BAGHDAD — Ever since their old school was destroyed in 2004 by unknown armed groups, the children of al-Zuhoor in the province of Diwaniyah, southern Iraq, have had nowhere to go. A month ago, al-Nakheel Primary School in Diwaniyah province opened its doors to the delight of the entire village.
The village of al-Zuhoor, 180 kilometers (112 miles) south of Baghdad, is populated by Dom, the people commonly referred to as the Gypsies of Iraq. Domari, the Doms' language, belongs to the Indic language family, evidence that the Doms' ancestors originated in northwestern India and migrated east. The Dom settled in the Middle East, while others who traveled in other migration waves and settled in Europe are today's Roma or Romani.
Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights places the number of Dom there between 50,000 and 200,000. They often face discrimination and deprivation of basic rights. They lead mostly isolated lives, fearing persecution by religious conservatives. Some have left for nearby countries and Europe.
The school in the Dom village is the result of the efforts of a human rights group called I am Human with the help of UNICEF, which provided some of the books and teaching materials. Before the school's official opening, the group set up tents and distributed some educational materials. Some volunteers taught informal lessons in the tents.
The new school is made of four caravans, which will serve as classrooms for 60 children between the ages of 7 and 13. For some of them, this will be their first experience with formal education.
Mohammed Ali, 7, told Al-Monitor, “I will be able to go to school, learn the alphabet, read and write like all children I see on TV. I will be able to read the words on the shops’ windows. I can only spell some words now, but once I am at school I will be able to read and write. I am thrilled.”
In Iraq, the first six years of education, between the years of 7 and 13, is compulsory. Article 34 of the Iraqi Constitution obliges the state to guarantee free education for this age group. As there was no school in the village, some of the Dom children attempted to enroll in nearby schools, but the harassment and the bullying they faced forced most of them to drop out.
“There are 100 children under the age 17 living in the village. Thirty of them have enrolled in the school and 30 will be enrolled later,” Manar al-Zubaidi, a member of I am Human, told Al-Monitor.
She added that the school will only serve children under 9 the first year. A literacy center will serve about 25 older girls and boys. “Opened under the approval of the Directorate of Education in Diwaniyah, it will be run by volunteer teachers and provide basic literacy for these kids,” she said.
Although the caravan school was the result of a long mobilization, including a social media campaign proclaiming Gypsies are Human, many of the residents feel that the caravans do not create a suitable environment for education.
“It is a bit premature to celebrate the new school in al-Zuhoor village in Diwaniyah. Education is a service guaranteed by the Iraqi Constitution. The Iraqi state is bound to do its duty and give Iraqis their rights,” said Tahseen al-Zarkani, another human rights defender who helped organize the effort.
He noted that caravans are not a long-term solution, though the school will employ full-time teachers. “The local administration and the Ministry of Education ought to build a regular school in al-Zuhoor just like in other villages and other areas,” he told Al-Monitor.
The Iraqi government is not exclusively to blame for denying these villagers access to education. The negative image of the Dom in Iraqi society has created psychological and social barriers that prevent them from integrating with others. Faced with discrimination and harassment, the children drop out of school and the adults lead mostly insular lives.
A 23-year-old Iraqi Dom who asked to be identified as Mohammed told Al-Monitor in a phone conversation that he envies the children who will now be able to study. He has never learned to read or write since he was denied an education as a child. “I hope we can obtain all our rights as Iraqi citizens. We have the right to health and education services and the right to work, but we are almost forbidden from exercising them. We cannot make ends meet and our children go begging in the streets,” he said.
The new school in the village, despite its makeshift classrooms, is a small but important step in the right direction. Access to a basic education will increase their chances of finding employment and integrating into society.
At present, most of Iraq’s Dom community has a low level of education, and few have attended university. This, combined with their social alienation and negative image in society, keeps them from finding good jobs, including in state institutions.
Mohammed says this new school has encouraged him to get married and to have children. He now knows his children will receive the education he was denied. But he still must get a job, so his future family can have a life better than his own.