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A safer walk to school in Basra

Iraq, February 13, 2012

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Flying into Basra in southern Iraq for the first time, all I could see was desert and the occasional smoke plumes from the oil fields. The city has a storied history that ranges from a possible site for the Garden of Eden to being the hometown of Sinbad the sailor, but years of war have turned it into a gray and melancholy place. At least on the surface.

Once I was in town and heading to the office to start my new position here, the driver excitedly pointed out a bridge to me: “Mercy Corps has brought this to Basra.” The new pedestrian bridge — the only pedestrian bridge — opened last week in the center of town, bringing a splash of color and hope to the kids in Basra.

Children in southern Iraq face numerous impediments to their education, from overcrowded classrooms to the lack of hygienic washrooms, desks and teaching aids. Yet, those living in the Al Resala community in Central Basra faced an even more looming threat: They dodged cars and prayed for their lives simply to walk to school.

The new bridge is located on a main thoroughfare where traffic can be unpredictable. Cars race along only to come to a sharp stop at one of the numerous checkpoints around town. There are no lanes along what should be a four-lane highway. I wondered how anyone could drive here, nevermind attempt to cross the road.

Zyneb and her fried Hajer, both 11, have been living in fear since their best friend was struck and killed by a car while crossing the street to the school. “Our school is on the other side of this wide and dangerous street, which has caused my neighborhood to suffer daily tragedies,” she told us. Over the last three years, six students and one teacher have been killed in pedestrian traffic accidents on the street. “Losing our friend made us live a nightmare everyday as we feared that we would have the same destiny,” Zyneb added.

The bridge is the result of a collaboration between Mercy Corps’ USAID/Iraq Community Action Program (CAP), the Al Resala Community Action Group and local government officials. One of 633 infrastructure projects completed since CAP began in 2009, Mercy Corps teams worked with local groups to identify the need and contribute and gather funds to turn the idea into a reality.

Now, with one of their fears relieved, the children of Al Resala will be able to focus on their learning and get a chance to enjoy being kids.