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The News Line: Feature Children ‘rediscovering how to smile’ in bomb battered Mosul!
Young Iraqi girls hold copies of ‘The Adventures of Booboo the Balloon’. They are now writing their own stories
ON a classroom whiteboard in the battered city of Mosul the words ‘rediscovering how to smile’ outline the heartbreaking task of Iraqi teachers striving to heal their students’ mental scars after brutal Islamic State group rule.

Dozens of Iraqi teachers, many battling trauma themselves, have gathered at a university where instructor Nazem Shaker seeks to guide them in helping children still struggling to cope months after IS was driven from the devastated city.

Shaker has drawn a ‘problem tree’ on the board whose roots are a litany of anguish: ‘relatives killed’, ‘witnessing beheadings’, ‘destruction’ and ‘poverty’.

He hopes that through a programme of games, mime and sport, teachers will be better able to help students reach the goals outlined in the top branches of his diagram, where ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’ join the aspiration to smile again.

‘How to live together and eradicate violence,’ he says are key lessons that have to be passed on. The teachers must help show students how to reconstruct their lives and escape the stress, pressures and bad memories that haunt them, he adds. It is not just the years of IS rule that haunt the waking lives and sleeping hours of the children in Iraq''s second city.

The ferocious nine months of urban combat that saw Iraqi troops force out the jihadists in July, with the help of airstrikes by a US-led coalition, have left deep marks both physical and mental.

School headmaster Noamat Sultan encounters the destructive impact of the psychological trauma daily. ‘One of our students was very aggressive and kept on picking fights with his classmates,’ he says. ‘We had a long discussion with him and discovered that his father and brother had been killed recently in an explosion.’

With the help of the boy’s older brother and more attention from teachers, he has gradually been coaxed back to himself. ‘We have already managed to convince him not to drop out of school,’ said father-of-eight Sultan.

Physical education teacher Rasha Ryadh has seen the heavy toll from the ‘psychological pressures caused by seeing executions, deaths, explosions and the loss of loved ones,’ but is sure the students can recover. They are ready to respond positively to the rehabilitation programmes because they want to banish the thoughts and memories that drag them back to the period of Islamic State group rule,’ she says.

Such is the case for 12-year-old schoolboy Ahmed Mahmud, who despite his youth says he is ‘exhausted’ by everything he has seen. ‘When I sit down in class I don’t have the will to study,’ Mahmud says. I think back to the time of IS and I remember those who were executed like my uncle. They threw people off buildings and forced us to watch.’

The 900 students at head teacher Sultan’s school are able to study in just half of the building after fighting reduced the rest to rubble. The few remaining classrooms are seriously overcrowded, and benches meant for two pupils often have five or more crammed on them.

Twelve-year-old Osama is not yet among them. He is still reeling from seeing an air strike send most of the other houses in his street crashing down on top of his neighbours. ‘For weeks he didn’t say a word,’ says his mother Umm Osama.

The boy still needs help to dress, wash and eat, and often seems lost inside himself. Sometimes without warning he’d leave the house and just wander around aimlessly for hours,’ his mother says. Several times it was hard to find him.’
• Elementary school children hold copies of ‘The Adventures of Booboo the Balloon.’ When Iraqi poet and writer Qassem Saoudi began ‘Let’s Write in Baghdad,’ he said he did not expect the great response it received or the young talent he discovered.

‘It was just amazing. The feed back was overwhelming and exceeded all my expectations. It was a worthwhile adventure and a wager that we could win from the first child we talked to. We were happily surprised,’ Saoudi said.

Investing in children’s potential and stimulating creativity are behind the initiative, which aims to teach students aged 7-12 to write short stories for other children.

Supported by Ali Hamza and Manar Madani, Saoudi embarked on his venture in 2016, saying he wanted to ‘incarnate children’s imagination through short stories on paper.’ Saoudi started promoting his initiative in 60 public and private schools in areas of Baghdad where, he noted, children could be easily initiated and quickly understand what was required of them without the help of teachers.

‘Most of the stories that the children produced contained a mixture of joy and hope despite the difficult situation in the country, which we expected to affect their writings,’ Saoudi said. ‘The children of Baghdad overcame the painful past and present with a lot of courage.’

More than 400 children’s texts were collected covering stories about animals, Baghdad neighbourhoods, space and the planets and family problems. ‘It was astounding to see the children in a country that experienced the calamities of war and arbitrary killings avoid writing about death and destruction. I was stunned by the maturity and creativity of these children when I read all the beautiful stories they had produced,’ Saoudi said.

Some children, however — approximately 5% of the participants — wrote about the painful loss of loved ones or the destruction of their home and villages. ‘These were the children we have met in refugee camps,’ Saoudi said. ‘Their stories were about friends they missed and a desire to go back to their plays and comfortable homes instead of living in makeshift tents and under very difficult conditions.’

Among the collected texts, 15 were selected and compiled in a book titled ‘The Adventures of Booboo the Balloon.’ It was printed with donations from supporters of the initiative and presented at the Sharjah Book Fair. Al-Farachat Publishing House published the book free of charge in collaboration with the House of Scientific Books on Mutanabbi Street, the historic centre of Baghdad’s bookselling and intellectual community. Illustrations and drawings were offered by several Arab artists, including Iraqis, a Palestinian and an Egyptian.

‘We have printed 3,000 copies that we distributed to the schools in Baghdad as a token of the experience that has reflected the aspirations of Iraq’s children for knowledge, love and happiness,’ Saoudi said. Dima Bassam, the 12-year-old author of the lead story that gave its name to the book, said the idea of the ‘Adventures of Booboo the Balloon’ was inspired by her wish to visit the ancient city of Babel, which encompasses the world’s oldest civilisation.

‘I never had the chance to visit that historic place due to the volatile security situation in the country and my father’s busy schedule. I have reflected this wish through Booboo the Balloon, which could fly freely over all Iraqi regions,’ Dima said.

After wandering for days, Booboo the Balloon finds itself in the southern city of Basra but he does not know how to return home to Babel. While trying to find his way back, Booboo meets a pink flamingo that helps him find his way. Flamingoes usually pause in the al-Ahwar marshes area in southern Iraq during their journey south towards warmer regions.

‘I have learnt about the cities and regions that I chose for Booboo to visit in geography classes only. Through him I could reflect the dreams of many children who wish to have the same adventures, to travel and to get to know the history of our country,’ Dima said.

Dima’s father, Khalil, said he hopes his daughter will become a writer. ‘She always surprises me with her talents and passion for writing and drawing. I will support her all the way to develop this hobby and talent,’ he said.

Saoudi said he is confident that ‘Let’s Write in Baghdad’ can contribute to the development of children’s writing skills as well as social and humane conduct. ‘It nurtures their creativity and imagination and reinforces their quest for knowledge, hope and peace away from war and destruction,’ he said.
 
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