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Iraq's Unschooled Children Evidence of Devastation's Depth

Corinne Reilly

Iraqi children walk in front of barb wired barricade on they way to a school in town of Baquba, in Diyala province some 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad October 15, 2008. (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

BAGHDAD - At age 14, Ahmad Razaq has worked more jobs than he can
count. He's painted houses, cleaned office buildings and supervised a
janitorial crew. Lately he spends his days washing cars for a few
dollars a week outside a dingy hotel in Baghdad.

He's never set foot inside a classroom. He's only heard about school
from friends. He can't read or write, and he figures he never will.

want to go to school, but I think it's too late for me now," Ahmad
said, standing outside his family's dilapidated shack in Baghdad's
Karrada neighborhood. "Besides, you need money to go to school."

is the way many Iraqi children live, working for meager wages or
staying at home instead of going to school. Though Iraq's Education
Ministry disputes their statistics, the United Nations and aid
organizations estimate that about a fifth of school-aged children here
don't attend. Girls and children who live in rural areas are
particularly affected.

Violence has dropped dramatically across
Iraq in recent months, but fallout from the bloodshed - lost
livelihoods, broken families and disrupted institutions - will linger
for a long time. Children begging for money or selling cold sodas from
the side of the road are everywhere in Baghdad, even during school
hours. As much as anything, they bear witness to all the rebuilding
that's left for Iraq.

"There are so many ways it will hurt our
country's future if more children don't join school," said Mahmoud
Othman, a Kurdish member of Iraq's parliament. "It hurts our economy,
our standard of living, our entire development."

The biggest
reason that Iraqi children stay home from school is money. A public
education is free in Iraq, but a lot of families are too poor to afford
backpacks, notebooks and proper school clothes. The cost of living has
risen dramatically across the country in recent years and the
unemployment rate is around 50 percent.

"I can't buy milk for
them, so how can I buy schoolbooks?" asked Abeer Abdulrahman, a
36-year-old unemployed widow and mother of five. "I want to give them
more, but tell me how?"

Two of Abdulrahman's children are old
enough for school, 7-year-old Nora and 9-year-old Omar, but neither has
ever gone. They spend their days begging on the streets with their

"It's more important for my children to beg so we can eat," Abdulrahman said. "What good will education do?"

before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, low school enrollment was a problem.
It worsened along with violence after the war began.

By late
2006, many parents had decided it was too dangerous to send their
children to school. Other children stopped attending when their
families were forced by sectarian violence to flee their neighborhoods.
Some have re-enrolled and some haven't.

Instead of going to
school, 7-year-old Shahad Tahseen and her 6-year-old brother, Nibras,
sit in their grandmother's dirty one-room flat in central Baghdad. They
came here from a nearby neighborhood in 2006 after their parents were
shot and killed.

"We sold everything we have just to keep paying
the rent," said their grandmother, 63-year-old Halema Mohammed Faraj.
"We have no electricity, no water, no clean clothes. Reading and
writing are not on our minds."

A shortage of schools has added to
the problem. Especially in rural areas, the nearest school may be too
far away for children to get there every day.

Alaa Makki, a Sunni
Muslim lawmaker who heads parliament's education committee, estimates
that Iraq needs to build 4,500 primary, middle and high schools to
adequately meet the demand.

Teachers are also in short supply.
Since 2003, more than 250 educators have been assassinated and hundreds
more have left the country, according to the UN.

"Definitely, we
know that attendance is the most important challenge in front of our
committee," Makki said. "Unfortunately, there are others in the
government who try to minimize the seriousness."

Iraq's Education
Ministry badly underestimates the number of children who are out of
school, Makki said. A spokesman for the ministry, Walid Hussein, said
that only 6 percent of Iraqi children who should be in school are not.

is partly a problem of corruption and partly a problem of
under-qualified people working in the ministries," Makki said. "Even if
we were to put lots of money to it, things might not improve."

parliament, he said, efforts to pass legislation that could increase
school enrollment have failed. Lawmakers recently rejected a bill that
would provide salaries to college students, which Makki thinks would
encourage students at all levels to stay in school.

"They say
it's too expensive," he said. "They don't see it as a priority. . . .
For me, I think these children will grow up and have nothing, so they
will turn to violence and crime and other dangerous pathways. And then
we will pay the real consequences."

Husham Hassan doesn't know
how old he is but he looks about 10. He spends his days selling
inflatable toys at a busy intersection in Baghdad.

He said he
used to go to school but he stopped a few years ago when his family
left Baghdad's Sadr City district because of violence.

Asked about his future, Hassan scrunched up his nose in confusion.

"My future?" he asked, then paused.

"I will work. It will be just like today."

Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.


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