- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

BAGHDAD — Janan Salam is behind in her studies, but the coltish 14-year-old hopes to finish fifth grade soon.

The past four years have raised many obstacles to her education: the killing of her father by Sunni insurgents, fighting near her family home in Diyala that made it dangerous to leave the house and her family’s move south to the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, where until recently, it was too dangerous to be on the streets.

Now, after a four-year break, she is back in school full time.

Janan is one of 650 students enrolled in the new Khafal Al-Yuteem primary school. The two-story cement and brick building is deep in Sadr City, one of Baghdad’s poorest neighborhoods, crammed with an estimated 2 million people.

Built specifically for Shi’ite children who have lost one or both parents, it is the first school of its kind financed by Iraq’s Education Ministry.

“Our project is to help our students move beyond their tragedies,” said Ashmail Kareem al-Khaffel, 38, a former art teacher and headmistress of Khafal Al-Yuteem girls’ school.

Protected behind 15-foot concrete walls along a rutted dirt road awash with sewage and trash, Khafal Al-Yuteem — “Caretaker of the Orphans” — offers students benefits not available in most Iraqi public schools.

Its 18 teachers occupy an equal number of classrooms, ensuring that none is filled with more than 25 students. In the typical government-run school, classrooms may hold 60 or more students. Mornings at Khafal Al-Yuteem are for the school’s 300 female students; 350 boys take over in the afternoon. English classes here begin at the first-grade level, two years earlier than at most government-run schools in Iraq.

Recently, girls swathed in white head scarves and sporting denim jumpers over white blouses brimmed with eagerness as they lined one of the school corridors. Behind the doors of many of the freshly painted classrooms, exuberant young pupils sat at new desks and shouted in unison as they recited lessons in response to their teachers’ cues.

Their enthusiasm was even greater when speaking of their new school, which opened April 5.

“I can’t explain how much better everything is here,” said Rahab Ghali, 11, who hopes to attend medical school someday.

“When I come here, I’m very happy,” said 10-year-old Ragat Mosan, who attended classes at her former school only three days a week because of security concerns. Now she goes to classes five days a week.

Instruction in the school appeared to be limited to academic subjects and, although the students all are Shi’ites, there was no evidence of any attempt to foster sectarian divisions.

Teachers at Khafal Al-Yuteem — who earn 400,000 Iraqi dinars per month, the equivalent of about $315 — seem as dedicated to their work as those elsewhere, even though their task is enormous.

“I have to go step by step and very thoroughly with them through the material, because honestly, many of the students are not well-educated at this point,” said Zaineb Khalaf, 26, an Arabic instructor at her first teaching job since graduating from college. “It’s a very slow process.”

Technology teacher Rana Hussein trains students with the school’s only computer. Complicating the situation, she said, is that none of the students has a computer at home.

The model for the school comes from the playbook of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who built his power base in Sadr City with charitable organizations and altruistic efforts. Today, his son, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose armed factions control Sadr City, is using his influence to obtain government funds and further expand his following.

Critics say the school’s $700,000 cost at government expense is further evidence of Sheik al-Sadr’s rising influence. Education Ministry officials deny that they bowed to his authority, but he does control a significant bloc in the current government.

“Because we’ve seen an increase in the number of attacks and civilians killed, we decided to build a school,” said Mohammed al-Mousari, 47, a ministry official who oversees schools throughout the eastern side of the capital, referring to events in Sadr City over the past year. “We hope to build more schools in Sadr City and throughout Iraq in both Shi’ite and Sunni areas.”

Sunni Muslim terrorists have targeted Sadr City in some of Iraq’s most horrific attacks in the past four years — including the “Bloody Thursday” attacks on Nov. 23, which killed more than 200 people and wounded 300. According to Sheik al-Sadr’s office in Baghdad, at least 6,500 residents have been killed in war-related incidents in Sadr City since March 2003.

Meanwhile, the rise in recent years of religious fervor in Sadr City has intensified tension in the area. The Mahdi Army, Sheik al-Sadr’s armed militia, enforces strict Muslim doctrine on the streets. Some parts of the Mahdi Army have split from Sheik al-Sadr and formed death squads and other criminal groups, instilling fear in the area.

Mrs. al-Khaffel, the headmistress, said she felt compelled to request a school guard to escort her home one recent afternoon because she forgot her body-covering abaya, requisite attire for any woman on the streets of Sadr City. Even in school, Mrs. al-Khaffel wears a scarf around her head and black gloves to cover her hands despite the heat.

The officials running Khafal Al-Yuteem hope to expand the school as they develop a social net for students and their families.

A four-member committee composed of teachers and administrators is responsible for finding eligible students to enroll in the school and financially aiding their families.

“One mother came to me crying because her in-laws took everything from her after her husband died,” said Aruba Hamadi Ismael, 26, an Arabic teacher at the school who is on the committee. “We registered her daughter in the school and gave them a few pieces of furniture.”

Despite the challenges and the politics, the school seems to be thriving. That is what Adel al-Khadi, 35, headmaster of the Khafal Al-Yuteem boys’ school, sees as the bottom line.

“If this school is a success, the Education Ministry will open more,” he said.

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