Back to School in Iraq
By Cassandra Markham Nelson, based in Al Kut, Iraq
A school in Wassit, Iraq, in June.
(Photo: Cassandra Nelson)

A frown crosses Eptisam's face as she hears the news. "But how can they delay starting school this year?" she asks her mother. The announcement was just made in Al Kut City that school will start on October 1 this fall, one week later than usual.

It's too hot in Iraq to go to school. "This summer has seen temperatures reaching up to 140 degrees, and there is no sign of it getting cooler any time soon," explains Mudhaffer Dhaffir, assistant to the director of education. "The electricity is still not working well, so we can't run the fans in the classrooms. It is just too hot for kids to go to class in the middle of the day, but we hope that by October it cools down enough."

Eptisam, who is 11 and in the fifth class of Itadye (the equivalent of elementary school in Iraq), has been looking forward to meeting up with her schoolmates again. She hasn't seen them since the end of July when school closed for summer break.

"I have spent most of the summer just sitting inside," said Eptisam. "It is very boring here, especially for girls because we cannot go out so much. The only thing I have done is play soccer with my little brother."

The days can seem very long in this small city in Iraq, especially for girls. Televisions rarely work due to power outages, swimming in public is forbidden for girls, and girls rarely are allowed to go out unless escorted by a male relative.

In another neighborhood in Al Kut, a boy named Emad, who is 12, has a very different reaction to the postponement of school.

"I am very happy to have an extra week of vacation," says Emad as he takes a break from playing soccer with his younger cousin. "School is boring. I hate sitting all day and having to recite my lessons. I like playing in the river and hanging out with my friends more."

Closed for War

Emad playing soccer.
(Photo: Cassandra Nelson)
During the war, schools were all closed for about 40 days in Wassit province, but even Emad didn't enjoy the unexpected vacation.

"During the war it was very bad," said Emad. "Because of the bombing my parents wouldn't let me leave the house for many days. We didn't have any way to contact our relatives or friends. My older brother tried to help me study so I wouldn't fall behind, but it was hard."

The kids and parents in Al Kut are all upset about the condition of the schools in the city. Most of the schools were looted after the war. "Everything was stolen—the desks, chalkboards, even the light bulbs!" says Eptisam. "And no one has come to fix our school. I don't know if I will even have a chair to sit on when school starts."

Reconstruction work has begun on some schools in the area, but many will not be fixed for several months.

"There are some foreign organizations helping to rebuild the schools here, but not enough has been done," says Mudhaffer. "The school department does not have any money to do the work ourselves. We only have money to pay the teacher salaries and that is all."

Rebuilding the Classrooms

Sadia with her birth certificate. When asked her age, Sadia did not know the answer, nor did her mother. They finally went and pulled out an old rusted cookie tin that had all the family's important documents, including her birth certificate, and found out that she was 13.
(Photo: Cassandra Nelson)
Sadia, who is 13, is looking forward to going back to school. She lives in Saeed Shatty, a poor, rural village that's an hour-long drive from Al Kut, where the school is being rebuilt.

"This will be my last year of school, so I want to learn as much as possible and see my classmates for the last time," says Sadia. "Here girls do not go to school after Itadye."

In Saeed Shatty, the middle school, or Mutawasat, is very small and there are not enough classrooms or teachers to hold separate classes for boys and girls. Most of the parents refuse to let their daughters go to the school because of these conditions. There is no Adadee, or high school, in the village, so boys who want to continue to study must go to Al Kut.

Ahmed, 10, also lives in Saeed Shatty. He is looking forward to going back to class. "We study Arabic, history, math, science, the Koran, and English," says Ahmed as he tends to his daily chore of caring for his family's cattle. "I want to go to college and be an English teacher someday. I just hope they have my school fixed soon so I can go."