The Exemplary School of Sitak
One young man’s quest to create a haven for displaced children and education in the wake of ISIS
Alright. Let’s not beat around the bush, Mohammed is a displaced person.
He only learned about what happened in Mosul after he left. “I didn’t see ISIS close-up; I didn’t see murder or destruction. I knew that they had entered Mosul so I returned to my city, Sinjar.” Mohammed is a devout Kurd who studied Quranic Science at the University of Mosul, so I asked him why he ran away from the attackers who are also Muslim. He rejects the comparison. “They killed women and children. What kind of Muslim would blow-up a mosque?” he asks rhetorically, but then quickly adds “I didn’t actually see that, I only heard of it.”
So these people have a special agenda? Probably supported by major powers?
“Definitely. They have weapons that even the Iraqi Army doesn’t have! But I don’t want to start a political discussion, I hate politics.”
– OK, how do you remember Mosul?
“With everything it had! I loved that city despite its unstable situation which, by the way, actually started before ISIS came. Car bombs, kidnapping, murders…”
He starts recalling the places that he loved: forests, entertainment facilities, touristic places, markets, and the Shrine of Prophet Jonah.
Why did you choose to study Quranic Science?
“Let me be frank.” Mohammed is always frank. “I wanted to study history, but my grades weren’t good enough, so I chose to become a teacher.”
– And here you are.
26/01/15. Sitak, Iraq. Mohammed 23 yo. teaches inside the class room he has created at the unfinished building where him and 11 other families have been living since they left Sinjar in August 2014.
I point at the place where we’re sitting, where ‘Mr. Mohammed’, as his students call him, receives us. A few of them sing a song, in real harmony, about a beautiful house somewhere far away – an image from a beautiful dream to inspire their imaginations, something that Mohammed wants to implant in their souls.
Being his ever frank self, Mohammed says that it’s hard to call this place a ‘school’: “I don’t use school textbooks, but the important thing is that the children learn something. They won’t have missed that much when we return to Sinjar mainly because the level of education is quite bad over there. There are fourth and fifth graders who can’t spell a word while our first graders here have started learning letters and words already. In addition to that, I focus on other activities such as drawing, sports and hymns to distract them from the current situation and let them know that life goes on.”
Alright. Let’s turn off the TV and set aside the news, analysts, politicians and those who deal in blood. Wars are not solely the red images of ruin and death – with all respect for those who have died, nor are they only about children searching for their parents or digging in dumpsters to survive. These too have taken their sufficient share of attention, but now they have become cards for the wailing politicians to play with. The time is no longer right for wailing or mourning over ruins.
Amer, the middle son in Mohammed’s family, spends his days butchering and cleaning chickens in Sulaimaniyah city. Let’s wash up, and make our way up into the hear of nature, towards Tako mountain, going through Peshrow Tunnel that penetrates the heart of Azmar and stretches for two thousand and seven hundred meters. At first you cannot see the light at the end of this tunnel, but it finally appears followed by the town of Sitak, then the building. This motel-to-be was still being constructed when its owner allowed eleven displaced families from Sinjar to inhabit it, improvising modest doors and windows in a hurry. All that Mohammed needs now is a blackboard.
“Why would we leave the children uneducated?” asked Ali, Mohammed’s uncle who himself dropped out of school in the fifth grade. It was this question that sparked Mohammed’s idea. The families had already settled in and were looking for jobs.
“Adel, my eldest brother, works as a porter. My family never allowed me to work, they focused their time and efforts to help me study. More than once I wanted to leave school and find a job to help our poor family, but they were against it, especially my mother. I’ll never forget the moment she showered me with candy when I passed the sixth grade,” says Mohammed who is now overcome with happiness as if it were happening again.
Mohammed latched onto what his uncle said about education and started working. “I bought a board and started teaching children in the beginning of November, twenty-two children between first and fifth grade. A month-and-a-half later, STEP [a small British NGO working in the Sulaymaniyah area] visited and provided us with stationery, a new board, chairs and a cabinet for books. They kept up their support until we became what you see now.”
01/02/15. Sitak, Iraq. Children play on an unfinished staircase inside the building where they have been living with their families since August 2014, when they escaped from Sinjar.
26/01/15 — Sitak, Iraq — Mohammed’s mother (right) makes bread. Every few days the women make bread for all the families in the building.
Against popular belief, humans rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes. So be it if ISIS has bombed the Mosque of Prophet Jonah in Mosul. Isn’t this the story of every mosque, house and city in the Middle East? A mosque is built over the ruins of a church which has been built over the ruins of a synagogue which has been built on the ruins of an ancient temple; and someone comes to ruin it all over again. Ruins inherit ruins, and generations follow generations. They rise from the ashes and restore everything, a long feverish struggle for survival. We cannot call it a war because it isn’t, regardless of the fact that we are all fighting for a dream.
Mohammed’s father has a defect in his leg and his mother has one in her hand, but they both managed, aided by Adel and Amer, to build their dream house. It is definitely not a palace; it is just a modest house paid for dinar by dinar over the years, the same way Mohammed was made a student.
Mohammed left Mosul and its university while preparing for the first year exams “delaying” his plans for graduation. He believes that he will achieve this dream one day and that’s why he delayed rather than drop out. Remember, this is not only his dream, but that of his entire family. And for the exact same reason he’s also delayed any plans for love and marriage even though he’s twenty-four, a late age for someone from his culture.
– Don’t you know any girls? Haven’t you ever fallen in love?
“Of course I known girls, but I didn’t befriend any. Friendship, in my opinion, develops into love, relationship, and then marriage, which is something I don’t want right now.”
Two months after he left Mosul, he and his family had to flee Sinjar as well, leaving behind the dream house.
“ISIS came to the outskirts of Sinjar; we could see the flashes of bullets at night and hear the fighting. We knew they were going to enter our city, so on the 3rd of August we left.”
– How did you manage to get out with ISIS so close?
“We put our faith in God and left. We were very scared since we had to pass through their checkpoints but they didn’t stop us because we weren’t fighters. There were seventy of us – Old men, women, young people, children and babies, all relatives. We took whatever cars we could find and left. It was August and unbearably hot. We arrived in Duhok where we spent the night and then proceeded to Sulaymaniyah. We chose this city primarily because we have relatives here. They own the place we live in and they equipped it so we could live here. They helped us settle in when we arrived and haven’t charged us any rent.”
01/02/15. Sitak, Iraq. Mohammed during a break after teaching.
When you see the place for the first time you are somehow frustrated and depressed: you move from the darkness of the tunnel into the light of nature and you’re surprised by this building with its laundry ropes tightened over the dusty walls. You enter the ‘school’ and meet Mohammed and his pupils and the noises of speeding cars on the road fade into vague sounds coming from a strange far away place. The sound of one rooster becomes stronger and closer when he suddenly and untimely crows in the yard. You look out on the balcony and realize that the air is purer. You greet the people and walk down the street, gesture to the speeding cars and their mindless drivers to pull over, not to pick you up this time, but to tell them:
– Stop. There’s life in here.
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THE BUTCHER OF KHALAKAN
Thirteen year-old Ali fled the violence in Salahaddin and found refuge in the remote Kurdish village of Khalakan where he works as a butcher.
AT THE CHICKEN FARM
The chicken farm stands amid an expanse of wheat fields at the end of a long dirt road several kilometers from the nearest village. It was lush and green when the 47 Sunni Arab families from Jarallah arrived and the ripening wheat stalks rippled in the wind. Now the harvest is over and the parched golden stubble gives up clouds of dust when the wind blows.
On August 3rd 2014, ISIS insurgents attacked the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar in an attempt to expand their so-called ‘caliphate.’ During the weeks following the fall of the city, the Sunni militants who see the Yazidi people as devil worshippers carried out a genocidal campaign, killing tens of thousands of people and kidnapping over 5,000 women who they later sold into sexual slavery.
The air is thick with dust and the smell of sewage in Chermo camp where a cluster of prefabricated cabins house 196 members of the Shabak minority. Brittle fencing draped in freshly-washed clothes separates the makeshift homes from a busy highway; a linear strip of hot tarmac that runs from the town of Chamchamal to the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The barren piece of land was lent to the families cost-free by a wealthy Kurdish tribe.
TWO RELIGIONS ONE ROOF
Maysun Yalda and Widad Fadill sit opposite each other, sipping tea under a brightly coloured rug. “It’s Jesus,” says Maysun, pointing towards the male figure sewn into the heavy tapestry hanging from her kitchen wall. 44-year-old Maysun is a Christian from Tel Kaif in Nineveh, some 400km north of 47-year-old Widad’s hometown of Fallujah in Anbar, a Sunni stronghold.
The Kurds in northern Iraq were suffering under the burden of a long frontier war with the Islamic State (ISIS), a financial crisis and the arrival of more than one million people displaced by war, altering the ethnic balance of their proto state. Shaqlawa, once a popular holiday destination had become a shelter for thousands of Iraqi Arabs fleeing the grinding war further south who now outnumbered the local Kurdish population.
OIL AND BLOOD
Zaidoon’s seventeen year-old cousin, Jamal, darts through the refinery’s enormous storage drums. He is trying to fill a jerry can with gasoline for one of the truck drivers who’s pulled up in an empty tanker. Jamal runs over to the huge drum that holds the gasoline and throws open the spigot at the bottom. A jet of black liquid shoots out which then turns clear. Jamal cups his hand and catches some of it, bringing it up to his face as if he’s about to take a sip.
In the camp one morning a plane passes overhead and Awatif, Adam’s wife looks up with a start. Marwan doesn’t hear the noise and continues to cut hair in his make shift shop. For Sulaiman returning home seems a long way off after news of the killings. Stuck between different factions in Iraq and trailed with suspicion, Adam, Marwan and Sulaiman must build their lives again at edge of Kirkuk.
THE ORPHANS OF ALQOSH
One evening late in the summer of 2014 people from five villages in the province of Nineveh streamed onto the roads along with the orphans from Alqosh. Between their cars and ISIS stood only burning pyres of rubbish and an emptying no man’s land. Milad Hani, 9, and his brother Wissam, 11, were part of the exodus.
YEARS OF WANDERING IN THE LAND OF IRAQ
When the Americans came so did al-Qaeda waving the banner of religion. They made a few military operations against the Americans to gain people’s trust and support, but then started slaughtering them. Either you supported them or they killed you. Meanwhile, they wore shorts in the evening and played sports with the Americans to convince them that they were not terrorists.
GRAND BAGHDAD HOTEL
I can’t remember my experience in the Grand Baghdad Hotel just by merely thinking of the name because this place looks nothing like a hotel nor does it have anything to do with the glamorous name it bears. Instead, I think of the charming film The Grand Budapest Hotel where cinema beautifies tragedy and where protagonists die smiling or in the middle of a romantic kiss.