Crumbling Iraqi Schools Await Critical Repairs; Teachers, Students Struggle with Social Changes

Article excerpt

Byline: James Palmer, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BAGHDAD - Iraq sought $3.2 billion to rebuild its education system at an international donors conference in 2003 and hopes to build 4,500 schools in the next four years, but officials say existing schools still need repairs.

The Shalaw Abuchon high school in central Baghdad is a crumbling heap of mortar, but students and teachers have no alternative. In one classroom, electrical wires dangle from a pockmarked wall like snakes ready to strike.

As the school prepares to begin its next year, paint peels in sheets on the back wall, and the door lacks a handle. In the hallway, powdery white dust covers the floor where plaster has rained from the ceiling. Shards of glass jut from a shattered window on the landing of the stairway to the second floor.

Eman Fadhel, 27, the school's deputy principal, says the plumbing has been destroyed. She buys water on the street with her own money so the janitors can clean.

"We have become accustomed to this," she said. "The students must learn, so the teachers must manage, somehow, but we need help."

More than two years after the U.S.-led coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein, the successor government is struggling to rehabilitate dilapidated schools and restructure Iraq's education system. Teachers and students must adapt to a society that is trying to become a democracy.

The Education Ministry reports that 80 percent of Iraq's 14,924 schools need repairs and about 40 percent need major rehabilitation.

In the 10 months ending in March 2004, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) donated $35 million to repair schools and provide supplies in central Iraq. Part of the money was earmarked for 1,560 of the 1,700 schools in Baghdad.

Usama Yassen, 27, a middle school math teacher and deputy principal, said a Lebanese construction firm was hired to repair his school, but he thinks the changes are only cosmetic.

"They painted the walls, but did little else," Mr. Yassen said. "The work and the materials were shoddy."

Naeim Saleh, deputy principal at Ali Hassan al-Sahde high school in Baghdad, said contractors spent one day building a wall outside the school and painting inside. "They came in and looked around, returned the next day to work, and then left," Mr. Saleh said.

Iraqi teachers and students say the distribution of school supplies was as slapdash as the repairs. Schools in Baghdad were given $750 each last year from USAID for notebooks, book bags, pens and chalk, but many of these soon appeared on the black market.

Hatham Kadam, 31, owns a small kiosk in Baghdad's central market, where merchants line either side of a long, narrow corridor under a high roof. He said he doesn't like to sell USAID war-relief goods but often has no choice. "My supplier mixes them up with the regular items, so I have to buy them if I want to restock my shop," Mr. Kadam said.

Mr. Yassen, whose students are mostly Shi'ite Muslims, thinks corruption is the primary source behind illicit sales of school supplies. "I went to the warehouse and could gather only enough for a little more than half the 1,200 students at my school," he said. "The warehouse was nearly empty, but the black market is filled with them."

Iraq's Sunni Muslims, the main supporters of Saddam, refuse help offered by the United States.

Ghassan Abdulheed, 30, an English teacher at a predominately Sunni high school in the capital, said the parents of most of his students refuse to accept American supplies because of their opposition to the U. …