The preschoolers in Ban Ibrahim's classroom have never lived in anything but a war zone. All born in 2003, the 5-year-olds have grown up with the occupation. And that, says Ibrahim, makes them unlike any children she has taught before. Some are particularly aggressive, routinely kicking their classmates and acting out the violence they have seen in their short lives. Others, exposed to satellite television and the Internet, are much more keenly aware of the world outside their country's borders than those who grew up under Saddam ever were. And none of them like to go home at the end of the day. "In school, they're allowed to forget everything," says teacher Bayder Al Khalil.
When the Coalition troops first arrived, Ibrahim--a Shia who wears a black headscarf and long abaya--says she had high hopes for the future of her country without Saddam. From her parents' home, she watched as American tanks rolled by, and she greeted the troops by shouting "salaam aleikum" as they passed. She hoped for the best. "We thought we would be like Dubai," she told NEWSWEEK outside of her classroom at the Tekamul School in one of Baghdad's wealthiest neighborhoods recently. "We have all the wealth, the oil wells, land for farming and our people are more educated than the people in the U.A.E. [United Arab Emirates.] Civilization was founded here."
When the situation for Iraqis failed to improve in the months following Saddam Hussein's removal from power, Ibrahim tried to protect her students from the growing violence and instability. "We tried to hide these things from the kids," she says. "We tried to provide them with a peaceful environment inside the school that was completely different from the one outside, so when they left, they would remember how they spent their time here." No toy guns are allowed on the campus, for example. And the security guards that protect the students make sure never let the children see their weapons.
But as the war continued, it soon began to take its toll. The school's 300 children often came to school visibly stressed, and at least five of them have lost a parent to the violence. "I tried to comfort them by telling them that their parents had gone to heaven, to a very peaceful place, to try to make them forget all the violence," she says. But it was impossible to protect them from the reality of the deteriorating situation across Baghdad. One day, when Ibrahim was teaching a class on drawing, she showed the children a picture of a car and asked them to tell her what it was. To her surprise, they all responded, "a bomb." And when they see U.S. soldiers, she says, some of them shout, "Don't stay here. This is our country. Go home."
The low point for Ibrahim came last May. As her brother drove her and her mother through their middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, a car bomb exploded next to their vehicle, killing Ibrahim's brother and injuring her mother. Ibrahim and her family were devastated. "This had a great effect on me," she says. "I had some hope that things would change into something great, but after this incident, I don't."
But the 35-year-old teacher remains optimistic about her children's futures. The Tekamul School, where she has worked since it opened in 2004, has tried to create a world where the students can come to forget the violence outside of its walls. On its grassy lawn, there are see-saws and a slide. In what is known as the "fun room," there is a bright pink play kitchen, doctor and engineering play stations with toy tools and a basketball hoop on an adjustable stand. Last year, its director, Ra'ad al-Haydary, hired a sociologist to help teachers better understand how the children were coping with the problems they were facing. These perks don't come cheap. Tuition for the preschool is $250 a year, about one sixth of the average Iraqi's salary (though orphans must pay only one third of that.) And Tekamul gets some additional funding from charity organizations abroad. "The most important thing is to help the future of the kids, so we try our best to teach them lessons of peace and love. We hope this will be reflected in their actions in the future," says Ibrahim.
Still, it is impossible to ignore the losses suffered by nearly everyone at Tekamul. The husband of one of Ibrahim's colleagues was recently killed. And one preschool student, whose father was killed by a car-bomb explosion, insisted on bringing his picture with her to school every day. The teachers assured her that her father was in heaven; now she has started leaving the photo at home on occasion.
"We're disappointed," says Ibrahim when asked whether she will ever look back and consider the war to have been worth it. "At the beginning, we thought the Americans were coming with flowers in their hands to save us from the depression we were living in. We had big dreams about what would happen. We thought they were our friends, but now we feel they are our enemies and they must go," she says. Her advice to America now to bring about the best possible outcome? "You should go home and let us live our life."