Back to School in Baghdad, With Care

It's back to school for Iraqi kids this week, and at one school in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, that's a familiar sight.

Kids race through hallways, teachers struggle to keep track of them, friends excitedly play with friends they haven't seen all summer, while in class these primary school students' hands shoot in the air every time the teacher asks a question.

Twelve-year-old Wijdan Adnan – her head scarf perfectly placed – admits that her favorite subject is "Arabic, because Miss Urooba is teaching us."

But Adnan and the other 1,200 students here, who range in age from 6 to 14, all have the same hidden scar. Each child has lost at least one parent. They are all enrolled in Kafil al Yateem – or Sponsor of Orphans – it's a first-of-its-kind school in Iraq, which has plans to open more.

They are children devastated by loss. Tears roll down Ali Mezir's face as he tells of how his father – a mason – left for work one morning and never returned. "He was killed by a Sunni bomb," says the 11 year old. Amal Hassan, who is all of 12 years old, says her father was shot "four times by terrorists. My family found him three days later at the morgue."

Students at Kafil al Yateem say teachers and the other kids at their old schools didn't understand their pain. All the students we interviewed complained that at their previous schools teachers hit them and other kids teased them. Many of these kids had bad grades and acted out.

Kafil al Yateem hopes to erase some of the hardship of losing one or both parents. All the teachers at the school have had some training in psychology to help them recognize and understand the behavioral problems kids might experience when dealing with the loss of a parent.

The school has plans to have two full-time psychologists on staff, as well to oversee the teachers and work more in depth with individual children. So far budget problems and the difficulty of finding psychologists in Baghdad has put that plan on hold.

For now, says Asmaa Kareem Kadhum, the school's headmistress, "every teacher plays the role of mom to every student. We do our best to create an environment of emotional stability."

Wijdan simply misses her father. At this school the kids feel safe in expressing how they feel. "My father used to bring us everything we wanted," says Wijdan as she starts to cry, "now it's only my mother." Too distraught to go on, she buries her head in her knapsack and sobs heavily. Her seatmate hugs and holds her as the teacher quietly asks if she's OK. It is a level of support and tenderness that is still new to these kids.

The school helps in more practical ways as well. With one or both parents dead, these kids' remaining families often struggle financially.

Kafil al Yateem is a central distribution center for donations and government services. This week clothes donated by other Iraqis were being handed out to the children. One little girl was ecstatic about her new dress. Though it was still wrapped in plastic, she held it up to herself and, pleased as could be, asked the teacher what she thought.

The teacher nodded her approval. Another teacher sized up a sweatshirt by holding it up to a tiny little boy. The shirt was two sizes too big. The teacher sent the boy on his way. With a little help, he'll grow into it.