School bells finally rang at Shimon Safa Elementary School this fall, Mosul’s oldest Christian school that had been closed for four years.
The school, also called the Shimon Safa Institute, is located next to the 9th century Shimon Safa Church and the monastery, which is known as the Shimon Safa priestly institute. The elementary school used to be one of 20 Christian schools in the multifaith city until the 1980s. Most of these schools were closed gradually in the three turbulent decades that followed the 1990 Gulf War, particularly in 2014-17 when the city was constrolled by the Islamic State (IS).
The return of the 400 students, between the ages of 6 and 12, to the classrooms of Shimon Safa Institute on Sept. 30 illustrates that the city is recovering, after IS displaced the city’s Christians during the 2014 invasion, banned non-Islamic rituals, destroyed churches and imposed its extremist beliefs.
Ibrahim al-Allaf, a professor of modern history at the University of Mosul, told Al-Monitor, “Students’ enrollment in this school is a victory in itself over terrorism and extremism. The school is part of the city’s historical heritage. The first cohort of educated people in Mosul has memories from this school.”
Allaf said, “The school was under the supervision of the Christian monastery but its students were not only Christians; it offered an education to students from all religions."
The school is an annex to the renowned Shimon Safa, or St. Peter’s Church, a Chaldean church that dates back to the 9th century. “The church was restored in 1864 and was named after Shimon Safa. The school was founded as an annex to it and named after the saint as well,” Allaf added.
The reopening of the church is largely due to the efforts of the residents of Mosul, particularly private donors and volunteers who repaired the partially damaged building.
School principal Ahmed Thamer al-Saadi told Al-Monitor that the renovation was due to the efforts of “volunteers and donors from the city,” who collaborated with the Directorate of Education and the school administration.
He said, “The importance given to this project is a lesson in tolerance and in foiling extremism. The school has received over dozens of years pupils without a religious and has been subjected to national and sectarian discrimination; it is now resuming its practical and social mission again.”
Saadi also noted that more work is required. “Further renovation of the school is still underway. The Directorate of Education in Ninevah continues to train teachers. The administration that includes teachers from different confessions, ethnicities and regions has welcomed 400 students in 2018. The number is expected to increase in the coming years, especially since more people are interested in sending their children to this historical school.”
He added, “Graduates of the school have become doctors, artists and writers. The school has become a historical establishment of knowledge. Many of the houses of Mosul’s citizens are decorated with photos of the school that they are proud of.”
Ahmad al-Mosli, an Arabic-language teacher from Mosul, said, “The school is located in Al-Saa area in the old part of the city where Christians live. This gives the school exceptional importance because of the displacement, killing and oppression that religious minorities faced at the hands of IS.”
Mosli said that the school had always been an example of the citizens’ unity in the mostly Sunni city. “All religions, sects and ethnicities coexisted peacefully, which explains why the school has Christian, Muslim and Yazidi students. Most schools in Mosul are suffering because their data and files were burnt when IS occupied the city. But Shimon Safa suffered the most in addition to other minorities’ schools [due to its location in the center of Mosul that was the focus of the war between IS and the Iraqi forces].”
Director General of Education in Ninevah Wahid Farid also underlined the symbolic value of the school. He told Al-Monitor, “The opening of Shimon Safa Institute is of social and intellectual significance in restoring peace to the city. Ten other schools were opened in the old city too. Around 1,800 schools [in Mosul] have opened their doors to students for the 2018-19 school year and UNICEF participated in the rehabilitation campaign. Teachers and citizens were enthusiastic about volunteering [in rebuilding and helping] the schools.”
Reports indicate that Shimon Safa Institute faces similar challenges as other schools in the areas liberated from IS, as it lacks funding and stationery, and its classes are overcrowded; 2,500 schools in Ninevah, Anbar, Salahuddin, Diyala, Kirkuk and Baghdad have suffered due to the war. They need funding from the state to become operational again.
Media officer at the Ministry of Education Bushra Hassan told Al-Monitor, “The ministry allocates sufficient financial sums to rebuild the schools of Mosul and provide a complete curricula. The ministry launched a renovation campaign for the schools in Mosul in 2017. Saint Abdel Ahad School Tripoli in new Mosul, another Christian school, was rehabilitated in coordination with the ministry's Department of School Architects.”
There is a pressing need to bring back life to the areas liberated from IS, especially Mosul whose education sector has suffered, with 89 schools no longer operational due to the destruction. Cultural and educational symbols, especially schools of minorities, are being renovated to restore the residents’ trust in their community and provide them with a role in rebuilding their future.