A multi-part editorial series exploring Untold Stories of Hope from Iraq, presented by Oxfam.
Paid Partner Content – this content was paid for by Oxfam and was created in collaboration with VICE creative services, independently from the VICE editorial staff.
Teaching Islamic classes inside a girls' secondary school that was formerly occupied by ISIS, head teacher Angham Ibrahim Haddad has been facing some challenging questions. "Why have ISIS done this?" one girl asks. "Is it against Islam for us to get an education?" another queries anxiously.
Sitting at her desk in the school in the Wahd area of Jalawla, northern Iraq, the animated 50-year-old, wearing a mauve headscarf and heavy black eyeliner, ponders this. "I try to be clear for the students," she says. "Education for girls is not against Islam." She wants them to share her message: "'Tell your parents, siblings, they have to know.'"
Haddad's office is a dark but homely room filled with flowers; there are flowers on her desk, atop the filing cabinet, hanging in the corner and strung to the curtains. It is hard to believe this was once an army battleground, where ISIS hid behind desks while facing off against the peshmerga forces that would eventually oust them.
Many of Jalawla's 80,000 residents have only returned this year for the first time since ISIS captured the town in 2014, and this is the first semester the school has been open.
It was a Friday when they attacked, Haddad recalls. It was also halfway through final exams. She heard the gunfire and explosions from home. Her first thought was of her students: their records and IDs were at the school building; they'd need them to continue their education anywhere else.
The head teacher got in her car, resolute to save anything she could, but soon realised it was impossible. "The fighting was too intense, I had to turn back," she says, regret flickering across her face.
She wasn't the only one who attempted this. One student sent her father to get her book and ID. He never made it back.
In northern Iraq, the Mosul offensive is grinding slowly on. With fighting now happening street to street, the campaign could last for months. Behind the frontlines, the civilian displaced are slowly returning to neighbourhoods that have been changed immeasurably. Small acts of innovation are necessary every day just to get by, and inspiring young people to work towards improving their country's future is one way northern Iraq's educators hope they can guide their communities back towards peace.
Jalawla girls' secondary school was established in 1964, two years before Haddad was born. She attended as a teenager, staying as a teacher. In 2011, she was promoted to the top position.
Before ISIS took over there were 650 students, now there are 215, though "more are coming back all the time," Haddad says.
In September, Haddad returned from Baghdad. With a single helper, she spent three days clearing what was left of the school building; when necessary, they relied on electricity from the local hospital.
She struggles to describe the state the school was in. "There were papers everywhere," she remembers. Pieces of wall had been blown off, electrics were missing, and yet, there was no sign of the 50-years of school records she had risked her life for two years earlier.
As we talk, Haddad continues working, stamping forms and giving brief, decisive answers to a range of people who looked in from the door.
Occasionally, she cries.
Oxfam have been paying local women and men to fix up this school and others in the area.
"The schools were a priority for us because they were in a bad condition – there were no windows, they were damaged for two years," says Dalia Ahmed, who works for Oxfam in Jalawla.
If Oxfam hadn't done it the students would have had to pay for the work themselves, Ahmed says, though many families are impoverished after two years away from home. Oxfam has already finished repair work in 10 schools. By February, the aid agency hopes to have 1,000 labourers working to fix up kindergartens, hospitals, and other essential buildings.
"The labourers feel like they are part of rehabilitating Jalawla," Ahmed says. It's also had a noticeable impact on how school attendees feel. "Now when they go to schools they see colours, before that students say they did not want to go to school."
In Shura, a rural town 45km south of Mosul, education is also on the forefront of the minds of many locals.
Normality seems a lot further away though. Shura was recaptured in October, and it's still in a strange no-man's-land between the frontline and areas considered secure. It has a high military presence, and families who have returned – or who stayed put under ISIS – appear tense and anxious.
The local school was turned into a bomb factory during the two years ISIS held it. Machinery, long pipes and a mix of materials lie around, as do finished explosives, some defused and some still deadly.
"Yesterday I was at work and as I was driving back home, I saw kids on their way to school," says Staff General Ahman Hassan. "They were in their uniforms and the girls were wearing headbands and school bags. I started to cry. I hadn't seen this in three years."
Hassan was one of the soldiers who battled to win back the town.
"After it was liberated, we found equipment, war equipment, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), stuff ISIS left behind."
There was even human hair on the ground; some ISIS militants had shaved their beards to blend in with the civilian population.
Hassan attended Shura primary school himself, and still feels a deep connection to it. "I started here when I was six years old. I'm remembering when I was surrounded by students in this room. And I can feel my schoolbook in my hands and I can even see the teacher at the front of the class."
He becomes emotional as he continues. "The first time I had my eyes opened to culture was here, in this class," he says. "Through this class I was able to experience other worlds. I learned languages. And I can use the internet. It's all due to this class."
The two schools are at different points on the road to recovery, but residents of both towns – and others across northern Iraq – see any move towards the resumption of stable education as a reason for optimism.
"Education can have a huge impact on Iraq now," says Oxfam's Ahmed. "If we have educated people, open-minded people we will get over ISIS more quickly. It takes so much time for a town controlled by ISIS to come back to life but in Jalawla it has happened quickly."
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