Mohammed Mahmoud Alawi, 15 (center), who has worked as a rag-picker in West Mosul since 2017, with his two younger brothers. They collect metallic and plastic objects to sell. Photo: Sebastian Castelier

From the disemboweled buildings of Mosul’s Old City, voices emerge. A family survives in the rubble of a half-destroyed house infested with rats.

The father, 55 and jobless, can neither buy school stationery nor afford the bus costs for his child. Mohammed, his 12-year-old son, is missing out on an education after going unschooled throughout the ISIS occupation of Mosul.

“Four years out of school! If my son remains ignorant, he’ll be easy prey. Leaders have forgotten that ISIS was composed of non-educated people. Keep kids ignorant and they’ll fall into the same hands,” Qathan Ahmed Younis told Asia Times.

His son is just one of nearly 3.5 million Iraqi children who either do not attend school or attend irregularly, according to UNICEF.

Iraqi children play in a pool of water in the foundations of a building under construction in western Mosul, Iraq. Photo: Sebastian Castelier

The needs, Zeina Awad, UNICEF’s chief of communication for Iraq,  tells Asia Times, are “enormous.”

Awad said, “UNICEF has helped to rehabilitate 315 schools to date and we’re currently working on another 38. We are committed to doing even more, especially in West Mosul, but we’ve been witnessing a shortage of funding.

“In the minds of many, the conflict in Iraq is over.”

3.5 million out of school

Once in control of a third of Iraq’s territory, ISIS developed a new curriculum for children living under its rule. Art and music were replaced by Islamic law and lessons gearing children toward jihad.

Numerous parents who were living in ISIS-controlled Mosul were afraid this indoctrinating education could entrench a culture of violence, extremism and hostility in their children’s minds. To avoid it, they kept them home from school.

Iraqi parents are now struggling to secure their children’s future, even with the country in dire need of a new generation ready to rebuild a peaceful Iraq

Iraqi parents are now struggling to secure their children’s future, even with the country in dire need of a new generation ready to rebuild a peaceful Iraq.

In the streets of Al Amal in western Mosul, Hala Helal, 37, looks at her seven young children who play in the yard. Three of them have reached school age. But the director of the nearby public school refused to register them, claiming that their administrative file was incomplete.

“I should provide a certificate attesting their enrollment in school for the years 2015, 2016 and 2017. Unfortunately, I don’t have such document,” Helal said.

When ISIS entered Mosul, Helal’s family had escaped to Iraq’s Kurdistan region, where she managed to put her children in school. No attendance certificate was issued.

“There is no future waiting for my children. ISIS came here in 2014, exploiting the non-educated people as it was easy to convince them. We are worried because the same fertile ground could reappear,” Helal said.

Blaming ‘ignorant parents’

A few kilometers away, moving between the lively rows of an overcrowded class at the Al Iraqia public school in western Mosul, teacher Huda Qasim Sultan feels helpless with 63 pupils in a single class.

Elementary school classes should not exceed 30 students “to guarantee a good quality of education,” she said.

Dozens of pupils attend a class with Huda Qasim Sultan, a teacher at Al Iraqia public school in Mosul, Iraq. Photo: Sebastian Castelier

In spite of those sub-par learning conditions, resident Mekhaibar Hamdoon dreams of seeing his 13- and 16-year-old daughters getting a chance to study at Al Iraqia.

Unfortunately, their applications have been rejected as well.

After four years out of school, to avoid ISIS classes, Teba and Sidra have to take an exam to demonstrate their academic level. But the father says he is lost in the bureaucracy of the application process and has no idea how to sign them up for the exam.

“Registration is possible but I feel lost. No one advised me on how to register my daughters,” Hamdoon said.

Hamdoon’s daughters keep asking him why their friend can go to school but not them. Ashamed, the 51-year-old father, says he has no words to answer.

“If we keep kids out of school, ignorant people will be everywhere,” he lamented.

‘I’d love to go back to school’

In western Mosul, an area heavily devastated during the war against ISIS, 62 schools are completely destroyed and 207 damaged, according to a report issued by the Norwegian Refugee Council in July 2018. Moreover, Mosul is in urgent need of 5,000 additional teachers and up to 100 schools, according to Sami al-Fadhly, head of public relations for the Nineveh Directorate of Education.

Fadhly nevertheless asserts that the local schools are up to international standards.

To justify the non-enrollment of numerous children in public schools, Fadhly tells Asia Times, “The fault lies with ignorant parents who have no idea about administrative processes.”

The Directorate of Education depends on the government for its budget, receiving funds from non-governmental organizations only for temporary projects such as the school repairs being carried out by UNICEF.

In western Mosul, an area heavily devastated during the war against ISIS, 62 schools are completely destroyed and 207 damaged

In the 2015-16 school year, Iraq spent only 5.7% of its government expenditure on education, which puts the country in the bottom rank of Middle East countries, according to UN children’s agency.

Far from the grey sofas of the Nineveh Directorate of Education, 15-year-old Mohammed Mahmoud Alawi scavenges in the rubble of Mosul’s Old City alongside his two younger brothers.

Together, they earn a monthly income of $80 that supports their unemployed father.

“I’d love to go back to school, the boy said,” “but I can’t because I work.”

While searching for metal components between the remains of buildings blown apart by the war against ISIS, Alawi occasionally comes across decomposing bodies of jihadist fighters left behind after the deadly battle.

Repelled by the smell, Alawi plugs his nose and resumes work to put food on the table.

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