Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

Mosul teachers learn to help traumatised children struggling in ISIL aftermath

Nine months of ferocious urban combat have left deep marks in Mosul's youngest residents

Iraqi children play in a debris-strewn alleyway in Mosul's Old City on January 8, 2018, as a few people venture to return to the area. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
Iraqi children play in a debris-strewn alleyway in Mosul's Old City on January 8, 2018, as a few people venture to return to the area. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP

On a classroom whiteboard in the battered city of Mosul the words "rediscovering how to smile" outline the heartbreaking task of Iraqi teachers striving to heal their students' mental scars after the brutal rule of ISIL.

Dozens of Iraqi teachers -- many battling trauma themselves -- have gathered at a university, where instructor Nazem Shaker seeks to guide them in helping children still struggling to cope months after ISIL was driven from the devastated city.

Shaker has drawn a "problem tree" on the board, its roots are a litany of anguish: "relatives killed", "witnessing beheadings", "destruction" and "poverty".

He hopes that through a programme of games, mime and sport, teachers will be better able to help students reach the goals outlined in the top branches of his diagram, where "hope" and "optimism" join the aspiration to smile again.

"How to live together and eradicate violence," are key lessons that have to be passed on, he says.

The teachers must help show students how to reconstruct their lives and escape the stress, pressures and bad memories that haunt them, he adds.

It is not just the years of ISIL rule that haunt the waking lives and sleeping hours of the children of Mosul.

The ferocious nine-month urban combat that saw the Iraqi troops and US-led coalition force out the terrorist organisation in July have left deep marks -- both physical and mental.


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School headmaster Noamat Sultan encounters the destructive impact of the psychological trauma daily.

"One of our students was very aggressive and kept on picking fights with his classmates," he explains.

"We had a long discussion with him and discovered that his father and brother had been killed recently in an explosion."

With the help of the boy's older brother and increased attention from teachers, he has gradually been coaxed back to being himself.

"We have already managed to convince him not to drop out of school," said father-of-eight Mr Sultan.

Physical education teacher Rasha Ryadh has seen the heavy toll from the "psychological pressures caused by seeing executions, deaths, explosions and the loss of loved ones", but is sure the students can recover.

"They are ready to respond positively to the rehabilitation programmes because they want to banish the thoughts and memories that drag them back to the period of ISIL group rule," she said.

Such is the case for 12-year-old schoolboy Ahmed Mahmud, who despite his youth says he is "exhausted" by everything he has seen.

"When I sit down in class I don't have the will to study," Mahmud says.

"I think back to the time of ISIL and I remember those who were executed like my uncle. They threw people off buildings and forced us to watch."

The 900 students at head teacher Mr Sultan's school are only able to occupy half of the building after fighting reduced the rest to rubble.

The few remaining classrooms are severely overcrowded, and benches meant for two pupils often have five or more students crammed on them.

Twelve-year-old Osama is not yet among them.

He is still reeling from seeing an air strike send most of the other houses on his street crashing down on his neighbours.

"For weeks he didn't say a word," says his mother Umm Osama.

The boy still needs help to dress, wash and eat, and often seems lost inside himself.

"Sometimes without warning he'd leave the house and just wander around aimlessly for hours," his mother says.

"Several times it was hard to find him."

Updated: January 10, 2018 02:07 PM