Equity & Diversity

Leaving Violence Behind, 5th Grader Returns to School

By Mary Ann Zehr & Yasmine Mousa — February 06, 2008 4 min read
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Kerrar Fathil, 11, doesn’t talk with his friends at school about what happened to his family back in Iraq.

In the summer of 2003, four months after a U.S.-led coalition of armed forces occupied the country, masked Iraqi men woke up Kerrar and his family in the middle of the night in their home in Baghdad. They took away the boy’s father, a retired civil servant who had recently been trained as a policeman. Kerrar, his mother, and two of his six sisters soon fled to Syria and then on to Amman, Jordan. The youngster never saw his father again.

The family is among the estimated half million Iraqis now living in Jordan, according to Imran Riza, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In a Feb. 3 interview, he said that only in this past year has the international community really started to pay attention to the plight of Iraqis displaced by the war. Only about 100,000 of the Iraqis living in Jordan now were here before 2003, according to Mr. Riza.

The violence and displacement has disrupted the education of thousands of those children, many of whom are just getting back to the classroom.

Kerrar’s mother, Mehdia Jaber Awad, who is in her early 50s, says she learned from relatives that her husband was killed. She suffers from ulcers and convulsions that she said began after he was abducted. “I will never go back to Iraq,” she vows.

As Kerrar’s mother talks about her husband’s abduction, Kerrar sighs and looks away from her. He concentrates on repeatedly smoothing the fabric on a cushion. When asked if he and his Iraqi friends at school talk about how they were affected by the war, the boy replies that they don’t. “This is private life,” he says.

Unlike his mother, Kerrar, who has a pleasant smile, answers questions with little elaboration. On this day, he’s wearing a warm sweat suit because this desert region has been hit with as much as 19 inches of snow, and the temperature is not much above freezing. The family stays gathered around a small, electric space heater.

In Amman, Kerrar’s life revolves around soccer. That’s what he and his best friend at school, another Iraqi boy, talk about most of the time between classes, he says. When soccer teams are formed in physical education classes, Kerrar says the other boys want him on their team. He dreams of playing the sport professionally.

Time Out

Kerrar attends 5th grade at Mohammed Al-Sheraiqi School in his neighborhood in western Amman. It’s a Jordanian public school, and his family is taking advantage of a government decree issued this past summer that allows Iraqi children to enroll in public schools in Jordan this school year regardless of their legal status. Karrar’s family have been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, but they don’t have legal residency in Jordan.

When she heard the decree, Ms. Awad says she danced in the street with joy, because it meant that her son and her daughter who is still school age, 16-year-old Shireen Fathil, could receive a free education.

Iraqi refugees Zehra’a Hadyer, 12, far left, Shireen Fathil, 16, Sajad Hadyer, 10, and Kerrar Fathil, 11, live together in Amman, Jordan. The Fathils are the Hadyers' aunt and uncle.

Shireen, who had missed four years of school before enrolling in a Jordanian public school this past fall, now attends 8th grade with Jordanian children who are much younger than she.

Ms. Awad sold some pieces of gold jewelry so that Kerrar could enroll in a private school during the 2005-06 school year, after he’d missed two years of school. The boy’s uncles also helped to pay the tuition. The cost to the family to send Kerrar to that school was 750 Jordanian dinars, or JD, a year, including 250 JD for transportation. ($1 U.S. is equal to .70 of a JD, or about two-thirds of a dinar.) Now, three months behind on the rent for her apartment, Kerrar’s mother says she can’t afford a private school. She and her daughters don’t have permission to work legally in Jordan, so they depend on the charity of others.

In the private school, Kerrar, who was 9 at the time, was put in 1st grade—the grade he was in back in Baghdad when his schooling was interrupted. His mother says that during that first year in the private school, “he used to come back crying because the other students were younger, and he couldn’t blend in well.”

But Kerrar was enrolled in a Jordanian public school in 4th grade last year, and he is now in 5th grade. Out of about 50 students in his grade, he can think of about eight who are Iraqis. He says that school is hard. His best subject is Arabic, in his view. He’s still struggling to know his times tables in math. He’s happy to be in school, the boy says.

Kerrar is proud that he’s picked up the Jordanian dialect of Arabic, which is different from his native Iraqi dialect. “I speak Jordanian,” he says. “They can’t recognize me [as Iraqi] if I’m in the street.”

Ms. Awad has applied for assistance at the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Amman. She’s also applied to that agency for the opportunity to resettle in another country. But so far, she hasn’t received any aid from the UNHCR or response to her requests for resettlement, she says. She has a sister who recently moved to Phoenix, Ariz., and a daughter who is living with her husband in Sweden and seeking legal residency there.

Kerrar thinks it would be nice to move to Sweden, since one of his sisters is there. He’s not looking back to Iraq.

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

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