By Capt. Richard B. Toland, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Inf. Div.March 25, 2011
BAGHDAD, March 24, 2011 -- In late 2006, the Duwaya Primary School in northern Baghdad had no students, no teachers and seemingly no future.
The school's grounds were abandoned. The school's equipment had been looted and squatters had moved in. Because of insurgent activity, for many local residents the area had become just too dangerous of a place to send children to school.
Those days, however, are long past and the school recently reopened after more than a year of planning and construction. As part of the renovation, local contractors refurbished the 12 classrooms and offices of the existing structure and built a new annex containing additional classrooms.
The additional rooms mean the average class size is reduced to 40 students, instead of 60. Additionally, the Iraqi Ministry of Education provided the teachers with new blackboards and whiteboards with markers to conduct their lessons.
All of this is a far cry from the school's not-so-distant past use as a combat outpost during the U.S. troop surge of 2007, and then as a base for Iraqi Security Forces.
While many in the neighborhood saw the presence of the ISF as one of the elements that kept violence in the area to a minimum, their presence at the school also prevented the children from returning to the classroom.
A new station for the ISF was planned and is currently nearing completion. During the construction, the ISF were able to move out of the school and into temporary buildings on their new compound, which lead the way for allowing children in the area to return to school and prepare for the future.
"Education is the backbone of stable societies and communities such as the one around al Duwaya," said Nihad al Jibouri, the deputy minister of education and the education manager for all of Iraq, during the school's ribbon-cutting ceremony. "We all must continue to focus on improving education well into the future."
Nihad said he believes that Baghdad still suffers from a severe shortage of schools, but sees the Duwaya School as an example of progress being made.
"There are 3,000 schools in Baghdad province that need to either be built or renovated, and the Ministry of Education will continue to support the teachers and students in Baghdad just as we have done here," he said.
For those in the area around the school, the reopening was a big day. Nearly all children who attend the school were present for the celebration with many arriving in suits and colorful dresses. Many girls brought flowers to give as thanks, and others brought potted palm trees to plant at their new school.
Iraqi Security Forces, including the 9th Iraqi Army Division and the local Iraqi Police, attended the ceremony and provided security at the school opening, as they do for many of the events that occur in the area.
"It is important for our young people to receive a proper education to better prepare them for life," said Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Qasim, commander of the 9th Iraqi Army Division.
School officials thanked the Ministry of Education staff for their support in the renovation work and described the impact the new school would have on the community.
"The new school will be reflected in the attitudes and ultimately the success of the teachers and students," said Azhar Moosa Kadum, the principal of the Duwaya School. "I also thank the North Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, and the United States forces for their involvement and support of the renovation project."
All 850 children who are students at the school were presented with new backpacks containing construction paper, crayons, and colored pencils delivered by the 9th Iraqi Army Division. The school also received soccer balls for physical education classes.
The boy and girl class leaders from each grade were then presented with certificates of achievement, and a large bag of gifts that contained books, boxes of crayons, pencils, pencil sharpeners, dolls for the girls and soccer balls for the boys.
The ceremony concluded with a celebration of traditional Iraqi dance. The men formed a circle in the courtyard with many of the schoolboys in the middle. A popular Baghdad singer sang an old Bedouin folk song while he mentioned all of the people who made the creation of the school possible.
Also in attendance at the school's opening ceremony were Etaab al Doori, a member of the Iraqi national parliament; Sheik Mohammed Abd Hamid, chairman of the Taji Sheik Support Council; Lt. Col. John D. Cross, commander of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, U.S. Division - Center; and Timothy Lowery, embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team - North site lead.