"I could not go to school when IS was here. I did not like their schools," says ten-year-old Amina.
She and many other Iraqi children have missed years of schooling. In former IS group-controlled areas, many families simply prohibited their children from going to school because IS had changed the curriculum, rooted in violent ideology.
10 million children back in school
During the conflict, more than three million children lost years of schooling. Today, cities that were controlled by IS have all been retaken by Iraqi authorities, and this autumn, more than 10 million children are back in school, according to the Iraqi government.
Among them, about one million children are going to school for the first time.
Amina lives in Al-Qa’im, a city situated north-west of Baghdad and near the Syrian border. For four years it was under the rule of IS group and Amina stayed at home, doing nothing apart from helping her mother with housework. Now, one year after the Iraqi government’s retaking of Al-Qa’im, she is finally back in the fourth grade.
"I am very happy to be back in school. All I do now is study. I hope to one day become an architect or engineer and build a nice house for my mother and all the people I love."
Amina and other children like her have been waiting for years for their schools to reopen – to see their friends again and to study and play.
Amina’s teacher Suha believes the years out of school have made the children appreciate school even more. "They are now excited about school and study more than ever. These children were home disconnected from other children of their age, and they are so happy to socialise again and participate in school activities."
At the same time, Suha is worried that the education level will not be same as before with limited government resources and little support from the international community. Funds are necessary to be able to rebuild schools and provide desks, blackboards and school supplies such as books and stationery. "Some families are not sending their children to schools because they cannot afford buying school supplies," she says.
Afraid to go to school
Eight-year-old Mohammed was too afraid to go anywhere outside his house without the company of his parents when Al-Qa’im was under IS-rule. He was isolated from the outside world and stayed at home.
The citizens of Al-Qa’im were badly treated by the city’s rulers, who would often shout, beat people on the streets or imprison them.
"Mohammed was traumatised by what he saw," says his mother, explaining that he refused to go to school even after the authorities had retaken the city. "When we first enrolled him, he was crying every morning before school. He was begging us to not send him. He was afraid and shy after having been disconnected from people for several years."
Now, she says, Mohammed loves his school and studies hard with the support of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) summer school and its teachers. NRC’s education staff collaborated with teachers in Al-Qa’im and provided summer classes in mathematics, social science, languages and other subjects from June to September. The summer school helped Mohammed, and many other children like him, to catch up the classes they had missed during IS control, and to socialise again after years of isolation.
"Mohammed wants to become a doctor, but in order for his dream to come true, there’s a need for more support for education. The condition of the schools, the lack of books and furniture discourages students from studying," says Mohammed’s mother.
According to UNESCO, primary school enrolment rate in Iraq was almost at a 100 per cent and literacy levels were high before the Gulf war in 1991. Since then, education levels have decreased, because of ongoing wars and instability.
In Al-Qa’im, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) collaborated with teachers and provided summer classes in mathematics, social science, languages and other subjects. The summer school helped children to catch up the classes they had missed during IS’ control of the city, and to socialise again after years of isolation.
Teachers at the school worry that the education level will not be the same as before because the schools lack funding from the government and the international community. Funds are necessary to be able to rebuild schools and provide desks, blackboards and school supplies such as books and stationery. It is essential that the Iraqi government, with the support of its international partners, invest in the future of its children and ensure that, like Amina, everyone goes back to a safe learning environment this fall.
Bringing them back to schools safely
The years of missed schooling and living with fear, instability and displacement under IS-rule, have marked Iraqi children and youth.
Rahma, a 17-year-old student in Al-Qa’im Secondary School for Girls, left her home with her family to live in a farm outside the city. Her father decided to take his children out of school and the city to protect them from any harm that might be caused by IS.
Living in this abandoned area for a long period of time, not knowing what the future might look like, or when this nightmare would end often put Rahma in deep state of depression.
"I thought of suicide many times. I thought my life was pointless and not worth living," she says.
Rahma missed four years of study. "People around me said that I was too old to start school again, that it would not be possible to catch up on the years I had missed."
Attending NRC’s summer school helped her bring back her confidence. "With the help of NRC teachers and courses, I beat depression. They were patient and understanding. They encouraged me to go back to school, helped me understand it is not too late for me to go back to study, and helped me catch up on the years I missed."
Now she is glad to be back in school. "NRC’s catch-up classes in science, mathematics, social studies and languages helped me regain my confidence to go back to school. I started again from sixth grade of primary school, while girls my age are in high school, but that doesn’t matter. All I care about is being back where I belong and study hard to reach my goals," Rahma says with a smile on her face.