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17.12.2019 - News

Iraq: School after Daesh

In Iraq, violent fighting forced thousands of families to flee, while others remained trapped under the occupation of Daesh. Two years after Tal Afar's release, the city is healing its wounds. Thousands of children are traumatised and out of school. Terre des hommes provides children with psychological and educational support to help them return to school.

Tal Afar, August 2017. Fierce fighting rages. The Iraqi army and paramilitary forces take over the last Iraqi stronghold of the Islamic state, entrenched within the city walls. Halfway between Mosul and the Syrian border, Daesh has taken over power there since 2014. 5000 civilians are trapped, the others have fled their homes. The city will be liberated a few days later.

Tal Afar, September 2019. The armed forces have left the city and the fighting has stopped. But the stigmas of war are still visible everywhere in the streets: ripped buildings and bullet-ridden walls rekindle memories that are still painful in people's minds.

At Abu Maria Primary School, children's screams and laughter echo in the courtyard. Around it, the classrooms of the small building all look the same: a worn-out whiteboard and old school benches. A tinkered switch turns on the old fans that provide a bit of air in the overwhelming heat of the late summer. While some children play outside, others focus on their writing exercises. A scene that would have been impossible just two years ago.

A classroom in Tal Afar.

"Life was very difficult under Daesh's occupation. There was no drinking water, no sugar for tea. There was nothing there. We were like dead people," says Dalia*, 12, in a timid voice. I couldn't leave the house because it was too dangerous due to Daesh and the mines." Like most families in the region, Dalia, her parents and four siblings lived under the control of the Islamic state for several years before fleeing to Mosul, leaving everything behind.

School dropout and trauma

Two years after Tal Afar's liberation, nearly half of the city's 200,000 inhabitants were able to return home. Child trauma and years of school dropout are among the major issues facing families today. During the Jihadist occupation, schools in the region were closed, used as weapons warehouses and sometimes bombed.

When classes resume, children and teachers face significant challenges. "We have noticed cases of violent behaviour among the students," explains Afrah Hamzeh, psychosocial support agent at Terre des hommes. Many children have been traumatised by this period. Most of them have lost a relative or family member.

"We had the case of a very aggressive 11-year-old child. He was always fighting with his classmates. His behaviour was the consequence the violence he had to face. He saw explosions during the conflict" Afrah continues. We provided this boy with psychosocial support and offered him a space for dialogue. His behaviour has really improved since then. Even his parents came to us to tell us that he had become a peaceful and kind child."  

Read also: In Baghdad's prisons for children

A support adapted to each child

Active on the front line in Iraq since 2014, Terre des hommes teams were able to start their work in Tal Afar very quickly after the city's liberation. Since the end of 2017, they have been working in the region to support children's return to school - nearly 1600 in 2019. The work is done with the children themselves, to whom we offer individual or group psychological support, depending on their needs. For children who have difficulties in the classroom, we organise catchup classes in four areas: Arabic, English, math and science.

Catch-up classes help students to return to the official school curriculum more easily.

Amal*, 15, says with maturity: "Games give us the opportunity to express ourselves and talk about the problems we have at home or in the neighbourhood. I was very shy before and as I went along, I learned to hold my head up high and speak louder.”

In the courtyard of Abu Maria's school, the excitement is high. Two teams are trying to move a stick as quickly as possible through a hoop and cone course. Each team encourages its player by screaming and jumping. "These activities help children forget difficult times," says Abdel Aziz, child protection specialist. In addition to providing a distraction, these moments are mainly used to teach children life skills such as cooperation, mutual aid, communication and negotiation.

Afrah Hamzeh, psychosocial support agent at Tdh, animates a game in a Tal Afar school.

Education, the key to the future

In Tal Afar, the contrast between omnipresent destruction and hope is striking. At a pivotal moment in Iraq's development, education plays more than ever a key role in ensuring a future for the younger generation and thus consolidating the future of their country. Like Amal, for whom the biggest wish during the conflict was to return to school one day. "I would like to become the first female teacher in my village and teach children who have never been to school.”


Read the full report in our Courage magazine.


Photo credit : © Tdh/Vincent Haiges
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.


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