Amid Mosul rubble, a crucial challenge: rebuilding education

Rebuilding Mosul's once-vaunted educational system is a crucial investment in Iraq's future as it seeks to overcome years of war, deprivation, and sectarian conflict, officials and educators say.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
The Mosul Jadiida Primary School for Girls awaits renovation for the new school year in western Mosul, Iraq, on Aug. 11. It was burned by an Islamic State suicide car bomb that in March 2017 targeted a temporary Iraqi Security Forces base set up across the street.

The Iraqi teacher’s school is wrecked.

The façade is burnt black from an Islamic State suicide car bomb, every window is broken, and everywhere are the signs of a war that has ravaged children’s education as much as it has shredded Mosul’s social fabric.

Sundus al-Yusuf can’t wait to get back into her western Mosul classroom to teach lessons in Arabic and math. Within weeks, classes are set to resume across Iraq.

But so far, after nearly three years of curriculum-changing ISIS occupation, and a nine-month assault by Iraqi security forces that left entire swaths of western Mosul in ruins, an Iraqi flag hanging from a rooftop pole is the only attempt to restore pride.

Rejuvenating the city’s broken education system is just one window into the monumental task of rebuilding Mosul from the rubble. But, say officials and educators, it is a crucial investment if Iraq’s future is to overcome years of war, deprivation, and sectarian conflict.

“The importance of education in supporting reconciliation efforts and helping children deal with the trauma of what they have gone through cannot be overstated,” says Laila Ali, a spokeswoman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in northern Iraq.

Ms. Yusuf, who lives near the Mosul Jadidah Primary School for girls, where she taught, says half her school is burned, and the other half looted. “Now there is no decision on when it will open,” she says.

“ISIS changed everything, and 90 percent of the students left,” says Yusuf, noting how her school enrollment dropped from 300 students to just 35 students overnight, when ISIS seized Mosul in June 2014.

She says she was forced to teach for a year by ISIS, then then allowed to spend the last two years the last two years of ISIS occupation at home.

“The problem is the Ministry of Education wants to do a lot of things, but has no money to prepare the school and books,” adds Yusuf. “ISIS burned the books.”

The UN, which has requested nearly $1 billion in assistance for the people of Mosul, estimates that 15 of western Mosul’s 54 residential districts are completely destroyed, and 23 of them moderately damaged. The UN reckons that more than $700 million will be required to stabilize and make those areas livable.

Despite the damage, more than 100 schools have reopened recently in western Mosul, enabling some 75,000 children to return to school, according to UNICEF.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Classrooms overflowed at the Al Muthanna Primary School in eastern Mosul, Iraq, when school resumed in February 2017 after nearly three years of Islamic State rule over the eastern half of the city.

Yusuf reels off figures circulating among educators, that 60 percent of schools in western Mosul are damaged, and that 40 percent of students are “not here” – presumed to be among the 950,000 Mosulis who fled the city since last October, when Iraqi forces launched the anti-ISIS offensive.

The half of Mosul east of the Tigris River was officially “liberated” in February, with far less damage than the western side. Since then, 400 schools have re-opened on the east side to accommodate some 400,000 children, says UNICEF.

This western half was declared free on July 11, though ISIS sleeper cells, booby-traps, and unexploded ordnance are still taking a toll.

Still, an estimated 60,000 people have so far returned to the west side, and the Ministry of Education has promised that exams postponed earlier this year would be held on Aug. 23, with the regular school year set to begin in mid-September.

But as of last week Yusuf had heard little about how exams might be held under conditions of such destruction, never mind a heat wave that each day has brought temperatures to 115 degrees F.

'Patterns of displacement'

And in a city once renowned across Iraq for its educational prowess, says Yusuf, one fact towers above all: the destruction of buildings, dramatic imposition of a jihadist ISIS curriculum that taught “one bullet plus one bullet equals two bullets,” and severe dislocation of families and entire communities all add up to “100 percent damage” to western Mosul’s education system. That, he says, means students are “starting from zero” post-ISIS.

“Many of these children have missed three years of their education and they are all eager to be back in the classroom, learning and aspiring towards a better future,” says Ms. Ali, the UNICEF spokeswoman.

A recent UNICEF report described the impact of war on Iraqi children.

They are “struggling with the physical and psychological wounds of war. Half of those being treated in trauma centers in west Mosul with bullet and shrapnel wounds are children,” notes the June report.

“Violence has generated patterns of displacement and destruction, and pushed more than 1 million children out of school, leaving them with fewer skills and at higher risk of sinking into poverty,” wrote UNICEF.

Even the process of “liberation” from ISIS can prove devastating, as this southwesterly neighborhood discovered when it was one of the first to be recaptured by Iraqi forces, in March.

Iraqi counter-terrorism troops set up a forward base in a house directly across the street from the school, which attracted the ISIS suicide car bomb on March 11, killing five or six people, the Yusuf family recalls. That explosion ravaged the school building.

Less than a week later, on March 17, the Jadidah district became infamous for another reason: A rapid string of airstrikes by the US-led coalition targeting ISIS militants on rooftops and in narrow alleys collapsed buildings on civilians sheltering in basements, killing more than 200.

A dearth of books

When the primary school opened temporarily in June, predictable problems arose. Aside from the missing teachers and students, supplies were slow in coming, and never enough.

On average, Yusuf says, there might be 20 books for 90 students. For social studies classes, there were just three books for 80 students – numbers which meant over-reliance on less-effective blackboard learning.

“Right now the students understand nothing, because [ISIS] affected their minds,” says Sajida Mahmoud al-Yusuf, a supervisor of education for western Mosul until 2003.

“Students don’t have shoes or clothes or money; most of their houses are destroyed,” says Sajida, who is teacher Sundus Yusuf's sister. In many cases the level of destruction means students are sitting on the ground.

“There are no desks, no chairs. Why no chairs? Because ISIS burned them to keep warm in winter, and to cook,” she says. Under ISIS “there was suffering, everything was bad. They just wanted to say, ‘We opened the schools' for propaganda purposes.”

Similar challenges and guarded optimism were voiced in eastern Mosul in February, weeks after Iraqi forces took total control. The fight there was less destructive than in western Mosul, where ISIS declared its Islamic “caliphate” in 2014 and dug in for a fight to the death.

In February, Mosul education was “empty” and students were returning with “bad in their hearts and their minds,” Assam Mohsin Jalili, director of the Resalah Islamiya High School for boys in eastern Mosul, told the Monitor at the time. Since then, UNICEF and other aid agencies have chipped in to help his school and others.

Eager to begin

Mr. Jalili’s previous concerns have now turned to optimism for Mosul.

Depending on their resources, Jalili predicts it will take eight months to a year for western Mosul schools to recover, though if there is little help from nongovernmental organizations, “it will take longer,” he says.

The Ministry of Education ordered students who fled the west side for the east side to return for the upcoming academic year.

“The ministry is supporting them, and that’s good,” says Jalili. “Right now the community is refusing ISIS. People lost everything for ISIS.”

That high price of the ISIS presence is felt in western Mosul at the girls’ school, where the view looking outside through smashed windows is of two destroyed cars and piles of charred rubble across the street.

The few usable chairs and desks are crowded into the few usable classrooms. Many walls are blackened with fire. The stench of burning seems permanent.

But Yusuf the teacher is optimistic, and says all eight teachers and 300 students can’t wait for the first day of school, whenever that comes.

“I am looking forward to everything being ready for the students,” she says.

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