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A soft spot in a tough place

Iraq, February 3, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Naptime at Ajyal Preschool in Kirkuk, Iraq. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fun in the playhouse provided by Mercy Corps through a local partner. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Headmistress Yusra Mustafa Muhamed. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Three-year-old Rusil. Photo: Sebastian Meyer for Mercy Corps

Kirkuk, Iraq is a hard place — but, in the middle of it all, there’s a soft spot for children.

On the way from Sulaymaniyah to Kirkuk, you pass through numerous military checkpoints; after a while, you lose count. But the biggest of them is right before you enter Kirkuk itself: a checkpoint with a guard tower, tall concrete barriers, soldiers patrolling with low-slung weapons and a small convoy of armored vehicles. Since most of the main roads coming in and out of the city have these kinds of security measures, the place feels like a fortress.

As soon as you clear inspection and pass through, you emerge onto the chaotic streets of Kirkuk, filled with vibrant shops and throngs of citizens. There’s the normal business of life everywhere you look, yet the concept of hazard continues to play out along these roadways: razor wire, conflict-shattered buildings and side streets blocked off by Kalashnikov-wielding troops.

Then there’s an unnerving sign just a little ways into town at an intersection to three notorious cities: Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit. It feels like the crossroads of danger.

We were there this morning to go beyond the barriers, on the other side of the razor wire and past the armed guards to a place that has dozens of toys, cozy little beds and a whole shelf of huggable stuffed animals. It’s a place that seems unlikely in the middle of all this upheaval: a preschool.

As I mentioned in an article about Khanaqin Kindergarten last week, security and stability is especially important for children in post-conflict Iraq. But Kirkuk seems much tougher than Khanaqin, and a safe space harder to find.

A warm, playful and safe space is exactly what we’ve helped ensure at Kirkuk’s Ajyal Preschool. Ajyal means “generations” in Arabic — and, indeed, people of all ages have helped create this place.

The headmistress, 48-year-old Yusra Mustafa Muhamed, is completely committed to the children and families she serves. Yusra’s career in education has spanned 31 years, including 15 years of service at a local girl’s orphanage. She can’t imagine doing anything else.

“There nothing better than working with children,” she said with a smile. “And it’s a great help for working mothers in Kirkuk.”

Most of the young Iraqi mothers who have enrolled children at the school are either teachers in Kirkuk’s overburdened school system, or else students at the local College of Education. Headmistress Muhamed explained that, in addition to meeting the needs of young children, her preschool has become a culture of teachers helping teachers.

That’s a much-welcome helping hand for 23-year-old Asmaa Salah, who teaches English at a primary school. Her two-year-old daughter Toolyn is currently enrolled at the preschool, while her five-year-old son Mohammed recently graduated to kindergarten. “This place has the best care and the best teachers of any other school I’ve visited in Kirkuk,” Asmaa said. “I feel like my children are safe and happy here.”

And that's another thing about this preschool: all children are welcome here. In a city that's contested among several different faiths and ethnic groups, Ajyal Preschool includes Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen students. There is harmony here.

Mercy Corps, through a local partner organization, donated a large quantity of toys, games and playsets at the end of 2010. We’re also helping train local partner staff how to meet the ongoing needs of schools like this one.

Because the demand for great schools like this is high: there are 51 children between the ages of 1 and 4 here, but an additional 150 children are on the waiting list. The four teachers at the school just can’t take any more students into their classrooms.

Laughter, music and kind words fill the halls of Ajyal Preschool — including a beautiful little song from a 3-year-old girl named Rusil. Uncertainty and tumult still fill the streets of Kirkuk. We need to get more young children like Rusil from those hard places into soft, caring, safe spaces.