science book, on page 53, for example, it explained how the body needs food for fuel, “to do a lot of things – pray, fasting and to conduct jihad.” The flimsy booklets were the first thing to go when IS was defeated. 

Two doors away, the director of the girls’ primary school is surrounded by boxes of new textbooks from the Education Ministry, coveted items over which she keeps careful guard.

Iman Ghanem Mohamed recalls how IS forced her to reopen the school when it first took over, threatening to “punish” her if she did not.

Two thickly bearded IS fighters arrived in her office in 2014 – wearing what they call “Kandahari” dress with short trousers, favored by IS – to conduct an inspection.

They wanted her to take down the map of Iraq, because, they said, IS had removed the borders between Iraq and Syria. But they settled instead for simply covering the name “Iran” with a piece of tape, because the Shiite-majority nation of “infidels,” they said, did not exist. 

Ms. Mohamed says she managed to get away with refusing constant demands to completely cover her face. But one item caught their attention above all – a small hand bell, rung every day at break times and at the end of class. 

“They did not accept that bell, they thought it was a Christian thing,” recalls the school director, who was forced to hide it away for years of IS rule. “They said, ‘If I see this again, I will put you in jail.’” 

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