Iraqi young volunteers spray with disinfectants to combat an outbreak of coronavirus during a curfew imposed by Iraqi authorities, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq, March 15, 2020.

Education

Online learning is a big struggle in formerly ISIS-controlled Mosul

Students in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq saw their education come to a stop when ISIS took over their city. In 2017, Iraqi and American forces liberated the city but reconstruction has been painfully slow and online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven difficult.

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Iraqi young volunteers spray with disinfectants to combat an outbreak of coronavirus during a curfew imposed by Iraqi authorities, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq, March 15, 2020.

Credit:

Abdullah Rashid/Reuters 

Abdulla Thaier was finishing high school when ISIS took over his city.

In 2014, trucks full of armed men rolled into Mosul, in northern Iraq, carrying the black and white flag of ISIS, and flashing the victory sign.

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For the next three years, Thaier says, he mostly stayed home. Like the thousands of other Mosul residents, he was stuck in the so-called ISIS caliphate ruled by the brutal extremist group.

“It was like living in a prison. I only went out of the house for the necessary things.”

Abdulla Thaier, student, Mosul

“It was like living in a prison,” he recalled. “I only went out of the house for the necessary things.”

ISIS showed no mercy. It carried out mass executions and paraded the accused in the streets as a lesson to anyone who might be contemplating the slightest form of dissent.

Normal education, Thaier said, completely stopped. It’s now been three years since the liberation of Mosul. In that time, Iraq received about $30 billion in pledges from international donors to rebuild. But Thaier says reconstruction has been painfully slow.

Now, with the coronavirus, classes have gone online. But this is a city that has no reliable electricity, and many can’t afford internet services.

Related: People in northeast Syria are in desperate need of help. Aid groups can’t get to them.

Students like Thaier, now in college, are worried about how the power cuts and the internet outages will affect their studies. He and millions of other young Iraqis missed out on years of education because of ISIS. They can’t afford to lose more time.

For several years, Thaier was forced to be his own teacher.

“In the first [days] of ISIS occupation, [they] didn’t cut the internet. So, I downloaded thousands of PDF books and started working on some skills. I love reading novels and such books.”

Abdulla Thaier, student, Mosul

“In the first [days] of ISIS occupation, [they] didn’t cut the internet,” he said. “So, I downloaded thousands of PDF books and started working on some skills. I love reading novels and such books.”

The books included works of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, German philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. He read them all in English — the language he loved since he was a kid. And they resonated with him.

It helped keep him sane during those dark days: “I didn’t read philosophy before ISIS occupation. I found it applied in the situation in Mosul when the people who got power rule over the people who are vulnerable.”

In 2016, Iraqi and American forces began an operation to retake Mosul from ISIS.

The fighting got intense. During one of the battles, a car bomb exploded in front of Thaier’s home. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Finally, on a hot, July day in 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Mosul liberated. Men danced in the streets, and women handed out candies.

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Some schools have reopened since then, including the University of Mosul, where he is now studying English. But it’s an ongoing challenge, trying to access classes virtually with all of the internet and power issues.

“Oh, my God. Don’t get me started. I mean, the internet here really sucks.”

Momen Muhanned Hasan, student, Mosul

“Oh, my God. Don’t get me started,” said 24-year-old Momen Muhanned Hasan, who studies English translation at the University of Mosul. “I mean, the internet here really sucks.”

“Like two days ago, my friend was having an exam and that exam was postponed three times.”

The internet kept going down, and when it did come back up, the power went out. Momen said there were other challenges too. For example, most students are just not used to online learning.

“Like some just don’t know how to upload a file or how to make a word document and then upload it into the Google Classroom,” and there is always someone who can’t seem to find the mute button, he said.

It’s not like teachers have had it much easier, says Ali al-Baroodi, who teaches English at the University of Mosul.

“I cannot exaggerate and say that online learning is or was quite successful. However, there was no Plan B,” he said.

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As the pandemic went on for weeks, Baroodi noticed a few of his good students did not show up for classes. When he asked around, he learned it was because they couldn’t afford laptops and internet service.

“The lockdown continued for weeks here in Mosul, and the daily wagers are deprived of their daily income. So, what do we expect? We expect that these people are going to reduce their expenditure and the internet could be the first victim no matter how important it is for education.”

Ali al-Baroodi, University of Mosul

“The lockdown continued for weeks here in Mosul, and the daily wagers are deprived of their daily income. So, what do we expect? We expect that these people are going to reduce their expenditure and the internet could be the first victim no matter how important it is for education.”

Iraq’s economy is struggling and cases of the coronavirus are on the rise. At the same time, oil prices have fallen more than 55% since the start of the year and many Iraqis are struggling to make ends meet.

Thaier’s final exam this semester will be two hours long. And the only thing he can do, he says, is to keep his fingers crossed that the power doesn’t go out.

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