School renewed

10 May 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

The first time the Marines came through this town of slightly more than a quarter million people, they came armed with guns and grenades.

This time they are packing hammers and saws as the I Marine Expeditionary Force and the Seabees from the Navel Mobile Construction Battalion 15, (Air Detachment) band together to fix-up schools in Al Hillah.

The pile of splintered and worn wooden desks lay in the courtyard of this all-girl high school.  The Seabees have collected and sorted the broken desks and will repair the better ones with parts from others.

"The director of the school wanted me to give her a receipt for all of these desks," said Petty Officer 1st Class Clayton M. Graham, who is the site construction supervisor at the girls school.  "She told us she was signed for the desks and was afraid that she would be killed (by the old regime) if they were taken."

The Navy Reservist, who normally would be developing vacation and retirement homes in the Ozarks for his construction company right now, was taken aback when we saw the fear in her eyes.

"It took me forever to convince her that things are different now, that she does not have to worry about being killed anymore."
Graham, and his Seabees have their work cut out for them.  Years of neglect from Saddam's regime, and vandalism during the war have taken its toll on this schoolhouse.  Although the war did not touch this school, it is hard to tell that it did not pass by.

"There is no way we can do everything we want to for this school," said Graham, who himself is a father of a little girl.  "We just want to take care of things so they can open the school up this Sunday."

Widowed years ago at the hands of Saddam's men, the president of the school, Kefah Mamory still dresses in a the traditional flowing black Arab garment for women in mourning.  Walking through the hallways, her face beams with a long-forgotten smile as she points out some of the projects the Seabees have taken on.

"It is too hot in the summer in Iraq for the students to study in here," said Mamory through an interpreter, looking over the shoulders of some Seabees who are wiring ceiling fans. "We could really use air conditioning, but this is so good to have."

Like many American school administrators she has a wish list as big as the dreams of the young ladies who will be going to school here.

Pointing out that modesty for women is an important virtue in Iraq, Mamory announces as she walks outside into the courtyard, "This is a girls school, our walls are too low for the girls. This is not good."

While outside her shoes kick up clouds of dirt with every step.  Bragging about her girl's sport teams, she points out that this is not the place for her future soccer all-starts to be training.

"Our girls need a sports garden," said Mamory in broken English.  "Our girls play lots of sports, basketball, soccer, and ping pong."

Her Vice president accompanied by her adult daughter and grandchildren are close by and points out that Iraqi schools have the same challenges as any school in America.

"We are tired of war," said Suhely Schubar, through an interpreter.  "We need to focus on our children and get them back to school."

She also points out that the teachers here work for the students out of a love of education for the children.

"Our teachers earn only four or five dollars a month," said Schubar.  "They teach from the heart."

In another wing of the school another Seabee wrestles with plumbing problems that resembles something to akin of Pandora's box more than a water system for a modern school.

"I'm trying to hook-up some faucets to get some drinking water in here," said Bill R. Atkins, Petty Officer 1st Class.

The self-employed plumber from St. Joseph, M.O. may be bringing cool fresh water to the school, but he is also refreshing his spirit every time he heads to a job site.

"Every convoy feels like you are in a parade," said Atkins.  "When we go by the kids run out to wave to us.  Not just once in awhile but every time."

Wearing olive drab construction helmets, the Seabees scurry about the school going from one crisis to another.  They are not treating this like a rehabilitation project but more like damage control on a sinking ship.  Time is just one of the resources that they are in short supply of.

To help boost the economy, the Marines are purchasing as much of the building supplies from as many local businesses as possible.

What they cannot buy, the Seabees make do with whatever resources they can scrounge up or build with materials already at the school.

"We are taking two desks and making one good desk," said Graham  "We just have to due with what we have." 

Shuttling from classroom to classroom, Schubar checks on the status of the work. 

The Seabees have only a few more days to complete this project before they move onto another school in need of repairs.

A couple of electricians appear to be trying to intimidate the electrical box they are working on as she passes when all the bells in the school begin to ring.  She claps and her smile returns.

"Our students will want to come now," said Schubar.  "They cannot wait for the school to open."