ZAWIA, Libya — In Kurdistan, the schools are full of refugees. In Gaza, many have been reduced to rubble. In Libya and Yemen, teachers and students can’t get to class because of fighting.
In the Iraqi city of Mosul, Islamic State militants have decreed that the school bell should ring to draw students, but few are going to classes.
As school starts across the Arab world this month, hundreds of thousands of students from across the Middle East and North Africa won’t be going. Conflict, turmoil and even destruction have put these children at great risk.
“It’s a huge challenge for the international community, having this huge number of children with no access to education,” said Adrienne Fricke, a human rights consultant specializing on Africa and the Middle East.
The situation is particularly dire in Iraq. There are 1.8 million Iraqis displaced inside and outside of the country since the Islamic State’s advance in June, and thousands have taken shelter in schools in Iraq’s Kurdistan region and elsewhere.
“There are more than a million displaced people inside and outside Nineveh (in Iraq), and they don’t care about their children’s studies now due to their tough situation,” said Abu Mohammed, 27, who lives in Mosul. “Many schools are inhabited with displaced families now, and they can’t leave, simply because they have no other place to go to.”
Though the Islamic State has opened classrooms in Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — some parents are reluctant to send their children to school because of harsh new orders about education from the extremists. These include segregating students by gender, imposing strict dress codes and removing references to democracy and elections, as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Most of all, parents worry about the Islamic State’s brutality and what that means for their children.
“I will not send my children to school — my daughter will never wear a jubbah and cover her face,” said Um Shams, 45, in Mosul, referring to the long robe-like dress. “I can’t send her — I don’t know what will happen to her there.”
GAZA’S DIM OUTLOOK
In Gaza, 241,000 children returned to 252 schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on Sept. 14 after the start of the school year was delayed by the 50-day conflict with Israel. The fighting left more than 2,100 Gazans dead — 500 of them children, according to the United Nations. Thousands more were injured.
More than 81 UNRWA schools were damaged during the conflict, and at least 90 served as shelters for up to 290,000 displaced people. Some of the schools house thousands of homeless Gazans.
Before the conflict, many schools ran double shifts to accommodate the number of students. The Education Ministry suggested starting a third shift this year to accommodate the students, but electricity is intermittent, so expansion is unlikely.
UNRWA has said the area needs about 200 new schools for the increasing number of students. Construction materials are limited because of Israel and Egypt’s seven-year blockade of the coastal territory. Israel contends that much of the material was being used to construct illegal tunnels into Israeli territory.
“My son and two daughters are very good at school — they earned high marks,” said Raed Quider, 40, a psychologist and father of five who is waiting for a spot to open for his kids. Their schools are occupied by displaced people.
Quider said many children, including his, need psychological help after experiencing the trauma of war.
“We anticipate that at least 1,000 students who attend our schools suffer now from different kinds of permanent disabilities, and this will require special arrangements,” UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said.
In Syria, more than three years of civil war are causing trauma that interferes with schoolchildren’s ability to learn, according to a report published Sept. 18 by Save the Children, which operates in 120 countries.
Before the war, Syria had some of the highest literacy rates in the region, and nearly every child was enrolled in school. Literacy has fallen to half what it was, while school attendance has plummeted to 6% in the hardest hit areas, such as Aleppo.
Amid the chaos, some parents battle to get their children an education. Um Ibrahim, a mother of three, said school buses have stopped running in the Syrian capital, Damascus, so she and her husband rely on taxis to get their kids to class.
“It usually took 15 minutes to reach their school by car, but now and due to the several checkpoints, it takes around two hours,” she said. “I feel tired and sorry for my kids, who sleep in taxis and spend most of their days in the dark (because of power outages). But we have no other choice.”
Even Syrian children who have escaped to countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey find it difficult to continue their education. The United Nations estimated last December that up to 600,000 Syrian refugee children have no access to learning.
Lebanon has more than 300,000 school-age children who fled from Syria, but a recent government decree blocks their registration with schools. Many have chosen work to support their families over education. One in 10 Syrian refugee children across the region work, Save the Children estimates.
Syrian refugee Um Mahomud hawks onions and coriander on a street corner in Amman, Jordan, with her two sons — both younger than 10 — carrying boxes of figs. When asked why they weren’t in school, she said her family lacks official papers. Besides, the family has no income, she said.
“The cost of living here is very expensive,” she said. “If they do not work and help us, we can’t buy clothes for them. They can go without school, but they can’t live naked.”
Some see the plight of Syrian children only growing more dire.
“We are going into three-and-a-half years of conflict, and the numbers are just getting worse and worse,” said Jeffrey Dow, the Lebanon education coordinator for the International Rescue Committee. “There is a really high chance of these kids just being a lost generation.”
In Yemen, battles between Shiite rebels and Sunni militias in the capital, Sana’a, have kept children from attending class. At schools near the airport, where the fighting has been more intense, enrollment has dropped by as much as 50%, the Yemen Times reported.
In Libya, an increasingly violent civil war has forced schools to shut temporarily. In eastern Libya, fighting between militias prevented more than 60,000 students from attending their first day of school this month.
Naima Shalabi, head teacher at the Aljanoobiya for Girls school in Zawia in northwestern Libya, said she has been forced to shut the school regularly because of shelling.
“No one can imagine the horror for the students and teachers when rockets and missiles fall near the school,” Shalabi said.
Jamila Almagtoof, a teacher at the school, said her children have been forced to stay home.
“Roads in the area are almost empty. It’s now like a ghost area,” she said. “My husband does not want to go out from our house. We do not know when the war will be over.”
Collins reported from Berlin. Contributing: Gilgamesh Nabeel in Istanbul; Yousef Al-Helou in London; Mohammad Awad in Gaza; Sarah Lynch in Cairo;, Rasha Faek in Amman, Jordan; and Jabeen Bhatti in Berlin.