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Earning Degrees in Survival

Iraq's once-prized educational system has crumbled, leaving generations of children unschooled and no one to rebuild a civil society.

October 28, 2002|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Martabha Saleem earns $4 to $5 a week peddling packs of cigarettes, more than a teacher, doctor or engineer gets in a month. The 14-year-old attends school, but the most important lesson he says he has learned while hawking goods up and down the streets of central Baghdad is that no amount of studying will help him, or his family, survive.

Survival is a lesson that Sheda Ibrahim, 15, is busy learning. Unable to attend classes for two years, she spends her time sitting in front of a television or helping her aunt in the kitchen. She says she can read but blushes and slams a book shut when asked to try.

She'd like to go to class, but her widowed mother insists that school was, is and will be impossible.

"I forced my daughter to leave school because of a shortage of money," said Iftekhar Ibrahim, 42. Classes are free, but the family cannot afford the paper, pencils and books. "I don't have enough money to spend," she said.

The outlook for Iraq, whether or not the U.S. makes good on its announced policy of getting rid of President Saddam Hussein, is grim. Much of the reason is the collapse of the educational system. Many Iraqis, especially youngsters like Martabha and Sheda, have already given up hope for a decent life and now are abandoning any dreams for the future as well.

"There is the full possibility that Iraq could break down as a state," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University, adding that the deterioration of education has had a "profound effect" on society. "The regime may stay on, but there will be no longer such a thing as Iraq."

Iraq was once a nation that prided itself on its schools. Parents from around the Arab world, and beyond, used to send their children here to study in the universities. But those days are well in the past.

Twenty-two years of war and international sanctions have turned Iraq into a nation of have-nots headed by an entrenched regime that stands above the day-to-day reality of how its citizens are forced to live. The government can no longer guarantee electricity, running water or health care, and so its citizens look to family, faith and their tribes for solace and security.

Individually, each shortfall hurts. But collectively they have doomed the education system, widely viewed as the foundation of any society. One in four children do not go to school and those who do receive less than four hours of instruction a day. Curricula haven't changed in 20 years. Instructors are hard to find, and those who are in the classrooms employ methods abandoned by the West decades ago, such as learning by rote.

The nation's run-down infrastructure and a lack of funds to repair it have conspired to make it nearly impossible for the school system to function. Impoverished families rely on their children to beg and peddle just so they can eat. Malfunctioning sewers leave many schools without functioning toilets, so children must run home in the middle of class to use the bathroom. Intermittent electricity means studying in the dark. No heat means cold classrooms in winter. Limited cash means too few school buildings, too few teachers, too few textbooks, too few pencils.

The result has been generations of uneducated or under-educated children. Less than 10% of eligible children are enrolled in kindergarten. More than 31% of girls are not attending primary school, and dropout rates for intermediate and preparatory levels have increased to as high as 38% in some grades. Literacy has plummeted, especially among women, from 87% in 1985 to 45% in 1995, the most recent year anyone has been able to keep statistics.

"The education is so poor here, parents feel what is the point," said Carel de Rooy, regional representative of UNICEF, which is renovating some schools and supplying chairs and desks to others. "A taxi driver can make more than an engineer."

The sanctions, which deny Iraq access to cash and limit its ability to import supplies, have played a large role in the deterioration of education, but they are not the only culprit. The besieged regime has not made education a priority, so it is not building schools. Experts said the nation needs 5,000 new schools just to meet its current demand. Because of the shortfall of educated professionals, the future is also a question mark. Gone are the specialists who might someday be able to rebuild the nation -- not only the infrastructure, but civil society itself.

"It will take over two generations just to get the country back to where it was in the '80s," said De Rooy. "It can take two, three, four years just to sort it out if we really focus on it. By the time you graduate the first professional, it will be 15 years."

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