Anas Abdullah Abbas is seven years old and he loves going to school, especially after experiencing what it was like to not be able attend class, learn and share with his teachers and friends and play.

“I like going to school to attend activities and classes. They teach me the alphabet and my favorite subject is Arabic.” Anas proudly explains the words he has learnt: bab (door), dar (house), baba (father), dada (child)… He says his grades were 10/10 in his last Arabic exam. “Mr. Mahmood teaches us Math and Arabic and he is my favorite teacher because he is kind and shows me so many things.”

He lives in Qabr al Abid village, in Ninewa Governorate in Northern Iraq. In the future, he would like to keep living there and become an Arabic teacher, “but I would like to teach children who are in fifth or sixth grade, because at younger ages they wouldn’t understand,” he explains.

His aunt helps him with his homework and his grandmother claims he does not get food unless he has finished his school duties first. “When I come back from school, I wash my hands and eat my lunch. My favorite food? My grandma’s threed or ثريد [bread, okra soup and rice].”

“I have friends at school. My closest one is Anas. Yes, we have the same names! But he is Anas Hussain and I am Anas Abdullah. Omer and Haitham are my friends too.” In the afternoon, he and his cousins like playing Jamid, “a game where if I touch someone he will freeze and cannot move; when another person touches him, he unfreezes and he is free again and can move. No one is better than me in this game, I always win.”

An atrocious recent past

Over the past four decades, Iraq has experienced severe economic and social decline, further aggravated by periods of political instability and armed conflict, including the war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Ajiba is Anas’ grandmother. Two of her eight children were killed by terrorist groups. One was killed in 2012, while Anas’s father was killed in 2014 when ISIL occupied their village. “The murder of [Anas’ father] was a big shock for all of us,” Ajiba admits. “It was very difficult to accept it. Anas was a little child when his father died, but still he recognized him. They were very close and whenever his father went to work Anas would start crying.”

Ajiba feels she is still mourning. “During the war, Anas did not go to school because he was underage. But Anas’ cousins were in 2nd grade and attended school for the first few months, because we were afraid of not sending them. After some time, we took them out; they were teaching them about weapons and how to be a sniper.”

At that time, schools remained open in the village, but only children from families that supported ISIL were attending. The boys were out of school for three years and when they went back after the liberation of the village, their grades were not very good and they had trouble following the classes.

Learning and teaching against all odds

Ajiba is a clear believer in the importance of education and she sees how her grandchildren – including Anas – are benefiting from going back to normal. “School prevents children doing bad things in the streets,” she says. “Education is very important for all. Without it, it is difficult to get a decent job. Also, if people don’t know how to read and write, they are lost, like me. I can’t read and this had a big negative impact on me.”

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