Education battle plan for Iraq

Nov 25, 2003 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

‘Watch out for ali babas ,’ meaning thieves, is the last piece of advice I receive before climbing into a GMC in Amman, Jordan at midnight to take the 600 mile, 10 hour trip across the desert and into Baghdad. For all the headlines about this new war on terrorism, it is the ancient threat of highway robbery that harms most aid workers and journalists heading into lawless, tribal Iraq. But, as a former inner city Philadelphia schoolteacher, I figure I know a thing or two about surviving tough situations (‘or deescalating the situation’ as my mentor used to call it.) The driver tucks my $1,200 cash behind a car cushion, my laptop under the seat, and I wrap a black scarf around my blond head. Here goes the first dangerous leg of my highly dangerous six-month stint as a reporter in Iraq. If all goes well, I will be working on my first story by noon.

Christina Asquith

The war is still on, despite certain presidential claims about major combat being over. I will be introduced to Baghdad with the downing of a Chinook, the shelling of the Al Rasheed Hotel, and the bombing of the International Red Cross headquarters, a day in which 34 killed and 240 injured. More soldiers have died now since the war than during the war.

But I’m not here to write about fighting. I’m a former middle school teacher, and freelance journalist, with plans to cover the story of the rebuilding of the Iraqi school system. I fashion myself as a one-woman Education Bureau– probably Iraq’s first and only full-time schools reporter.

We educators know: while the violence dominates the headlines, it is the schools that will determine the future of Iraq. The true measure of victory will come five or ten years from now, when we see if Iraq has emerged as a stronger, more stable, Islamic democracy that has helped us prevent terrorism. So, while there is a “war” being fought, I want to know our strategy for winning the hearts and minds of the next generation, an answer I will find by examining the changes in the beleaguered educational system. As another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what it never was and never will be.”

Here’s the battle plan so far. Earlier this year, the U.S. government awarded Washington D.C. education company Creative Associates a $65 million contract to get the Iraqi schools up and running by October 1st. By my arrival, in mid October, they’d subcontracted to half a dozen companies and were shipping in desks, pencils, schools bags, and reprinting textbooks and retraining teachers. The majority of schools had opened. But only 1,000 of Iraq’s 16,500 schools – all of which had been open before the war – had been refurbished. The revised textbooks weren’t in yet.

The challenges will go beyond physical repair. What if Saddam had the schools serving as terrorist training camps, as has been rumored in the American media, and as they’re said to in Iran and Pakistan? How will we reverse three decades of Baath Party teachings, in which America and Israelis are evil snakeheads of the devil? Will we allow religion to be taught in schools-even though it violates our Constitution? How will we balance the heavy, handprint of the American defense department with respect for the cultures and traditions of Iraq– particularly if those traditions criticize us? Can the U.S. win over the generation of young children-who they’ve just invaded?

It’s important to make clear that the Americans aren’t starting from scratch. Iraqis have a long and proud culture of schooling. In the 1960s and 1970s, Iraq universities were among the best in the Middle East. Primary and secondary schools are secular, meaning that all religions are allowed, although there is one class of Islamic teaching. Iraqi parents send both their girls and boys to school. Believe it or not, Saddam even won a Unesco education prize in 1982 for eradicating illiteracy!

But schools were decimated by the Iran-Iraq war and U.N. sanctions, which starved them of pens, paper and maintenance. Printing presses stopped running. Teachers salaries sunk to as low as $4 a month, (university professors earned $400 a month, to give you a point of reference.) Schools became training grounds for militarism and Baath Party propaganda. Many parents had to pull their children out of school to work. Unicef estimated just before the war that 25 percent of Iraqi children did not go to primary school, at all, and that 70 percent of schools needed rehabilitation. Mind you, his is all before the firefights that broke out in schools during the war, the looting afterwards, in which everything from desks, light fixtures, plumbing and wiring. I would see a school without a front door-the looters had pillaged that, too.

A desert sunrise is a site to behold. There is little white or yellow light, like in my home of New York City. The rays begin pink, then turn purple, ending in flaming, burnt orange rays across miles of flat sand, dotted by date trees and broken only by the golden lines of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that will merge just north of Baghdad, a few hours away.

I watch a convoy of military humvees cruise past, soldiers in Ray bans perched atop with their fingers on the trigger. Across the flat landscape, Iraqi shepherds, with white scarves wrapped around their heads, swat at their donkeys. Since the war, each new sunrise brings a day full of surprises for Iraqis, and who knows what this one will hold. One thing I do know, the next six months will be full of surprises for a school system that is throwing off three decades of Saddam’s dark oppression and hoping to move towards a light in its future.

Christina Asquith has written about education for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Sports Illustrated and The UK Guardian. She recently finished her first book, The Paper School, about her first year as an emergency certified teacher in a tough school in North Philadelphia. She can be contacted in Baghdad at christinaasquith@hotmail.com

 

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