DIWANIYAH, Iraq - As U.N. inspectors scour Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is rehabilitating schools and distributing school kits to help build a compassionate, more peaceful relationship with the Iraqi people.
"These school kits are 'weapons of mass instruction,'" said Menno Wiebe, MCC co-representative for Iraq and Jordan.
About 70 percent of schools in central and southern Iraq are in need of rehabilitation, according to UNICEF. There is a chronic shortage of basic school supplies and teaching aids. As well, given the economic stagnation in Iraq, schoolchildren are more likely these days to avoid classes to search for work. Twenty percent of Iraq's young children are not in primary school, with nearly twice as many girls staying out of school as boys.
Despite the poor state of education in the country, MCC with its partner Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA), supports positive efforts to counter the deterioration. MCC has over the last year rehabilitated four schools and is providing 28,000 school kits to needy students.
A year ago, broken windows, chipped plaster and fading paint on dirty walls characterized the Al-Fatua Primary school located in Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad. With the support of MCC, the school has been transformed.
During a visit to the school this past summer, school principal Sa'ad Dakhil was markedly optimistic. New cement was drying nearby and bright walls reflected the sunlight as Dakhil expressed gratitude and talked excitedly about MCC's rehabilitation of the school. He showed off the re-paved playground, painted classroom walls, new windows and refurbished school toilets, previously unuseable.
Approximately 600 boys attend the school. During the school year, two shifts of classes move through each day. Education is free in Iraq, but two wars, 12 years of economic sanctions and nationalist government policies have depleted the country's resources and wilted the infrastructure.
Standing with the principal were a group of Al-Fatua students who live nearby. One, Nassir Hassan, talked about his dream of being a doctor.
Sa'ad Dakhil said that Nassir is an exceptionally good student and could go on to further studies at Qadisiyah College or elsewhere, depending on how supportive and financially secure his family is. The principal explained that many families in the area live in poverty -- parents are traders or soldiers but many still cannot afford to buy clothes for their children.
"These children are poor," said Sa'ad Dakhil, indicating the students. "Some don't have shoes." The government gives these children some textbooks, but pens and stationary remain inaccessible for many.
Because of the highly-developed school system that existed in Iraq before 1990, members of the older generation are often well-educated. In fact, said Sa'ad Dakhil, "many teachers are over-qualified."
It has not been easy supporting these teachers, he said. A sanctions-era teacher's salary of 10,000 to 20,000 dinars ($7.50 Cdn/$5 U.S. to $15.40 Cdn./$10 U.S.) per month is not terribly encouraging. According to the principal, some teachers leave the profession to start shops or get other jobs, though many do stay out of a sense of duty.
With the additional provision this year of MCC school kits to school-age children, Iraqi educators like Sa'ad Dakhil hope simple gestures of solidarity and peace will motivate students and teachers alike, re-igniting a passion for learning.
Edward Miller is MCC program coordinator in Iraq.
=A9 2003 Mennonite Central Committee
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