As Mosul has passed five years since it was liberated from ISIL (ISIS) occupation, children and youth are still struggling with a strained school system and difficulties finding work in Iraq’s second largest city.
Thousands of students are studying in schools that have yet to be rehabilitated after the city’s operation to retake the city, classrooms are overcrowded with inadequate teachers, and children are being sent to school without books or stationery.
A major factor affecting students’ ability to learn and thrive in Mosul is the three to four years of school they missed during the time ISIL controlled the city between 2014 and 2017.
Iraqi government guidelines dictate that students should be enrolled in classes appropriate to their age and not their level of education, meaning children who have missed years of school face extra pressure since returning to class.
Like many teenagers in Mosul, Riad Mohamed Khalaf’s 15-year-old son Radwan has been failing the exams for several years. Riyadh blames the three classes Radwan skipped during ISIL control of Mosul.
Upon returning to school, Radwan was placed in fifth grade. But after failing two year-end exams and passing only one, he only advanced to sixth grade.
“I would have preferred if he had never been promoted when he first came back to school,” Riyadh told Al Jazeera.
Riyadh and many other parents point to the contradiction that their children were told to skip classes when they return to school after the fall of ISIL, only to be held back after failing exams, making them older than theirs become classmates.
Riyadh had to pay a private tutor to help Radwan with his Arabic classes three days a week, putting an additional financial strain on the family.
Deputy principal at Halab Boys’ Primary School, Younis Ibrahim Khalil, told Al Jazeera that teachers often have to explain basic elements of the first grade curriculum to older children.
“One solution would be for the Department of Education to offer summer schools where these children can catch up on previous courses [instead of] spend their four-month summer vacation doing nothing, and then when they come back … they’ve forgotten everything,” Khalil said.
Educational problems have been evident in Mosul for many years, but no solid measures have been taken to improve the experience of children, teachers or parents.
“We haven’t seen any improvement or change since the city was retaken, nor have we seen any government efforts to address these issues,” Khalil added.
The Iraqi Ministry of Education did not respond when asked for comment.
100 students per class
Riyadh was also concerned about what he described as inexperienced and untrained teachers at the school his son attends.
“Teachers are the biggest obstacle to Radwan’s schooling,” Riyadh said.
According to the World Bank, only 9.7 percent of Iraq’s budget is spent on education, well below the regional average of 14 percent.
This translates into low teacher wages and overcrowding.
At Halab Primary School for Boys, some classes have as many as 100 students per teacher.
“A teacher cannot control a classroom with so many students,” Khalil said.
Tabarak Ali Hussein, 18, goes to school in west Mosul and believes the education she received before the conflict was better.
“I was doing very well then, but now it’s different. I find it difficult to understand the class because the class is overcrowded and the teacher can’t answer all the questions,” she said, adding that they can’t split the class into two due to a lack of classrooms.
According to official figures, 547,322 students study in only 808 schools in Mosul with 16,456 teachers.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), 185 schools still need repairs.
Khalil’s school has 12 classrooms and four prefabricated buildings, known locally as “Caravans,” for more than 1,500 students, many of whom are not provided with enough books.
A lack of options
The children of Mosul have faced many challenges in the early stages of their lives, such as displacement and witnessing traumatic events in an active conflict zone, which has also impacted their mental health.
School teachers do not have the training or resources to address these mental health issues, according to Caroline Zullo, policy and advocacy adviser for the NRC in Iraq.
“You can definitely tell that kids are having trouble paying attention or that they’re having outbursts of anger or sadness, but they don’t know how to respond,” Zullo said.
“This is compounded by the fact that most teachers have an average of 80 students in a classroom, so there’s no way to provide that personal attention.”
The discouragement of learning without the necessary materials, as well as the frustration experienced by students who cannot read and write or understand the subject matter, has led many to want to drop out of school.
The dropout rate has reached 20 percent in one school in Mosul, the NRC says.
And even if they stay, many students feel like they won’t have any job opportunities after they graduate.
Mona Abdul Karim, now 31, completed her engineering degree just before ISIL occupied the city, but even after liberation she is unable to find a job.
“After liberation, the job opportunities got bigger, but they were even more based on having the right connections and connections to get one,” Mona – who requested that her name be changed – told Al Jazeera, adding, that she had tried to find work in Erbil, but was denied because she did not have a residence permit from the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Tabarak, who is still trying to get through school, is willing to continue studying and trying to get into college but has concerns.
“I cannot guarantee that I will have a job afterwards because we all know the situation in our country and here in Mosul there are no job opportunities for those with a college degree,” she said.
Khalil lamented how difficult the situation is for students and even graduates in Mosul.
“I don’t see a bright future for most of the students in Mosul because we have many problems that are not solved yet,” he said.