Equity & Diversity

Back in School, Iraqi Teen Lacks Motivation to Study

By Yasmine Mousa & Mary Ann Zehr — February 14, 2008 4 min read
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Zuhal Tayeh was once a good student at a girls’ school in Baghdad with strong academics.

But somewhere along the line, after missing a year of schooling in Iraq, another year here in Jordan, and finally returning to the classroom in Amman this school year, she lost her motivation to study.

“I can’t bring myself to study here,” the 16-year-old says during an interview in her family’s sparsely furnished apartment in the Shmeissani neighborhood of Amman, where most residents are middle class.

Zuhal is not alone. For every few Iraqi students who have been forced to leave their homeland and have adjusted well to the Jordanian public schools, at least one seems to have lost interest in school. That is particularly true of teenagers who have missed a lot of it.

Fifth grader Mohammed Faris, 16, center, argues with a classmate during an after-school soccer game at Yaqob Hashem School in Amman. He was in the 4th grade when he stopped going to school in Iraq and then missed several years.

Jordan opened its public schools for the first time this school year to all Iraqi children, regardless of their legal status in the country. Officials were expecting some 50,000 children, but only about 24,000 enrolled. Previously, some public schools accepted Iraqis without legal residency on a case-by-case basis. But many Iraqi children were out of school from one to four years in Jordan alone.

“By the name of God, I got high marks” back in Iraq, said Mohammed Faris, a 16-year-old Iraqi who attends a boys’ school in another part of Amman. “Now, everything is messed up.”

Mohammed, whose education in Fallujah, Iraq, was interrupted when his school was caught in the crossfire of shooting between Americans and members of the resistance, said he’s been going to 5th grade for more than a year in Jordan. He was in the 4th grade when he stopped going to school in Iraq and then missed several years. The principal at Mohammed’s school, which has 20 Iraqis out of a student body of 700, says the boy acts like a “tough guy” and doesn’t seem to be comfortable there.

Change in Lifestyle

Zuhal Tayeh’s family was well-to-do and prominent in Baghdad. Her father, Tayeh Abdul Kerim, was the minister of oil in Iraq from 1968 to 1982 and also is a retired governor of Iraq’s Amara governorate. He was wealthy enough to have two wives at the same time. With his first wife, who lives in Baghdad, Mr. Abdul Kerim has four children, all grown. With his second wife, Khlood Tarsh Al-Kakaby, who is Zuhal’s mother, he has six children, who now live with him in the apartment in Amman.

Mr. Abdul Kerim said his family has serious financial troubles. They’ve already spent the money from the sale of his house in Baghdad and car. He said he has funds to support his family in Amman for two more months. He and his family left Iraq, he said, after he escaped two assassination attempts and avoided injury when two bombs exploded near him, though he was not the target.

When the family first moved to Amman, Mr. Abdul Kerim said he didn’t have enough money to send his four school-age children to a private school. He and his wife had already kept them home from school for a year in Baghdad because children were frequently being kidnapped for ransom. And then the children missed a year of schooling in Amman until the public schools were opened up.

He felt “hopeless” that he couldn’t afford schooling for his children, he said, because he views an education as almost as important as food. “Without an education, a person is nothing,” said Mr. Abdul Kerim, who has two university degrees from Iraq, one in English and another in politics and law.

Zuhal Tayeh, 16, left, talks with a friend on her cell phone while at home with her sister Zainab.

When Zuhal enrolled in the Shmeissani Al-Qharbi School for girls this school year, she was placed in 7th grade. She showed academic promise, and after two months, administrators moved her to 10th grade—a grade in which she will have to undergo a crucial national government exam. Zuhal said she felt very bad about having to go to school with girls younger than herself and was “overjoyed” when she was moved to 10th grade.

But both she and her parents acknowledge that she isn’t putting much effort into school. She just got back the results from her midterm exams and failed all her subjects except for Arabic.

“She can repeat the grade,” her father said.

“I will not repeat,” countered Zuhal, who said her hardest subjects are math and English.

Many Iraqi children are having trouble with English in Jordanian schools because in Iraq’s schools, students start to study English in 5th grade, while in Jordan, students begin to study the language in 1st grade. “I cannot understand a word the English teacher is saying,” complained Zuhal.

She said her teachers aren’t giving her any special help. In addition, the young woman said, she hasn’t gotten used to the fact that, unlike in Iraq, where teachers give students homework assignments and make them show it to them the next day, Jordanian teachers tend to leave it up to the students to keep up with their homework. “I want to go back to the way they teach us in Iraq,” Zuhal said. “I’m used to it.”

Zuhal talks about other aspects of life in Iraq that she misses, including the clothes and all personal belongings she left behind.

“I miss my own room, my things,” she said. In Amman, she shares a bedroom with her 7-, 10-, and 15-year-old sisters.

Most of all, Zuhal said, she misses the garden from her home back in Iraq, where gardenias bloomed and orange trees grew.

“When the electricity was off, we used to spend most of our time in the garden,” she said. “Even if there was a war, it was far away from us.”

Yasmine Mousa is a freelance writer and Arabic-English interpreter.

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