AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq -- With Seabees from the U.S. Navy's Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7 working right outside his classroom, a school teacher from An Nasiriyah's Al Markazia School highlights educational challenges he has seen in post-combat Iraq.
Yousif Ahmed, the sports instructor for the first through sixth graders who attend the small, downtown school, insists the most important step in recovering from the war is keeping Iraqi children in the schools.
"The children in the streets begging for candy from the Americans are wrong and show no honor," Ahmed said through a translator. "They should be in school or practicing sports at home," he adds.
The sports instructor of 23 years holds basketball practice daily after school in hopes of keeping the local children off the streets. It is common to see Seabees take a few minutes to "shoot hoops" with the children before going on to the next worksite.
"The Seabees have done good work with the water, doors, electricity and cleaning," the smiling teacher continues. "I encourage the pupils to play with the Seabees. The children are happy because the Americans are here."
Although the school reopened weeks ago, only about 50 percent of the enrolled students have returned to class. Many families are reported to be afraid of kidnappings. The children are reported to be afraid of boring lectures - they have completed this year's lessons and are waiting for the final exams, which may be postponed until next year.
Another challenge some school children face is the lack of breakfast before coming to class. Even more of the students are from families too poor to send their children to school with a lunch. To address this issue, the richer families are sending one or two extra sandwiches to school with their children and have them share the sandwiches with the poorer students.
"This is a sort of social cooperation and teaches all the children honor and responsibility," explains Ahmed.
"A final, and critical, step in the process of strengthening Iraq's education system is to follow the Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority's 'de-Ba'ath-ification' process," Ahmed said. "Our headmaster is a good human and a good teacher. But he is Ba'ath and not a good headmaster. All the teachers agree on this," he emphasizes.
Under Saddam's regime all the children would be required to attend camp at a military base just outside An Nasiriyah. They would learn how to run, fight and use weapons like Kalashnikov machine guns. These children were called Saddam's Cubs.
"When the children would return to school they would be very different and aggressive," Ahmed exclaimed. "This is what the Ba'ath Party required."
As beads of sweat begin to form on his brow Ahmed explains, "If my little finger belonged to the Ba'ath Party, I would have cut it off!"
This is how strong Ahmed dislikes the Ba'ath Party.
However, Ahmed feels what the Seabees are doing for the school "is very beautiful and good. If they work hard or not, I am still thankful - because their work is full of humanity."