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Basra Struggles to Cope With Student Demand

As children begin returning to the classroom, the school infrastructure is in dire need of repair.
By an IWPR
The under-resourced and outdated school system in the southern province of Basra is straining to cope with the swelling numbers of children coming back into education there.

As demand for education increases, mainly because of the flow of displaced people to the relative safety of southern Iraq, as well as former residents returning from abroad, Basra’s under-funded schools are struggling.

The province is famous for its rich oil reserves, but its public services are in poor shape. Conflict over the last two-and-a-half decades, as well as the effects of United Nations sanctions imposed in the Nineties, has ravaged infrastructure and economic capacity throughout Iraq.

While Basra produces 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, its citizens see little of the revenue. Residents have to live with piles of garbage in the streets, poorly-equipped hospitals, and schools that often do not even have enough chairs for the children to sit on.

“We are a nation walking on oil yet thirsty for everything,” said Mohammed al-Abbadi, head of Basra’s provincial council. “The city is so devastated from these successive wars that it has turned into a desert in which it’s hard to determine where to start rebuilding.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the schools, where buildings are in urgent need of repair and lack basic resources such as books, chairs and desks. The curriculum often dates back to the Seventies, textbooks are out of date and teaching methods obsolete.

Teachers’ salaries are low and barely cover their transport to work, let alone living expenses and rent. Most are forced to take on a second job to make ends meet.

But in spite of these problems, the demand for education continues to grow.

Many adults who were forced to quit school in order to work to support their families through the economic hardships brought about by international sanctions in the Nineties now want to resume their studies in order to have a better future.

The demand is particularly high in southern Iraq as former residents return and refugees also come there to live to escape sectarian violence in the rest of the country.

According to Iraqi trade ministry, an estimated 270,000 people have returned to their homes in the southern provinces since 2003, many of them from exile in Iran. More than 170,000 displaced people have also come to live in the south, according to figures from Basra and Muthanna provincial councils, and the International Organisation of Migration, IOM, from towards the end of 2006.

School pupil Ala Sayid Rahim, 17, described the poor conditions at his school, “The windows are broken, and we use pieces of cardboard to protect ourselves from the cold days of winter.

"Pupils often have to sit on the ground because there are not enough chairs for all the students, and a shortage of teachers means classes are often cancelled. “We have not studied chemistry since last December.”

While there is conflict in Basra, much of the fighting is between rival Shia militias, so that civilians are less likely to be targeted. However, security remains a major impediment here, too.

Ali Kareem, media officer for the Secretary of Education at Basra provincial council, said the ongoing threat left many afraid to go to school. “Children are afraid to go to school. And there is a shortage of teachers because many women have left work due to the violence,” he said.

Last year Basra recorded the lowest attendance at its schools ever, he said.

Abbadi said much would have to be done to meet the increased demand for education and bring facilities up to standard.

“We have renovated some schools with support from international NGOs but there’s still a lot to be done to create a brighter future for our beloved students,” he said.

Central government has promised to make reconstruction in Basra a priority in the 2007 budget. Perhaps some of the schools will at least have windows when the winter returns.

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